From the crest of this obscure bridge over Deltaport Way, the enormity of what’s about to happen here seems impossible to exaggerate. To Harold Steves, 76, one of the founders of the province’s 1973 Agricultural Land Reserve (ALR) system, calamity looms. “That’s gone. That’s gone. That’s gone,” he tells me, gesturing first at a colour-coded map, then at the real South Delta farmland around us.
On this stormy late-October day, nothing is gone. Yet. Turbaned men harvest pumpkins on a nearby farm. Thousands of migratory snow geese occupy plowed and puddled fields. But the pumpkins and the fields and the geese are about to disappear as work begins on one of the largest construction projects in Canadian history.
And to the southeast, the ALR lands in that direction will also disappear if the Tsawwassen First Nation’s (TFN) deal with Ivanhoé Cambridge Inc. and Vancouver’s Property Development Group comes to fruition. For over there, the second-largest shopping complex in Canada is about to be built. Exceeded in size only by West Edmonton Mall, the TFN’s gargantuan, Coast Salish–themed Tsawwassen Mills/Tsawwassen Commons megamall will feature hundreds of stores and hectares of parking space. Goodbye, farmland; hello, Toys “R” Us.
But that is, to Steves’s mind, the least of it. For directly below and to the west of Delta’s 41B Street overpass is the real story: the proposed $10-billion Terminal 2 expansion at the Roberts Bank Superport, which now consists of two terminals, the Westshore coal facility and the Deltaport container operation.
With little opportunity to increase industrial capacity along the prohibitively expensive Burrard Inlet waterfront, Port Metro Vancouver—which is the name of both Canada’s largest and busiest port and a federally established corporation—is set to quadruple its container import-export capacity at Deltaport in the coming years. After all, China beckons. Politicians genuflect before the god of perpetual economic growth. Unions see jobs. Developers see real-estate possibilities. Tsawwassen Natives see dollar signs. Profits—despite sanctimonious statements otherwise—trump environmental policy. Farms are expendable; ditto snow geese.
In fact, for the prime agricultural land below the bridge where Steves stands, a 135-hectare industrial park is slated. Below, too, will be six to eight new sets of train tracks to serve the enlarged port. And the mysterious series of bridges now under construction over Highway 99 and Highway 17 just south of the Massey Tunnel is part of the new 40-kilometre-long South Fraser Perimeter truck route, built specifically to service the new terminal.
All told, more than 400 hectares of Class 1 agricultural land in Delta will be lost to port expansion. Another 100 hectares will succumb to residential units slated to be built on TFN land adjacent to the megamall. “That’s the best soil in Canada,” says Steves, incensed by the shortsightedness of corporate capitalism. “You’re looking at the Richmondization of Delta.”
Steves says that when he protested in 2011 to Robin Silvester, president of Port Metro Vancouver, that Terminal 2 would harm the province’s agricultural future, Silvester told him: “You don’t have to worry about food security for B.C. Give us the land in Delta and we’ll use it to import food.”
Here, then, is the crux of the impending conflict, both for Delta and for the planet. Two contradictory views of the future are about to collide. Worldwide, deltas of great rivers like the Nile, the Mekong, the Fraser—in all, the source of much of Earth’s food—are under assault as inexpensive agricultural land succumbs to industrialization, suburban sprawl, and relentlessly rising ocean levels.
What happens in Delta will, for better or worse, provide a preview of how the 21st century will unfold. Will it be increasingly globalized, processed-food production and distribution or more locally grown food? Will it be sprawl, malls, and highways or urban densification, neighbourhood shopping, and public transit? Will it be estuaries for port and industrial development or estuaries for agriculture, migratory birds, and fish habitat?
Only the most naive would say history is on the side of nature. Yet as agricultural activist Steves, South Delta MLA Vicki Huntington, former B.C. minister of agriculture and Delta Farmers’ Institute president John Savage, Delta mayor Lois Jackson, and numerous farmers whose front yards contain signs reading “Farms not Ports” told me, they’re determined to prevent Delta from becoming “Richmondized”, its soil and wildlife habitat lost to development.
These critics fear Silvester’s port expansion will precipitate precisely that. And, often speaking with great political delicacy, these same people express sadness that the Tsawwassen First Nation would join Silvester in jeopardizing the Fraser estuary, a place that has sustained the Natives there for more than 4,000 years.
