Fumano: Differing definitions of heritage defines Indigenous project

First Nations want Class-A heritage building that housed RCMP gone, saying it is a symbol of pain

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The first major real estate project from a joint venture of the Musqueam, Squamish and Tsleil-Waututh First Nations reaches Vancouver city council this month.

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The proposal is for more than 2,600 homes, along with commercial and cultural spaces, in towers as high as 28 storeys. It would total 2.5 million square feet of floor space.

The project involves an 85,000-square-meter site south of 33rd Avenue between Oak and Cambie streets, being developed by the MST Development Corporation and the federal government’s Canada Lands Co.

The rezoning application, the culmination of six years of planning, is to go to public hearing May 24, followed by a decision from council.

The project’s proponents hail call it a powerful example of “economic reconciliation.”

But the proposal is not without controversy. The rezoning application asks council to approve removal of a century-old, Tudor-style building at 4949 Heather St., listed in the “A” category of the Vancouver heritage registry. It’s a step rarely taken for class-A heritage buildings, which are recognized for having the highest architectural and cultural value.

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The rezoning would be for a mixed-use development with shops, services, child care, parks, 540 units of social housing, 400 market rental homes with about 25 per cent of floor area at below-market rents, and 1,670 leasehold condos.

Concept illustration for Heather Lands in Vancouver, BC
Concept illustration for Heather Lands in Vancouver, BC Photo by Matthew Thomson conceptual illus /PNG

The building on Heather Street was a private boys school starting in 1914. It was transferred in 1920 to the RCMP, which used it as its regional headquarters and a training academy. In 2012, the RCMP moved to a new headquarters in Surrey.

The property ended up in 2014 with the Canada Lands Co. MST entered into a partnership with Canada Lands and is a joint owner.

The joint venture is not seeking the demolition of the historic building, also called the Fairmont building. But the First Nations want it moved.

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“The Fairmont building is a constant reminder of the RCMP’s role in enforcement of the Indian Act and other discriminatory laws,” a report to council says. “The required retention of the building is seen as by the MST Nations as an imposition of colonial values.”

While the building could be moved and refurbished for about $47 million, city staff have been unable to find an appropriate place for it. So staff are asking council to endorse its removal and, the report says, that endorsement will guide review of any future demolition permit

“To ask the Nations to continue to maintain that symbol of colonialism, the City of Vancouver rightly recognized that that was an unfair request,” said Brennan Cook, MST Development Corporation’s vice-president of acquisitions and development.

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Robert Lemon, Vancouver’s senior heritage planner from 1991 to 1996, said he was “deeply disappointed” to learn the building might not remain on the site — or survive at all.

“To allow the building to be removed, either by demolition or by moving it to another site… that would be unprecedented,” Lemon said. “It would be a precedent-setting move.”

Lemon said he hopes council will push back against removal of the Fairmont building, which he called an “an outstanding example of Tudor revival architecture.”

Lemon said he hopes “the three First Nations would reconsider the decision to remove the building, so it could stand as a legacy, to tell the story in a physical form of how the RCMP treated First Nations in British Columbia.”

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Lemon pointed to the 96-year-old Hudson’s Bay building in Winnipeg, which last month was transferred to the Southern Chiefs’ Organization for an Indigenous-led development project. Lemon also prepared a feasibility study for Tk’emlúps te Secwépemc First Nation for the Kamloops Indian Residential School building. After the discovery of hundreds of unmarked graves there, he said, the Nation’s leadership decided to preserve it as “a testament to the horrors that went on there.”

To that suggestion, Cook said, “The MST Nations were clear… it was too painful a symbol to keep on their lands.”

“It’s an interesting position to talk about heritage assets when you’re talking to the people who have owned the land for thousands of years,” Cook said. “What they see as heritage is not a 100-year-old building.”

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Ginger Gosnell-Myers agrees to remove a class-A heritage building would be significant.

Gosnell-Myers was an Indigenous planner for the City of Vancouver and wrote the reconciliation framework that council adopted in 2014. “It’s a policy tool that allows decisions and policies to be overturned if they don’t meet the city’s goals of advancing reconciliation.

“The Heather Lands RCMP building is actually the city’s first major test,” said Gosnell-Myers, a fellow with SFU’s Morris J. Wosk Center for Dialogue, focused on decolonization and urban Indigenous planning.

“The heritage policy used to be like the Holy Grail. You don’t touch it, it’s sacred.”

This decision, she said, will be a test of “the city’s commitment to change.”



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