Course:FRST370/2022/The Squamish Indigenous Nation’s Senakw development in Vancouver, British Columbia, Canada: history, legal orders, land management, and Indigenous traditional knowledge

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Contributors: Sipsas, Gabriella; Turmel, Breanna; Uy, Bernadette


This research outlines the Squamish Indigenous Nation’s Senakw development in Vancouver, British Columbia. The aim of this study is to analyze the framework of the development in terms of relative power, successes, conflicts, and opportunities. We consider the affected and interested stakeholders in the project and whether these actors are important and influential. Through a forestry lens we dive into a history of land tenure at the location of the development and how it went from the traditional ancestral lands of the Squamish peoples into the hands of the government. We assess the importance of land and Indigenous traditional knowledge, and how the Squamish Nation is implementing this into their development. Senakw will be the first Indigenous led development in Canada, paving the way for Indigenous empowerment in the development sector, and fostering relationship building between Indigenous and non-Indigenous communities in Vancouver.


  • Senakw: “The place inside the head of False Creek” (Senakw, 2022)[1].
  • Land grabbing: Land grabbing is the acquisition usually of large parcels of land by governments, or big corporations. Land grabbing in Canada has ties to colonialism and the stealing of Indigenous land. It negatively impacts Indigenous peoples as it decreases their rights and access to their traditional lands (Gilbert, 2016)[2].
  • Territory: “The total environment of the lands, air, water, sea, sea ice, flora and fauna, and other resources that Indigenous peoples have traditionally owned or otherwise occupied or used” (United Nations General Assembly, 2007, p. 19)[3].
  • Colonization: Colonialism is the establishment of control and power over an area, but in Canada, colonialism is the forceful attempted removal of Indigenous people and identity from the land. Colonialism continues to have a strong impact on the marginalization of Indigenous peoples in Canada.  

Description of the Squamish Community of British Columbia

Squamish Traditional and Ancestral Territory

The Squamish Nation is an amalgamation of 16 Indigenous tribes (Todd, 2008)[4]. The Squamish Nation’s traditional territories include various regions in South-Western BC such as Greater Vancouver, Gibsons Landing, and Howe Sound (Todd, 2008)[4]. The Squamish community has expressed that its traditional territory covers approximately 673,549 hectares (Todd, 2008)[4]. This land contains important cultural and spiritual relationships for the Squamish community, and important ecological resources such as forests, mountains, rivers and the ocean.

History of Living in Vancouver

The history of the Squamish community living in British Columbia is similar to the occurrences of many Indigenous communities in the province. When colonists came to BC, they deliberately ignored the presence of Indigenous establishments and claimed the land as untamed, unused and unowned (Todd, 2008)[4]. European colonists did not recognize the complex and organized societies of Indigenous Nations, as the understanding of property for Indigenous peoples was different from the system used by the colonizers (Todd, 2008)[4]. Regardless of the differences in systems, Indigenous communities had customary rights to the land meaning they had a mutual respect and understanding regarding territory, and absolutely had the right to the land in which they were settled on long before colonizers arrived.

The Squamish community living in Vancouver has attempted to claim back various parcels of their land on different accounts. Many of their claims to land have been rejected by government councils and commissions because these boards have understood areas of the traditional Squamish land to be suitable for agriculture and other developments (Todd, 2008)[4]. Of the original 673,549 hectares of Squamish traditional territory, it is estimated that 0.4230 % of that was allocated to reserves (Todd, 2008)[4]. Reserves were made to ensure the exclusion of Indigenous peoples from the expanding non-Indigenous dominant society which will be expanded upon in the history of land grabbing in the British Columbia section ahead (Barman, 2007, p.1)[5].

The Importance of Land

For many Indigenous peoples in Canada, the land is one of the most important aspects of Indigenous identity and culture. The land holds a symbolic role for the Squamish Nation in terms of self-governance, treaty settlements, and self-determination (Todd, 2008)[4]. The land also provides the necessary means of survival for Indigenous peoples in terms of resources and shelter. One of the main reasons for Squamish settlement in False Creek was based on the provisions of the land, as it included a sand bar which created a great opportunity for corralling fish in the area (Barman, 2007)[5].