To Port Metro’s Silvester, these fears—given the scope of what lies ahead—are understandable. But the case for shifting much of Vancouver’s future container capacity to Delta is overwhelming.
The argument hinges on a single word: land. In 1968, in a report titled Our Southwestern Shores, the province first contemplated converting the Delta estuary into a gigantic port facility. With agricultural land cheap there, W. A. C. Bennett’s Social Credit government made the case for doing then what is now about to be done. The 1968 proposal said: the undersea Roberts Bank would be dredged; a causeway-linked industrial island would be created; and the adjacent Delta farmland would become rail yards and warehouses. (This failed plan contributed directly to the fall of Bennett’s Socreds in 1972 and to the NDP’s creation of the ALR the following year.)
Silvester knows that what applied regarding the usefulness of Roberts Bank 45 years ago applies even more now. Only the stakes are higher. And the opposition will be more intransigent.
Today, with a single post-Panamax-class ship capable of carrying 13,000 containers, with Asian economies growing at five percent annually, with far less industrial land available along Burrard Inlet than in 1968, and with the federal government realizing that Canada’s economic future lies increasingly across the Pacific, Silvester believes that Delta’s location and its cheap land meet the urgent commercial needs of the oncoming Asian century.
Seated, on an overcast day, in his Port Metro Vancouver waterfront office with its panoramic view over Burrard Inlet, the 44-year-old Silvester argues the case for Delta’s Terminal 2 construction. “It’s fundamental to Canada’s economy. If we don’t grow the port there, we lose opportunities. We lose trade. We can’t grow the port here,” he says, gesturing over his shoulder to where container cranes, moored ships, piles of sulphur, and waterfront condominiums fill the harbour’s shorelines. “Delta will see a lot of benefits.…And with the new Tsawwassen First Nation treaty—and their new lands—it’s synergistic for the Natives. They have land we need for trains, for trucks, for container storage, for warehouses.”
I ask him about the ALR farmland lost to these developments, reading back to him his oft-quoted words from a 2011 BCBusiness magazine interview: “Agriculture is emotionally important but economically [of] relatively low importance to the Lower Mainland. And in terms of food security, [it] is almost meaningless for the Lower Mainland.”
He laughs, saying that he would phrase that differently now, but he remains obdurate. “Agriculture is only one part of food self-sufficiency. We’ll still have to import a lot of stuff. UBC’s William Rees—the ‘ecological footprint’ guy—says the carrying capacity of the Lower Mainland, foodwise, is about 75,000 people. We’ve got, what… a couple of million? We’d have to eat a lot of salmon and berries to survive here without imported food.”
I tell him that Delta’s mayor, Lois Jackson (after I confronted her with Steves’s vision of the “Richmondization” of Delta), expressed concern about the port project’s effect. It could, she fears, lead to the gradual loss of Delta’s agricultural way of life. I tell him South Delta MLA Vicki Huntington supports the Terminal 2 plan but only in principle, not if it entails further loss of Delta’s ALR lands and migratory-bird habitat. (Speaking succinctly, she said of the project: “Mr. Silvester: be gone!”) Like these political leaders, like Steves and Savage, a lot of local citizens, I tell him, think it would be best if the port expansion were put elsewhere.
“Elsewhere!” he says. “Elsewhere? Where elsewhere?”
One of the people in Delta who do believe in the Terminal 2 expansion was once, curiously, one of its most ardent opponents. Kim Baird was the Tsawwassen chief for 13 years until her controversial loss last September to 23-year-old carver Bryce Williams. She grew up on the 290-hectare reserve. She watched as the Westshore Terminals coal-export facility appeared on Roberts Bank in the ’70s, then as the first Deltaport container cranes appeared.
So she was well aware that the artificial industrial island just offshore brought Tsawwassen Natives nothing but trouble: the tidal-flow-blocking causeway, the shoreline pollution, the loss of the mudflats’ shellfish and local fishing. When she heard about the federal plan for the massive Terminal 2 project, she suspected it would only make things worse for the TFN’s 328 people. Most were poor and underemployed, lived in overcrowded housing, and suffered from the lack of community infrastructure common to Native reserves.
