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Indigenous development impact expands across Canada

Canada’s Indigenous communities are a growing presence in commercial and multiresidential real es...

IMAGE: An artist's rendering of some of The Shops at Buffalo Run, at the Taza development on First Nations land bordering Calgary. (Courtesy Tsuut'ina Nation, Canderel)

An artist’s rendering of some of The Shops at Buffalo Run, at the Taza development on First Nations land bordering Calgary. (Courtesy Tsuut’ina Nation, Canderel)

Canada’s Indigenous communities are a growing presence in commercial and multiresidential real estate development, with stakes in projects across the country comprising millions of square feet of development on thousands of acres of land.

Projects involving Indigenous stakeholders, and issues affecting them, were discussed in a Feb. 3 webinar hosted by Urban Land Institute‘s British Columbia, Alberta and Toronto branches. It was viewed by more than 500 people.

Chandos Construction president Tim Coldwell moderated the webinar, which included four Indigenous panelists.

Each spoke about developments they’re involved with and Coldwell acknowledged two other projects with Indigenous connections.

Odea Montreal is a joint project by Cogir Immobilier and CREECO (Cree Regional Economic Enterprises Company) at 255 Robert-Bourassa Blvd. in Old Montreal. Its name is based on the Cree word “ode,” which means canoe.

The 26-storey building will have: 264 apartment units; 171 condominium units; indoor parking; a bistro and barbecue space; a panoramic lounge; a green roof with an edible garden; two rooftop pools; a kitchen and dining room; telecommuting space; a gym; and a yoga area.

Dream Impact Trust and Dream Asset Management Corp.’s 34-acre Zibi redevelopment includes shoreline and islands in Ottawa and Gatineau on land that’s sacred to Algonquin First Nations.

“Zibi” is the Algonquin Anishinabe word for river and the development is located at the first meeting place of Canada’s three founding nations: the First Nations; the French; and the English.

Zibi secured collaborative agreements with Pikwakanagan First Nation and the Algonquins of Ontario and signed letters of intent with Long Point and Timiskaming First Nations to create opportunities for their communities.

Zibi also established the Memengweshii Council, an Anishinabe women-led advisory council that strives to ensure the integrity and relevance of the Indigenous cultural, heritage and socio-economic aspects of Zibi positively impact Algonquin First Nation people and other Indigenous communities.

Zibi and the Memengweshii Council have worked with the National Capital Commission and local Indigenous artists to ensure the Algonquin culture is reflected in the development’s public places and parks.

Two Row Architect and Toronto’s Indigenous Hub

Two Row Architect is a native-owned and -operated architectural firm established in 1992, headquartered on the Six Nations of the Grand River reserve in Southern Ontario. A satellite office in Toronto is managed by Mohawk architect Joe Hickey.

While Two Row’s projects are primarily in Ontario, it has also designed buildings in other provinces and in the U.S.

“The focus of our work is to integrate long-held Indigenous values into contemporary buildings,” said principal Brian Porter.

One of Two Row’s largest current projects is Toronto’s Indigenous Hub, which broke ground on June 21 to coincide with National Indigenous Peoples Day.

Dream, Kilmer Group, Tricon and Anishnawbe Health Toronto are partners on the mixed-use development in the downtown east Canary District that aims to articulate Indigenous values and principles through its design.

It’s scheduled for completion next year and will include: a four-storey health centre; a four-storey education, employment and training centre with a municipally operated childcare facility; the restoration of the historic Canary Restaurant building for commercial use; a 13-storey condominium; and an 11-storey rental apartment.


Taza is a development in Alberta on 1,200 acres of Tsuut’ina land consisting of three unique, but related, components: Taza Park, Taza Crossing and Taza Exchange. Taza is also a noun of Dené origin that meanssomething wondrous is coming.”

The Tsuut’ina Nation was established in 1877 by the signing of Treaty 7, which predates the incorporation of Calgary in 1894 and the establishment of Alberta in 1905.

The Tsuut’ina Nation and the Alberta government signed an agreement in 2013 to allow the southwest extension of the Calgary Ring Road through Tsuut’ina land.

This opened the door for a partnership between the Tsuut’ina Nation and Canderel to plan, finance and develop one of the largest First Nation developments in North America.

Taza Development Corp. is a Canderel subsidiary and the execution entity for the partnership, responsible for development, leasing and administrative services.