Overview of the Development Project

Introduction and Plan

The Senakw development is a Squamish Nation led world class city building project located on their 10.5 acre reserve in the Kitsilano area of Vancouver, BC, Canada (Senakw, 2022)[1]. It is the largest First Nations economic development project in Canadian history (Senakw, 2022)[1]. At its completion, Senakw will consist of 11 towers ranging from 12 to 60 storeys and will provide over 6000 residential units along with retail pavilions, outdoor public spaces, a transit and bike hub, and a district energy plant (Senakw, 2022)[1]. See figure 1.

The project will be constructed in four phases with the first phase having recently begun with excavations in October 2022 (Senakw, 2022)[1]. Phase 1 of the development will see the creation of three residential towers and an underground district energy plant—a low-cost, low-carbon heating and cooling system which uses thermal energy extracted from municipal wastewater infrastructure—that will eventually power heating and cooling throughout the entire 4-million square foot development (Senakw, 2022)[1]. Each phase of the development will also involve infrastructure improvements both on and around the site such as creating roadway connections to Senakw, extending pedestrian and cycling to the seawall, improving nearby intersections, and creating a new transit hub (Senakw, 2022)[1]. Phase 1 will create over 1400 residential units and 30,000 square feet of commercial and retail space (Senakw, 2022)[1]. This will include a wellness centre, a bike hub for residents, a bike cafe, and spaces for restaurants. Phase 1 is anticipated to be complete and open for occupancy in 2025 (Senakw, 2022)[1]. While there is no set commitment for the completion date of the entire project, their goal is for the project to be completed by 2030 (Senakw, 2022)[1].

Importance and Benefits

The Senakw development will be an example of First Nations leadership with the Squamish Nation acting as an investor and developer in partnership with Nch’kay Development Corporation, the economic development arm of the Squamish Nation, and Westbank, making it the largest partnership with any First Nation in Canadian history (Senakw, 2022)[1]. As a legacy project, Senakw will set the Nation on the path to economic independence and stability. The project will create hundreds of employment opportunities for both Nation members and non-Nation members, and revenue from the development will go towards supporting Squamish Nation communities, programs, and schools (Senakw, 2022)[1]. The development will also stand as a celebration of the Squamish Nation’s homecoming. With plazas featuring First Nations art displays, towers depicting cultural imagery, the use of natural materials and native plants, and a biophilic design that integrates urban living with connection with nature, Senakw is a way of visiblizing the Squamish Nation, their art, culture, traditional ecological knowledge, and values in Vancouver (Senakw, 2022)[1]. See figure 2.

As part of integrating Squamish values and identity into the project, sustainable living and climate leadership is a prominent theme of Senakw’s design (Bozikovic, 2021)[6]. Senakw will be the largest net zero carbon residential development in Canada (Senakw, 2022)[1]. It aims to achieve this primarily through its low-carbon district energy plant and by developing at least one of its buildings as a hybrid mass timber and concrete construction (Senakw, 2022)[1]. The development promotes sustainable city living through its transit-oriented design which will include a bike hub with generous bicycle parking, pedestrian and cycling paths connecting to the seawall and the rest of the city’s cycling network, and a $15 million on-site transit hub (Senakw, 2022)[1]. In response to Vancouver’s housing crisis, 20% of the 6000 rental units will be set apart as affordable rentals with rates 30-40% lower than average market rentals in Vancouver (Senakw, 2022)[1].

Legal Orders and Land Grabbing in Vancouver

Important Acts that Affect the Squamish Nation

The Indian Act

The Indian Act is a legal document created by the federal government of Canada used to manage and organize Indian status, First Nations governments and management of reserve lands. The act was created in 1876, containing many colonial laws with the intent to eradicate First Nations culture. The Indian act applies to those with Indian Status but may not be applicable to non-status First Nations such as Metis or Inuit (The Canadian Encyclopedia, 2006)[7].

