4. The Partners

It’s enlightening to look at the Garden City Lands issue from other viewpoints, not just Richmond’s. Canada Lands Company and the Musqueam Indian Band have a stake in that large field southeast of Alderbridge Way and Garden City. Who are they? What do they want? What’s it to them if the field isn’t removed from the Agricultural Land Reserve, the ALR? After walking a few feet in their shoes, Digging Deep has some informed ideas, though no legal opinions.

Canada Lands is a Toronto-based money machine. It buys surplus federal land, turns it into maximum dollars, and ships the profits east to the federal government. Canada Lands also takes pride in its park-like developments and corporate social responsibility.

The Musqueam Indian Band is a small Vancouver-area First Nation. In 2006, there were 658 Registered Indians on Musqueam reserves and 510 Musqueam living off-reserve.

The treaty process led by the BC Treaty Commission reflects the social responsibility of British Columbians and First Nations. But the Garden City Lands agreement skirted the treaty process. According to the 2006 Report of the Auditor General of Canada, “it did not support treaty negotiations nor help resolve the First Nation’s land claims” (Nov. 2006, 7.47).

Acting as partners in a joint venture, Canada Lands and the Musqueam are aiming to split the profits from up to 65% of the Garden City Lands. The partnership gives Canada Lands a way to make money while appearing to settle a land claim, and it gives the Musqueam a way to make money from land sales even though the Indian Act prevents the sale of reserve land. To succeed, the venture partners need the City to help wrest the field from the ALR and to zone it permissively. That will enable their venture to turn a $10 million field into a $500 million construction site.

In return for its service and a few million dollars, the City may eventually get the remains of the field in January 2013 or later. By then, chunks of the City’s share will have been set aside for school sites and “Trade and Exhibition Centre Lands,” with the rest sliced and diced for park settings. Until then, the venture partners can end the agreement if the City doesn’t keep them happy.

As a brief note, it needs to be mentioned that the Musqueam can take some of the joint venture land to develop it by themselves. The implications of that option are too complex to explore here.

Like Canada Lands, the Musqueam run a profit-driven business. The land they lease out for golf courses and subdivisions, with a strong revenue stream, would sell for well over a billion dollars. Some would say billions. On paper, that would make every band member a millionaire.

But there’s more to the picture. Aboriginal women’s rights leader Gail Sparrow, a former Musqueam chief, says this: “We are land poor and we live in Third World conditions on our reserve. I see it every day” (Hampton Journal, August 2007).

While poverty amid plenty must be heeded, consuming ALR farmland to generate funds for the Musqueam is a questionable response. For Musqueam and non-Musqueam British Columbians, the lasting solution would be a treaty. It would most likely combine money with land bordering the Musqueam reserve near Pacific Spirit Park.

If our field is not removed from the ALR, the Garden City Lands agreement will expire. There have been threats of litigation, but there’s little to litigate. Once there’s an end to financial windfalls outside the treaty process, advancing the treaty process may become a more viable business strategy for the Musqueam.

Everything hinges on the key question of whether the Garden City Lands should be removed from the ALR. If that prime farmland retains its ALR protection, the two joint venture partners could still benefit from what’s happened. Canada Lands could be stirred to rethink its community social responsibility, and the Musqueam First Nation could get what it truly deserves through the treaty process.

As a lucky side-effect, the City of Richmond will survive a survival-of-the-fittest encounter in which the City is not the fittest.

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