But with discussions already under way between B.C.’s then-premier Gordon Campbell and the TFN about the possibility of a treaty—something Baird had long fought for—things suddenly got interesting in 2007. In a July 25 secret deal, then-chief Baird and her TFN negotiators agreed they would not raise any objections to the proposed Terminal 2 port expansion; furthermore, they would yield their rights to 1,154 hectares of Roberts Bank water lots around the proposed port expansion. In return, Baird was informed that the TFN would be given almost 400 hectares of ALR land adjacent to their reserve that they could develop however they pleased.
Then, with Campbell’s blessing, Baird was given a first-class travel junket, funded primarily by B.C. Rail, which had maintained ownership of the 40-kilometre Deltaport rail spur after the taxpayer-owned rail company’s 2004 sale/long-term lease. She visited Dubai, Hong Kong, and Singapore—a journey she described to me as “Port 101”—and came back a superport convert. Her opposition had evaporated. The Terminal 2 project could proceed; a treaty could be signed. Voilà! Self-government lay ahead.
Premier Campbell, a developer in his previous life, must have been pleased. His machinations had worked out. B.C. Rail could—and did—legally acquire 64 hectares of ALR land it needed for the expanded Terminal 2 trackage. The Tsawwassen First Nation, as a federal entity unaffected by B.C. legislation, could do whatever it wished with its new land—including provide the port with a necessary intermodal/warehouse site—without interference from B.C.’s Agricultural Land Commission. Campbell’s pal in Ottawa, Stephen Harper, could claim success with his federal Asia-Pacific Gateway initiative. (The Enbridge Northern Gateway pipeline would be another matter.) And Campbell, dressed in Coast Salish ceremonial regalia, could appear at a preratification ceremony as an advocate of Native rights while—all the while—facilitating the construction of Terminal 2.
“It’s a case of making lemonade out of lemons,” Baird says of what transpired. As the TFN’s strategic-initiatives director today (a situation that might change on April 10, when the Tsawwassen hold a new election after the close and flawed September 2012 contest was overturned by a judicial council in December), she has high hopes for the future.
She anticipates that the revenue from the treaty’s real-estate deal will go a long way toward repairing the damage of the past century’s federal colonialism and despair. There’s a new TFN school to be started, a carving shed, an elders’ centre, and an adult job-training program. Her goal, she tells me, is “to develop our land to the max”.
And nothing illustrates “to the max” better than what is about to appear, beginning this spring, on the overgrown fields at the corner of Highway 17 and 52nd Street, just a half-kilometre east of the B.C. Ferries causeway. Today, it’s marked by a billboard reading “Tsawwassen Shores: Oceanside Living”. But if all goes according to plan, this 100-hectare piece of former ALR land will, in three years, contain a major hotel, more than 6,000 paved parking spaces, and one of the largest malls in Canada.
The 1.2-million-square-foot shopping centre, to be built by Ivanhoé Cambridge, will be modelled on others of the company’s suburban retail outlets, like Calgary’s new CrossIron Mills. And it will have, I was told by the TFN’s CEO of economic development, Chris Hartman, many of the same stores—American Eagle Outfitters, the Body Shop, LensCrafters, the Disney Store, Bass Pro, and Foot Locker, to name just a few—plus dozens of fast-food restaurants and public-entertainment amenities.
A second, 600,000-square-foot shopping centre, Tsawwassen Commons, is to be built next door by the Property Development Group and will contain scores more shops. The goal is to create a major tourist destination that will lure thousands of visitors daily from Vancouver Island, the Fraser Valley, Vancouver, and Washington state. There will not be, I was assured by Hartman, a casino.
And north of these linked malls, the first of almost 1,700 housing units will soon appear, to be built by Aquilini Development and Construction Inc. and to be called Tsawwassen Shores. Preliminary descriptions of the residential/mall complex contain every green cliché, every use of words like neighbourhood, tree-lined, unique, and natural that might be expected from a suburban real-estate project. But this PR can’t conceal the fact that the TFN development is located on Class 1 alluvial farmland, just south of the hated and twice-daily-clogged George Massey Tunnel, directly adjacent to the packed-on-weekends B.C. Ferries terminal, north of an irritatingly congested international border, alongside an often jammed Highway 17.
Yes, indeed: to the max!
Parked directly behind the Highway 17 billboard announcing Tsawwassen Shores, South Delta’s independent MLA, Vicki Huntington, surveys the view on a grey November day and sighs. For 15 years, she was a member of Delta’s municipal council, and during that time, as vice chair of the Lower Mainland treaty advisory committee, she became convinced that Campbell’s effort to get a treaty with the TFN was motivated not by any deep concern about historic injustices and Native rights but by his determination to bring the Terminal 2 port project to fruition.