Amendment to The Indian Act (1911)

In 1911, there was an amendment made to the Indian act. This was influenced by Prime Minister Wilfrid Laurier who voiced in parliament that, “where a reserve is in the vicinity of a growing town, as is the case in several places, it becomes a source of nuisance and an impediment to progress” (Barman, 2007, p. 2)[5]. The changes affected residents of any Indian reserve that was situated in or around a municipality, containing a population less than eight thousand. Thus, the government made it legal for Indigenous peoples to be forced off their land if it was decided to be in the greater interest of the non-Indigenous public (Barman, 2007)[5]. The Indian Act gave the government the right to remove Indigenous reserves if they were situated too close to a settler town or city.

Amendment to The Indian Act (1927)

In 1927, changes to the Indian act made raising funds for the pursuits of land claims illegal for Aboriginal people. Thus, the government took away legal power from these Nations to be able to hold land in title in Vancouver (Stanger-Ross, 2008)[8].

First Nations Commercial and Industrial Development Act (FNCIDA), 2006

The FNCIDA is a First Nations led initiative, this act allows federal government to create regulations for large scale commercial and industrial development projects on reserve lands. This act helps address a once nonexistent system for large scale commercial projects on reserve lands and regulations will enable compatibility with off reserve projects (Indigenous And Northern Affairs, 2013)[9]. “A First Nation requests the enactment of regulations under the Act to address regulatory barriers that are preventing them from proceeding with an on-reserve large-scale commercial or industrial project. In order for the Act to be applied, a First Nation needs to identify a regulatory gap, find a commercial or industrial proponent, and confirm provincial engagement.” (Indigenous And Northern Affairs, 2013, sec. 2)[9].

First Nations Certainty of Land Title Act, Bill C-24, 2010

“Bill C-24, the First Nations Certainty of Land Title Act, passed through Parliament with unanimous support from all parties. The bill amends the First Nations Commercial and Industrial Development Act to allow on-reserve commercial real estate projects to benefit from greater certainty of title… The new amendments will allow First Nations to request that their on-reserve commercial real estate projects benefit from a property rights regime, including a land title system and title assurance fund, identical to the provincial regime off the reserve. The certainty of land title granted by such a regime would increase investor confidence, making the value of the property comparable with similar developments off the reserve.” (Indian and Northern Affairs Canada, 2010, para. 2,3)[10].

Reserves in Vancouver

Prior to 1927, the local colonial administrators declared the vast majority of British Columbia’s land was available for settlement and development. While small parcels of land were “reserved” in trust for the Aboriginal people held by the Crown. Two reserves were laid out for the Squamish and Musqueam people. However, these Nations have never relinquished title to their traditional territories which includes the city of Vancouver (Stanger-Ross, 2008)[8]. After the amendments to the Indian Act in 1911 and 1927, federal and provincial governments had all the legal rights and power to erase as much Indigenous Indigeneity from Vancouver as possible.

In the 1930s and 1940s, the municipal government in Vancouver became an important actor in colonial land politics. The municipal body most concerned with the activities on the Kitsilano Reserve was the Board of Parks and Recreation. The new parks proposed in the Vancouver City Plan, 1929 by Bartholomew and associates, claims that the Kitsilano reserve stood empty and was “virtually a waste of space” (Stanger-Ross, 2008, p. 555)[8]. When in reality there were Squamish Indigenous peoples living there, with complex societies, residences, and agricultural production.

In 1947, the Squamish officially surrendered the Kitsilano Reserve to the federal government. he province then formally transferred ownership of land to its federal counterpart, where  they divided the land up into parcels and sold them separately. Half of the land became the present Vanier Park, containing the Vancouver Museum, Planetarium, and Maritime Museum. The remaining parcels of land were used for private commercial and housing developments (Barman, 2007)[5].

History of Land Ownership of Vanier Park

Vanier park in False Creek is the location of the Senakw development project, and is also culturally significant as it was previously the residence of members of the Squamish community. The area was previously called Snauq by the Squamish peoples, and was later referred to as Reserve no. 6 by the government (Barman, 2007)[5]. The first member of the Squamish community to live in Snauq was Chief Chip-kay-um, who built the first house on the land (Barman, 2007)[5]. The land provided important alimentary resources such as fish, ducks, and muskrats for the growing Squamish community inhabiting Snauq. There were between 50-60 year round Squamish residents residing in the area of about 80 acres (Barman, 2007)[5]. See figure 3.