Taza Park is the most northern of the three villages. The 530-acre mixed-use development will include residential, commercial (including two auto dealerships), office, tourism and entertainment uses over a 15-year build-out.

Taza Crossing will include residential, innovation and office components, as well as a smart farm that will incorporate new ways to source food and reduce carbon footprints through new technologies and harvesting methods.

Taza Exchange is the southernmost of the three development sites and is now under construction.

The 390-acre project will include residential, office, entertainment, hotel, sports facility and retail elements, including the 257,000-square-foot, 60-tenant The Shops at Buffalo Run complex and the first Costco on First Nation reserve land in North America.

Smoke Architecture and Dawes Road Library

IMAGE: Eladia Smoke is the principal architect at Smoke Architecture. (Courtesy Smoke Architecture)

Eladia Smoke is the principal architect at Smoke Architecture. (Courtesy Smoke Architecture)

Eladia Smoke has practised architecture since 2002 and founded Smoke Architecture in 2014 to focus on First Nation and Indigenous projects. Its approach rediscovers Indigenous knowledge in contemporary contexts and uses engagement tools, design techniques and building systems crafted specifically for each community and place.

One of the firm’s projects, in partnership with Perkins & Will, is Toronto’s Dawes Road Public Library. It’s in the design phase and expected to be completed in 2025.

Elements will include: the Social Development Finance & Administration Hub, offering community-based training, programming and a teaching kitchen; and a circular gathering room inspired by the Anishinaabe roundhouse, with access to a roof garden that includes space for a sacred fire where Indigenous people can share teachings. The library will be built to achieve net-zero energy, with potential to achieve net-zero carbon.

Indigenous community members offered input into the project. Participants stressed “it was critical to have a safe place for Indigenous knowledge-sharing in an urban location,” Smoke explained.

MST Development Corporation

MST Development Corporation oversees properties owned by the MST Partnership, which includes the Musqueam Indian Band, Squamish Nation and Tsleil-Waututh Nation. The three partners are full or co-owners of six prime properties throughout Metro Vancouver totalling more than 220 acres of developable land valued at more than $1 billion.

Properties fully or partially owned by the MST Partnership are:

Marine Drive Lands in West Vancouver;

– Jericho Lands (west) in Vancouver;

– Jericho Lands (east) in Vancouver, which is co-owned with Canada Lands Company;

Heather Lands in Vancouver, which is co-owned with Canada Lands Company;

– the former B.C. Liquor Distribution Branch site at 3200 East Broadway in Vancouver, which is co-owned with Aquilini Investment Group and still in the early planning stages;

– and Willingdon Lands in Burnaby, which is co-owned by the Musqueam and Tsleil-Waututh with Aquilini.

Jericho Lands comprises 92 acres in Vancouver’s West Point Grey neighbourhood that has a population of approximately 13,000 and is occupied by a former garrison, several dozen homes leased to military families and a private school.

There are proposals for a 10-million-square-foot development including: dozens of buildings ranging from two to 32 storeys; three taller towers representing the three nations; community centres; parkland; wilderness spaces; and potentially a SkyTrain station.

Depending on the approvals process, construction could start in 2025.

Heather Lands is a 21-acre site in South Cambie where there are plans to develop about 2,600 homes in buildings ranging from three to 28 storeys. It would also include shops, parks, a daycare and a cultural centre organized around a forest trail.

Marine Drive Lands is a 5.05-acre, three-lot site at 4165-4195 Marine Dr. in West Vancouver’s Cypress Park neighbourhood where MST proposes three three-storey townhome buildings. It will be the first MST project undertaken without a development partner.

Plans for the Willingdon Lands, on the southwest corner of Willingdon Avenue and Canada Way, include approximately 5,000 housing units, a 450,000-square-foot film studio and an Indigenous cultural centre and outdoor hearth that will serve as a gathering place.

The site’s design will incorporate a number of elements inspired by the Musqueam and Tsleil-Waututh nations’ history, culture and connection to the lands and waters, such as entry portals, artwork, native plants, a medicine garden and way-finding signage in hən̓q̓əmin̓əm̓ and English.

Kwasen Enterprises Ltd. is a 100 per cent Indigenous-owned company founded by Curt Thomas and Dennis Thomas of Tsleil-Waututh Nation.

Its core values embed their traditional, cultural and historic knowledge while incorporating environmentally sustainable practices and technologies, social responsibility, and empowering, employing and training Indigenous people.

Dennis Thomas is also an MST director and senior business development manager for Tsleil-Waututh Nation.

