Musqueam Indian Band and the Vancouver International Airport

The Musqueam Indian Band and the Vancouver International Airport (YVR) share a home on Sea Island at the mouth of the Fraser River in British Columbia. As neighbors, they have come together in recent years to share the island and its opportunities. In 2017 they signed the landmark Musqueam Indian Band-YVR Airport Sustainability & Friendship Agreement, a 30-year agreement to build a sustainable and mutually beneficial future for their shared community. The Agreement ensures that the relationship between Musqueam and YVR will continue to thrive through employment opportunities, revenue sharing, engagement protocols for development, support for education, and support of operations. “Our relationship has evolved over the years and having this agreement in place has allowed both communities to better understand one another,” says Alana Lawrence, director of government relations for YVR. “We watched the Agreement unfold with great pride. It made us feel as if we were finally seen by the airport,” adds Mary Point, a member of the Musqueam Indian Band and the Indigenous relationship manager for the Vancouver Airport Authority. “When we look at the airport, we see economic opportunity, and right on the first page the airport acknowledges that it sits on Musqueam territory. There’s respect, recognition, and support for one another. Musqueam supports the ongoing operations of the airport and the airport respects and supports Musqueam.” The relationship between the Musqueam Indian Band and the Vancouver Airport began when the first airstrip was built on Sea Island in the 1930s. YVR has since grown to become a trans-Pacific hub and the second busiest airport in Canada. The Agreement marks a substantial shift in Indigenous relations and is the result of years of negotiations and dialogue that began in 2015. “Our relationship had been one that council and community were not happy with,” describes Wendy John, a Musqueam Councilor and member of the team who negotiated the Agreement. Over the years, Musqueam tried to engage with YVR executives and even the federal government as they watched the airport become a huge business developer and a “city within a city” on the island. “We could see the development taking place on our lands, yet there wasn’t adequate recognition of title,” says John. “Finally, we approached them and said, we want to have a serious discussion about Musqueam’s involvement in the economy you’re developing.” YVR initially dismissed the perspectives of the Musqueam until the band threatened legal action. “If they were not willing to respect our relationship by recognizing the inescapable economic component of our title and sit across the table from us at that level, we were going to go to court,” describes John. “That’s when they started to turn around and do some legitimate discussion with us on the relationship between Musqueam and YVR. They had two vice presidents involved and even the president would come in if there was an insurmountable issue. After about a year of negotiation, we had done a complete 180 to the point where YVR said they wanted to do a Sustainability and Friendship Agreement because they felt we have so many of the same goals for the use of the land.” Through the negotiation process, Musqueam and YVR identified their shared values, which became the foundation for the Agreement and a guide for the relationship. The Agreement’s structure is based on the four pillars of sustainability: social, economic, environment, and governance. The social pillar creates an education-to-employment path between Musqueam and YVR and a process for consultation on future development. The economic pillar creates a revenue sharing arrangement. The environment pillar addresses how Musqueam and YVR will work together to protect the land and our relationship has evolved over the years and having this agreement in place has allowed both communities to better understand one another, ” says Alana Lawrence water in and around Sea Island. Finally, the governance pillar describes how the two parties will ensure the Agreement is well-executed and continues to build a positive and mutually beneficial friendship. The Agreement covers all the issues Musqueam was concerned about. “Protecting the land and water was huge, as was establishing scholarships and putting money into cultural and archaeological activities and revenues sharing,” says John. “We thought the revenue sharing and recognition of title were going to be great, but the business opportunities, contracting, education, and the fact that we have a liaison to carry out the implementation of our agreement are the real success.” Three years after the Agreement was first signed there are now 90 Musqueam members employed throughout the terminal. 26 band members have also worked as independent contractors for the airport, and three Musqueam-owned construction companies have received contracts for different projects. YVR has also hosted 46 educational workshops to educate the community about the Agreement and the Musqueam people. A large part of this success comes from Point’s efforts as a liaison and from a business opportunities working group that evaluates the opportunities taking place across the island and how Musqueam might be involved. The success of the Musqueam-YVR partnership has led to other relationship building on the island. “This agreement has woken up other corporations and neighbours to approach Musqueam and say we would like to do the same kind of agreement,” says John. “We’re currently working on an agreement with the Port of Vancouver, and there have been other companies like West Coast Marine. Agreements like these promote real reconciliation, but it’s more about how the skill set we bring will benefit their organizations.” That’s certainly been the case for Lawrence and YVR. “It’s a two-way street,” says Lawrence. “Airports are accustomed to planning for decades at a time, and Musqueam has been here from time immemorial. When we look at our environmental plans and the role we want to play here, we’ve learned a lot from Musqueam about longer-term planning. It’s been an extraordinary change for us as we look for greater opportunities to work together.” As more organizations from up and down the river have come together, a new kind of synergy has developed. “It’s shown everybody how we need to work cooperatively on the maintenance, habitat restoration, and everything that impacts the mouth of the river,” says John. “We’re breaking down the silos of responsibility to protect the integrity of the spawning grounds.” The success of the Agreement has made Musqueam and YVR leaders in Indigenous economic reconciliation and Indigenous-corporate environmental stewardship. “Everyone sees Musqueam as a leader in discussions, mentoring, and showing others our strength and YVR as a leader in innovation and commitment to working in a collaborative and positive way,” says Point. “Both parties are constantly being approached form other organizations asking ‘How are you doing it? How can we do this as well?’” Point’s advice to those groups is to “reach your hand out, sit down decision-makers with decision-makers, and follow through. There are many agreements out there, but the reason they’re not as great is because people are just not doing the work. There’s no aftercare. I hope that as we continue to repeat our message and walk together, we’ll see more great agreements follow.