Between 1886-1913 many proposals were made by corporations and government officials in an attempt to remove the Squamish people from the land (Barman, 2007)[5]. Many non-Indigenous Vancouverites at the time believed that the land in False Creek was essential for the expansion of the city, and therefore required the removal of the Indigenous peoples living there. In 1886 and 1902, 10 out of the 80 acres of reserve land was given to the Canadian Pacific Railway (CPR) to build a trestle bridge across False Creek (Barman, 2007)[5]. After a portion of the land was given to the CPR, more pressure was put on removing the residing Indigenous peoples from the area completely. The Squamish community did not want to leave the land as their ancestors were buried there, but the government strongly pressured and threatened them to take a small amount of money in exchange for their land. In April of 1913, after constant intimidation from the government, the Squamish community accepted the offer, and reserve no.6 was officially government owned in the eyes of colonial law. See figure 4.

Recently in June of 2000, the Squamish community negotiated a $92,500,000 settlement with the federal government for the expropriation of reserve no.6, and in 2002 they won back the 10 acres of  land expropriated by the Canadian Pacific Railway (Barman, 2007)[5]. The land will now be the location of the Senakw project.

Affected Stakeholders

Squamish Indigenous Nation

Funding for the project is in partnership between the Squamish Nations and the Canada Mortgage and Housing Corporation. The Squamish Nation will be the owner and operator of the completed Senakw housing and commercial property development (Squamish Nation, 2022)[11]. The Squamish Nation does not need approval from the City of Vancouver to redevelop the area because of FNCIDA and Bill C-24. The Senawk project is on federal land owned by the Squamish Nation. The Squamish Nation Council is the government in charge of the land (CBC News, 2019)[12]. There will be 250 units held for future use by members of the Squamish Nation (Senawk, 2022)[1].

The Squamish Nation's goal for the Senakw development is to provide “rental apartments and generate long-term wealth for Squamish People across many generations. The wealth generated from these lands can then be recirculated into our local economies and communities to address our people’s urgent needs for affordable housing, education, and social services.” (Squamish Nation, 2022)[11].

Nch’kay Development Corp

Nch’ḵay was established in 2018 as the economic development extension of the Squamish Nation. It is fully owned by the Squamish Nation. Its authority is to develop, manage and own the active businesses of the Nation. This corporation was created to separate business and politics (Squamish Nation, 2022)[11].

Future Indigenous Users and Residents of the Development

The Senakw development will provide hundreds of job opportunities not only for Squamish Nation members, but also for members of other Indigenous communities and non-Indigenous workers (Senakw, 2022)[1]. There will also be opportunities for displaying First Nations and Indigenous art throughout the project (Senakw, 2022)[1]. Although the design and architecture of the Senakw development is an expression of Squamish culture, art, and values, its unique design also helps it stand out in the city and could help make First Nations representation more visible in Vancouver, potentially paving the way for similar projects for other Indigenous communities. When the development is complete, users and residents of the development, whether Indigenous or non-Indigenous, will be affected stakeholders as they will reside in and rely upon the housing and amenities provided by the Senakw development.

Vancouver Residents Living Near Senakw

There is no doubt the Senakw project will impact the cityscape, especially in the neighbourhoods closest to the development (Mazumder et al., 2020)[13]. This makes neighbours to Senakw affected stakeholders. Senakw will provide 6000 residential units in nearly a dozen highrises. The dramatic change in density compared to the surrounding neighbourhood is one of many concerns the project has raised for residents of the surrounding area. Concerns include how the change in housing density will visually stand out from the rest of the neighbourhood and how the population influx will increase traffic congestion to the area, potential parking overflow to residential streets, and affect already limited school capacities (Bula, 2022; Kits Newsdesk, 2022; Little, 2019; Senakw, 2022)[14][15][16][1]. Ultimately, residents are frustrated with the lack of community input and transparency. Members of the Kits Point Residents Association are taking legal action targeting the Services Agreement signed in May 2022 (see Vancouver Municipal Government) between municipal government and the Squamish Nation saying the city should have consulted with residents during negotiations (Chan, 2022)[17]. Other residents say the city should have used the Services Agreement as a bargaining chip to the residents advantage (Chan, 2022)[17].