“The City of Vancouver is working in collaboration with the three host nations for these developments because it helps,” said Dennis Thomas. “It’s a two-pronged approach.

“We’re helping build our Indigenous economy and our Indigenous ecosystems while also providing a dire need of housing affordability in Vancouver.”

Challenges facing Indigenous development

“One of the challenges that we’ve found in the past is that there’s a huge resource gap for First Nations communities, especially as it relates to municipal infrastructure,” said Taza Development Corp. vice-president Bryce Starlight.

“There’s just very little access to those programs that other municipalities and towns are able to access. However, we have seen great opportunity for the private sector to work with communities to address these shortfalls, and not all that has to be financial, either.

“There’s a lot of non-financial support that can be lent to push governments for some of this infrastructure investment and relaxation of rules.”

Starlight said there are misconceptions from developers that Indigenous governments are inefficient and ineffective bureaucracies.

“I would challenge any developer out there to point to a city or municipality that doesn’t have an ineffective or inefficient government process and say that that’s unique to First Nations government. Government is government.

“All you can really do is try to ensure that you’re minimizing those touch points as much as possible, which is something that we’ve done at Taza.”

Thomas said Indigenous people had systems of trade and commerce that were dismantled through “colonization, the reserve system, oppression and residential schools.”

This has forced them to learn new ways of doing business, which hasn’t always been easy, especially when it involves buying back land that was originally theirs.

“We’re not your typical developer,” said Dennis Thomas. “We care about the next seven generations. We buy it, we build it and keep it.”

Thomas said the developments he’s involved with, which prioritize hiring Indigenous businesses and individuals, can help rebuild First Nations economies and an ecosystem of support.

Time to rethink land use

“Major municipalities have urban design panels that review works of significance that are occurring in their territories to make sure that impacts are positive on the overall community,” said Smoke.

“I think we should start to think about how we can establish that from an Indigenous perspective.”

Smoke added that land use and governance should be reconsidered on a large scale and great things can happen when First Nations members and other Canadians collaborate on spaces that are inspired by Indigenous principles.

“We have to rethink how we deal with our life systems and the interconnection between life systems. That’s becoming abundantly clear. We can’t just go on doing things the way we’ve been doing them in this extractive sort of colonial way.”

Smoke observed she’s never encountered a situation where incorporating Indigenous values runs contrary to good design and planning principles.

“If anything, incorporating regionally appropriate Indigenous land-planning principles really coalesces those principles into a cohesive whole that people can understand and that is more easily communicated to the general public because it relies on narrative, it relies on a kinship and relationships as opposed to highly technical language and cost-benefit analysis.

“It brings in a conception of how we view ourselves as humans living in a larger sphere of interconnected life.”

Porter said it’s important to acknowledge that every piece of land has a natural carrying capacity.

“I think we need to think about nature preserves, think about wildlife corridors, think about food sovereignty, think about building on the poorest quality soil and not the best, think about recreation and civic spaces, and think about district infrastructure.

“People are disillusioned. I think they’re feeling alienated by the mainstream planning where success continues to be measured by the size of your house or how many cars you can park in your garage. I believe we are ready for some new models.

“Residents will pay a premium to live happier lives that align with Indigenous values and developers can still maintain their return on investment. I think there’s a thirst out there for something that’s a little bit different, something that’s a little bit more attuned to the environment.”

Contractors and construction

Coldwell said 1.5 million people work in the Canadian construction industry and the latest forecast has 700,000 of them retiring by 2030. That will make rising construction costs escalate even further, he noted, but he believes there’s a way this potential crisis could at least be partially alleviated.

“The Indigenous community is the fastest-growing population group in Canada. What an amazing opportunity to provide jobs, training and employment, and not just for carpenters, labourers, plumbers and electricians in the field, but for project managers, superintendents, estimators, CEOs and CIOs.

“There’s not a role in any construction company that an Indigenous person cannot fill.”

Porter said he would advise general contractors and developers who want to partner with Indigenous communities to “commit to optimizing a holistic approach that integrates Indigenous people into equity positions, visioning sessions, design, construction and the long-term operations of each development.

“This can be done through a variety of mechanisms, like including partnership agreements and setting aside internships, apprenticeships, mentorships, scholarships, et cetera.

“I think you need to make it a guiding principle for your company and don’t wait for a specific project to get started. Start now and prove that you’re sincere. You can realize the long-term benefits that come with sharing.”

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