She believes that the TFN deal—the up-front, $16-million cash payment, the offer of the ALR land, the prospect of TFN revenue being generated by real-estate projects—has blinded the Natives to what they’re really getting into. She believes the port will, in time, hurt the Natives and destroy Delta.
“This will all be paved and developed,” she says, echoing Steves, of the surrounding farmland that stretches to the horizon. “It will all be gone.” She’s worried about the millions of migratory shorebirds that forage in fallow Delta fields each fall and spring when the tide’s in. Where will they go? She’s worried that Delta will follow Richmond as land speculation and sprawl gradually overwhelm ALR farmland nearby. She’s worried about the impending increase in Highway 17 traffic that will result from the megamall, and that mall’s detrimental effect on the small, independent, retail businesses in downtown Ladner and Tsawwassen. But most of all, she’s worried about the Natives. “They think they’re building a better quality of life with all this development. But I suspect they’re destroying it. Do they think there’s a Colgate shield that’ll protect their culture from the mall, from the industrial site? I’d hate to see this in print,” she says, pausing momentarily to look at me. But I hear in her tone a wish, not a request. “Enough is enough. I’m tired of hearing about the First Nations as ‘protectors’ of Mother Earth. They’re just repeating our mistakes!”
She laughs, surprised by the vehemence of what she’s just said.
There is a Law of Unintended Consequences that is as immutable and perverse as quantum physics. It says things do not always turn out the way they were planned.
Little could Gordon Campbell have known back in 2006—when the Asia-Pacific Gateway project was conceived—that Vancouver’s Ron Emerson, president of Emerson Real Estate, would, beginning in 2010, discreetly acquire $100 million in options on 226 hectares of ALR farmland in Delta, all located in the fertile triangle between Highway 17, Deltaport Way, and the ocean.
The 65-hectare Felix Farms, for example, accepted Emerson’s $30-million option to sell. And he optioned sections of the 134-year-old Guichon Farm—owned, in part, by Kelly Guichon, a megamall supporter and Delta’s likely B.C. Liberal opponent to Huntington in the May 2013 provincial election—for $15 million. Offering farmers $180,000 a hectare—almost double the land’s current assessed value—Emerson intends to flip the land when pressures increase for more residential or port-related development there.
Little could Campbell have also known that to bring massive post-Panamax ships up the Fraser River to the impending enlarged port facilities at Delta’s Tilbury Island (and a second tentatively planned port site near the south foot of No. 8 Road in Richmond), the Massey Tunnel, the link between Richmond and Delta, would have to go.
Premier Christy Clark, in fact, announced the tunnel’s demise last September. But what she didn’t explain is that the tunnel is not merely an impediment to traffic along Highway 99. It is, equally, an impediment to ships. That’s because the keels of the newest container ships have a draft of 39.5 feet. And the top of the tunnel at high tide lies 40.5 feet below the surface. There is no room for error. Otherwise, hundreds of commuters could drown. So expedited engineering work is now under way to replace the old tunnel with an eight-lane, $3-billion bridge (with tolls inevitable). Once the new bridge, with all of its required land acquisitions, is built, Delta’s remaining ALR farmland will face an assault by speculators and developers who have been waiting for the chance to open up the cheap agricultural properties south of Richmond.
Standing in a cold October wind on Delta’s 41B Street overpass, Harold Steves tells me an ironic story. As a Richmond city councillor, he’d travelled to Xiamen, China, six months earlier to celebrate that coastal town’s sister-city linkage to Richmond. Where 20 years ago there were orchards and tea plantations, fishing boats and hundreds of thousands of egrets along the ocean estuary of the Jiulong River, Steves looked around and was shocked. The farms and birds he’d anticipated seeing didn’t exist anymore. Instead, Xiamen had become a high-rise city of 2.2 million, its industrialized waterfront marked by train tracks, container cranes, and moored cargo ships.
When Steves asked Xiamen’s mayor where his city’s people—with their farms gone—would get their food, the mayor replied, trying to flatter his foreign guest, that he’d heard that where Steves lives there’s plenty of agriculture.
The solution, the mayor said, is simple: Xiamen would import its food from all the farms in Richmond.