Interested Stakeholders

Vancouver Municipal Government

The Senakw development is independent from the City of Vancouver and is not obligated to follow city regulations. However, with its location within the city, cooperation between the Nation and the municipal government is necessary to fully integrate the project to surrounding neighbourhoods. In May 2022, the Squamish Nation and the City of Vancouver signed a Services Agreement for the city to provide services to the Senakw development including emergency services, road connections, water, sewage, and other municipal infrastructure services (Bula, 2022)[14]. Some of these improvements will be undertaken by the City of Vancouver while others are the responsibility of the Squamish Nation (Senakw, 2022)[1]. For these services, the Squamish Nation will be paying property taxes not unlike other developments in the city (Senakw, 2022)[1]. The Senakw development could benefit the City of Vancouver through the supply of thousands of homes in the midst of a housing crisis and the addition of amenities, recreational spaces, and businesses to enrich the city which it does not have to oversee. However despite their involvement and cooperation in the project, the city is an interested stakeholder because they have no direct effect on project decision making.

Federal Government of Canada

Canadian Mortgage and Housing Corporation (CMHC)

The CMHC is a corporation of the federal government that provides national housing and mortgage insurance. The purpose of this corporation is to provide access to mortgages and help create affordable housing. For example, the CMHC provides an on-reserve non-profit housing program for First Nation communities. This financial assistance program provides subsidies, loans and aids community projects in the construction, purchase and rehabilitation of property (Canada Mortgage and Housing Corporation, 2022)[18].

Other Project Partners and Investors

Westbank Corporation

Westbank has developed many real estate properties in Vancouver including the new Oakridge redevelopment project (Westbank Corporation, 2018)[19]. Westbank is an interested stakeholder because they are not Indigenous, and they are linked to the development in a monetary transaction way.

Assessment of Relative Power

Assessment of relative power for the Senakw development.png

High importance, High influence

  • Squamish Nation: The Squamish Nation are the leaders of the Senakw development, and are therefore the most important and influential stakeholders.
  • Federal Government of Canada: The Federal Government of Canada is placed under the high importance, high influence category as without their monetary loan, and settlement with the Squamish Nation to give them back a portion of the land, this development would not be able to happen.
  • Nch’kay Development Corporation: The Nch’kay Development Corp is placed under the high importance, high influence category as it is an Indigenous investor. While this corporation is an interested stakeholder, they work in partnership with the Squamish Nation, and provide important monetary investments.

High importance, Low influence

  • Other Indigenous communities: Indigenous communities other than the Squamish nation fall into the category of high importance, low influence because Senakw is an Indigenous led development that considers many culturally important factors that many Indigenous groups believe in, however the most influential Indigenous group in this case is of course the Squamish nation as they are the leaders of this development.
  • Future residents of the development: The potential residents of the development fall into the high importance, low influence category because the design is considerate of their potential needs. They are not influential as they do not have a say in what the project will look like, but the Squamish Nation is considerate of its future users so they are important.
  • Construction companies: The construction companies helping to build the Senakw project are highly important as the development could not continue without their work. They are not influential as they do not dictate aspects of the project, and just follow the plans already set in place.

Low importance, Low influence

  • Municipal Government: We have placed the municipal government of Vancouver under low importance, low influence, as they support the project, but due to the fact that the development lies on Squamish land, the project does not need to adhere to typical city bylaws and regulations.
  • Residents surrounding the development: The people living around the development are placed under the low importance, low influence section as they do not have the power to influence the development. They’re opinions could be heard in town hall meetings, but since the development rests on Indigenous land and does not need to adhere to typical city bylaws, there is not much these surrounding residents could do to change anything regarding the development.
  • Vancouverites: Similarly to the residents surrounding the development, other non-Indigenous Vancouverites may have opinions regarding the development, but they do not have the power to influence it. The development will have multi use spaces such as retail that many Vancouverites may use, but the main focus of the project is to provide amenities to Indigenous peoples, so Vancouverites are not of high importance.

