Teed Off: UBC Golf Course Strikes a Deal

The UBC golf course lands a deal, hailed as a new chapter in First Nation relations, is actually a template for future bitterness

January 2, 2008

By Dee Hon

It’s a done deal. The Musqueam native band will get the UBC golf course, but golfers can keep swatting balls there until 2083. There will be no casinos, no condos, no other exploitation of the course by the band, at least until most of the current band members are dead. So ends the acrimony among west side neighbours fighting each other over the fate of the course. And so begins what Premier Gordon Campbell hails as a “new chapter” in relations between the province and its First Nations.

The settlement, reached in November, will be finalized in early 2008. The Musqueam receive title to the land on which the UBC course sits, a section to the west of the course zoned for housing, a little-used parcel of Pacific Spirit Park, and Richmond’s Bridgepoint Casino lands, which include the River Rock Casino. The band also receives $20.3 million in cash. About half of that is from provincial sale and lease revenues from the casino lands. The province had sold the course to UBC for $11 million in 2003, but the band challenged the sale in court and won.

The recent settlement, which ends three court cases, is a long-overdue step in resolving urban land claims. But it’s not a treaty, and the Musqueam have further claims to parts of Vancouver and the Lower Mainland. If these are settled in the same way—first in the courts, then in government back rooms—the process will be long, expensive, and contentious. In the absence of a comprehensive treaty or other agreement with the band, this settlement promises to be not a resolution but a template for future skirmishes.

Throughout negotiations, both the government and band leadership disclosed little about the terms of the settlement. Marty Zlotnik, a long-time friend of and fundraiser for Campbell, campaigned to preserve the well-groomed links. His group, Save the UBC Golf Course, proposed swapping the golf course lands for a larger portion of Pacific Spirit Park. His opponents, including the Dunbar Residents’ Association, decried that plan, hoping to preserve the park’s natural integrity. Citizens for and against saving the golf course wrote to newspapers railing against the casinos, billboards, and other blights they were sure the Musqueam would inflict on their neighbourhood. Just about everybody was teed off about the prospect of the golf course being put to any other use.

Few people spent much time considering the Musqueam’s interests, much less their historical and legal rights. Some commentators publicly suggested the band was out to steal private land from under Vancouverites’ homes. In fact, the Musqueam, like every other First Nation, can make claims only on provincial or federal crown lands.

Former chief of the Musqueam First Nation Gail Sparrow points out that the band has a dire shortage of housing. Many of its members live in poverty. Sadly, she says, the deal giving them the course in 2083 does little to address either problem. The band already earns revenues from running its own golf course, the Musqueam Golf and Learning Academy, and from leasing land to the private Shaughnessy Golf and Country Club. She doesn’t expect another golf course will change members’ circumstances. Much of the cash portion of the deal settles the province’s court-ordered obligation to pay for environmental cleanup at the Celtic Shipyards, which the band bought in the 1990s. Sparrow expects legal fees to eat up most of the rest. The smallest part of the land transfer—7.3 hectares of developable land west of the course—holds the most promise for providing immediate help.

Sparrow says both the deal and the band’s relations with the public would have benefited from more public negotiations. She accuses Chief Ernie Campbell of not consulting with band members. If he had, she says, he might have pushed for a settlement that brought revenue now, not in 2083. “Our chief did not consult properly with us, who were serving the court case against them,” she says. “So both communities were left in the dark by Gordon Campbell and Chief Campbell.” Sparrow believes the band should have spent more time engaging with its neighbours instead of meeting behind closed doors in Victoria. “The communities that live adjacent to the golf course aren’t educated about what historically happened to us,” she says, “and we’re at fault for not informing the outside world what happened.”

Much of Vancouver is traditional Musqueam territory, or was a few generations ago. Sparrow points out on a map the places where her family lived. “My grandmother raised my aunt in Stanley Park. There’s a village out there. There were villages in the point by Jericho, and by Point Grey here. Fishing villages. They were nomadic. They would pick berries, they’d go fishing, they’d go hunting.”

There’s plenty of evidence indicating that the band has lived in the Point Grey and UBC areas for thousands of years. Near the turn of the twentieth century, land agents from the federal government came to make allotments for reserves. Because the Musqueam were scattered, many weren’t officially counted. Bands got reserves based on a formula of 10 acres per head. The Musqueam, despite having an estimated 2,000 members at the time, received just 400 acres. They’ve been fighting for decades for land its members feel they were deprived of unjustly. “We’re not blaming you for it,” Sparrow wants to tell her neighbours. “We’re not blaming Marty Zlotnik for it. We’re not blaming the premier for it. We’re blaming what happened in history for the unfair allotment.”

Today, the Musqueam’s village is a little pocket of poverty amid the homes and playgrounds of some of the province’s wealthiest and most politically powerful citizens. Just off Southwest Marine Drive near Dunbar, band members still live by their ancient fishing grounds on the banks of the Fraser. Many homes are dilapidated, with faded siding or bare plywood. Boats, toys, and the odd rusting Honda sit forlornly out front. Virtually next door are exclusive golf clubs and multimillion-dollar homes. A few blocks west, the university is itself earning hundreds of millions by developing condos on its campus.

Marty Zlotnik is happy he’ll be able to golf at UBC for the rest of his life, but wonders why he had to fight to keep the course from development. He believes there should be a treaty in place to prevent such messy court battles. “I think everybody would like something that’s a win-win deal,” he says. “Why aren’t we looking at the big picture?”

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