The səmiq̓wəʔelə/Riverview Lands will stay public. Its redevelopment won’t need to be cost-neutral. And the Kwikwetlem First Nation will get land transfers.
Those were some of the revelations that came to light Tuesday night during BC Housing and Kwikwetlem’s launch of their master planning process for the 244 acres off Lougheed Highway in Coquitlam.
The online webinar drew more than 200 people from across Canada — from planners, mental health advocates and Indigenous communities to history buffs, nature lovers and film industry workers — wanting to know about the new partnership between the Crown agency and the 118-member First Nation that, earlier this month, renamed Riverview as səmiq̓wəʔelə, in honour of its ancestral ties to the area.
In their Zoom presentation, Lauren English of BC Housing and Ed Hall, chief of the Kwikwetlem First Nation (KFN), spoke about how they plan to work as equals to renew the “Place of the Great Blue Heron” — the translation for səmiq̓wəʔelə (pronounced Suh-MEE-kwuh-EL-uh) — with the help of stakeholders and the public.
“It is the first step in healing from the past,” English said, referring to the unceded territory that was “colonized” by the provincial government in 1904 to build the Hospital for the Mind (later renamed Essondale, then Riverview) on Mount Coquitlam and Colony Farms.
Hall also spoke about KFN’s “hope to heal from the past,” and a reconciliation plan to move forward that respects and protects the First Nation’s lands, culture, history and language.
Though the B.C. government ceased operations of the hospital in 2012, much of the site is still in use for mental health treatments, commercial enterprises and filming, English said: Of the 69 existing and “rapidly aging” buildings, 52 are active, and more structures are going up for patients with mental health and addiction challenges.
But the site is “financially unfeasible to continue operating” because of its aging infrastructure, English said, noting the “significant annual maintenance and operating costs.”
And she said BC Housing’s new mandate, under the Premier John Horgan’s NDP government, is to retain səmiq̓wəʔelə/Riverview Lands in the public’s hands, using land leases and redevelopment to offset its future growth.
Its former “break-even mandate” — in which redevelopment had to be cost-neutral — has also been lifted as “many understood that this cost-recovery mandate would require market sale of land to private parties,” a BC Housing spokesperson told the Tri-City News. “While the project is still required to be economically viable, BC Housing will not be required to use market revenues to offset the redevelopment's cost.”
For their next steps, BC Housing and KFN will focus on five core principles in the master planning stage:
• Partner with KFN through a reconciliation-based approach
• Create an integrated community of mental health excellence
• Engage with the site’s pre- and post-colonial history
• Protect and enhance the site’s ecology
• Create opportunities for affordable, safe and functional housing
English said the KFN, which has a legal land claim to the area, will receive transfers of property that are historically and culturally important to the Nation; however, those parcels have yet to be identified.
On the mental health front, English said səmiq̓wəʔelə/Riverview Lands will be home to 289 beds for patients by this summer, when the Red Fish Healing Centre for Mental Health and Addictions opens (Healing Spirit House opened in 2019).
For historical preservation, Hall said he’s now approaching developers interested in setting up on the lands to see if they’d be willing to offer space for KFN’s archaeological findings; he’s also working with the Royal BC Museum to repatriate some cultural treasures belonging to the First Nation. “It is my hope to have something close to home and something on display,” he said.
As well, BC Housing has retained Vancouver heritage expert Don Luxton to review the aging buildings.
On the ecology side, English said BC Housing recently hired four professional arborists to assess the condition of the site’s 1,800 trees — 70% of which are native to Europe and Asia — and determined 279 are dead or a hazard; there are no plans to remove them at this time, BC Housing later told The Tri-City News.
On the housing front, English said the goal is to create a mix of home types that would also ease the region’s housing crunch; housing for the homeless will also be considered in the master planning process.
Meanwhile, English called on Creative BC and the film industry, which used the səmiq̓wəʔelə/Riverview Lands daily pre-pandemic, to propose a permanent studio on site, or a film school (in 2019, BC Housing entered into 166 film contracts resulting in 282 film days; last year, during the COVID-19 lockdown, there were 76 contracts resulting in 144 film days).
BC Housing plans to post the answers to the 78 questions posed in the Zoom chat, on its website. There, the public can apply to be part of the new Public Advisory Group to help shape the future of səmiq̓wəʔelə/Riverview Lands; the deadline for applications is April 23.
April 23 is also the deadline to respond to the first survey, which can be found at: letstalkhousingbc.ca/sumiqwuelu-riverview (look for blue tab at the bottom of the page).
English said more community information sessions, stakeholder workshops and online engagement will roll out over the next few years, before the final plan is presented to the city of Coquitlam for possible land-use changes through the official community plan, a new neighbourhood plan and rezoning.
Mayor Richard Stewart did not return requests for comment; however, Kathleen Vincent, Coquitlam’s manager of corporate communications, told the Tri-City News that the municipality “is a key stakeholder, as well as the regulatory body for land use, and as such we expect to be heavily involved in the provincially-led master planning process,” she wrote in an email.
Still, the city’s Riverview Lands Advisory Committee that was disbanded in 2019 isn’t being reinstated at this time, she said.
Port Coquitlam Mayor Brad West said his neighbouring city expects “that we will be consulted and engaged” in the master planning process. “Our position has been consistent for as long as I remember, that it needs to be reinvigorated as a place for mental wellness and health,” West told the Tri-City News.
As for the business park that the KFN is building on its IR2, located in PoCo, West said a servicing agreement with the city has yet to be reached. “The ball is the court of the Kwikwetlem First Nation to finalize their plans, and the very technical aspects to support and facilitate those plans.”