Low importance, High influence

  • Westbank corporation: Westbank is another interested stakeholder of the project, providing important monetary investments, however, they are not in the high influence category like the Nch’kay Development Corporation stakeholders because they are not an Indigenous led organization.
  • Canada Mortgage and Housing Corporation (CMHC): CMHC is committed to financing the first two phases of the Senakw development. The $1.4 billion loan will be the largest loan provided by the CMHC rental construction financing program (Fumano, 2022)[20]. They have a high influence on the project as their financing negotiations allow them to impose requirements such as a certain percentage of affordable rental units. However, they fall under the low importance category as they are a non-Indigenous organization.
  • News groups: News reporters and media fall under the low importance, high influence category because they have the ability to affect the narrative of the development. Negative news reports could highly sway Vancouverites opinions about the project, and create potential issues for the Senakw project.



In a public information session held in October 2022, Senakw representatives announced a hefty budget of 8 million dollars, or $2 per foot, to be allocated towards public art on the project. Public art can benefit the Squamish Nation by opening a dialogue with the Vancouver community about indigenous history, culture, beliefs, and values. People form a strong emotional attachment to their community when it has social offerings, openness, and aesthetics. For example, the Vancouver Biennale’s open-air museum and big ideas educational program, uses art as motivation for learning, dialogue, community engagement and social action. Place making art can promote social innovation (Naiman, 2017)[21].

To many Indigenous nations, land is tied to culture, values, traditional knowledge, spiritual beliefs, stories, and teachings. Despite only taking back a fraction of their original territory, winning back Senakw is a huge success for the Squamish Nation. Isolation from urban centers can often present an obstacle to economic growth for Indigenous communities in Canada (OECD, 2020)[22]. Taking back Senakw which is located in a highly desirable location for development in a city struggling to supply sufficient housing puts the Squamish Nation in a favorable position to build their large scale development. This will help them achieve their goal of economic independence and stability.


The Senakw development is successful in many aspects, however there are some minor potential conflicts arising from the project. The development will increase the property value of the surrounding neighborhoods making an already expensive area of the city more exclusive and unachievable, and many of the people already living around the development site are not pleased with this. The lack of public engagement prior to the development could also create a negative image for the development in the media.


Indigenous led developments such as the Senakw project offer important opportunities to foster better relationships between Indigenous and non-Indigenous people. The project did not consult with the surrounding community prior to the development of the land, and while this was understandable as the development is on Indigenous land, it was a missed opportunity for educating the non-Indigenous community about the importance of the project. We would recommend that the city of Vancouver provide more opportunities for Indigenous led design and development, and implementation of Indigenous art, as well as more opportunities for relationship building between the Indigenous and non-Indigenous communities in the lower mainland.


The Senakw development is a monumental achievement for the Squamish Nation in Vancouver. Receiving back a portion of their traditional and ancestral land is important for working towards reconciliation, however a lot more work is necessary in achieving Indigenous sovereignty in the city. Senakw will be the first Indigenous led large-scale development in Canada, and it will be influential in empowering other Indigenous nations across the country to accomplish similar projects. The development will be considerate of sustainable initiatives and it will incorporate aspects of Indigenous traditional knowledge. The project will create job opportunities for Indigenous peoples, and the revenue from the development will support Squamish communities, programs, and schools. Upon its completion, Senakw will be the first of its kind where non-Indigenous peoples can support Indigenous communities and learn about Indigenous culture through art and activities. Overall, the Senakw development will be an incredible economic and cultural accomplishment for the Squamish Indigenous Nation in Vancouver.

End note

As students of the University of British Columbia Institute, we would like to acknowledge that our understanding of many of the topics discussed in our research have been learned on the Traditional, Ancestral, and Unceded lands of the Squamish, Musqueam, and Tsleil-Waututh Nations.


This map of the city of Vancouver is from 1911. It shows the division of land use at the time. The area within the green circle is known presently as Vanier park. It is labeled on the map as “Indian Reserve”, because when this map was made, the Squamish Indigenous community was inhabiting it. (City of Vancouver Archives, 1911).

This map is from 1934, a few years after the government forces the Squamish Nation off of their land. In contrast to the map of figure 3, this map labels the area as “Vacant Indian Lands”. (City of Vancouver Archives, 1934).


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