Former Musqueam Chief Ernest Campbell, a powerful voice for B.C. First Nations and tireless advocate for the Musqueam Nation, died Saturday, CBC News has learned.

Campbell fought for aboriginal land and fishing rights throughout the 14 years he served as chief of The Musqueam, whose traditional territory includes much of southwest Vancouver where the Fraser River meets the Strait of Georgia.

Schwarzenegger Canada 20070531 TOPIX

From left, B.C. Premier Gordon Campbell, Chief Leah George of the Tsleil-Wauttuth first nations, Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger of California and Chief Ernie Campbell of the Musqueam Band watch native children perform during a meeting in Vancouver Thursday May 31, 2007. The Premier and the Governor were presented with ceremonial blankets to wear. (Chuck Stoody/ Canadian Press )

Vancouver Mayor Gregor Robertson said Campbell was a thoughtful, determined leader who helped build bridges and foster greater understanding between all cultures.

Premier Christy Clark said British Columbia lost one of its foremost First Nations leaders, calling Campbell "a tireless advocate and powerful voice that brought British Columbians together."

"In a city of millions, Chief Campbell stood tall. His strong voice and unswerving leadership ensured the concerns of his people remained at the forefront through issues that could have divided us. Whether it was Aboriginal land and fishing rights or hosting the 2010 Olympic Winter Games, Chief Campbell always ensured his people were heard and always conducted himself with dignity," Clark said.

A legacy of land

When Campbell was re-elected chief in 2000, he credited his success on the leadership role he took in disputes over rent increases for non-native leaseholders, and said he looked forward to moving ahead with a focus on treaties.

In 2003, when Ottawa shut down and aboriginal-only pilot fishery after a B.C. provincial court ruled it was unconstitutional and racially-discriminatory, Campbell boldly announced that his people would ignore the ruling.

"When a salmon passes through our territory, our rivers, when we catch it, that's ours," he said.


Phil Fontaine (left), Grand Chief of the Assembly of First Nations (left), and Ernest Campbell, Chief of the Musqueam Indian Band leave the Supreme Court in Ottawa, Monday, June 10, 2000, after hearing the case of the dispute between natives and non-native residents over the millions of dollars in back rent. (Canadian Press)

In the following years, Campbell was at the helm as the Musqueam challenged a number of property transfers and sales within the bounds of what the band claims is its traditional territory, including the sale of the UBC golf course in 2004.

He warned that the government's willingness to transfer or sell Crown land within the area claimed by the Musqueam while simultaneously engaging the Musqueam in the treaty negotiation process was "not [in] good faith."

"If you are selling land off, or transferring land and selling land in Musqueam's traditional territory — that should be on the table — while we are supposedly at the table talking about land," he said in 2005. "When they are selling it off, that's not good faith negotiations."

After years of negotiation, a historic land and cash deal with the provincial government worth up to $250 million was approved by a vote of the Musqueam band's members in March 2008.

The agreement gave the band's 1,200 members more than $20 million in cash, title to the seven hectares of land on which the River Rock Casino in Richmond was built, more than 20 hectares of land in Pacific Spirit Park and the 59-hectare University Golf Club lands.


Musqueam band members block construction at a ancient village site in the 1300 block of Southwest Marine Drive.

One of Campbell's final battles took place over the fate of a South Vancouver property that had been slated to become a new condo development — a site that also formed part of the historic Marpole Midden. Intact human remains had been found during the course of archaeological undertaken by the developer in Jan. 2012.

In March, when construction crews got the go-ahead to continue work, the Musqueam began blocking the work.

Campbell said his band wanted all digging to stop immediately. He said that even though past development had disturbed the land, that was no rationale for continuing to disturb the remains of Musqueam ancestors.

With months of persistence, the Musqeaum won the battle over the future of the property when, in September 2012, the B.C. Ministry of Lands and Forests said it would not extend a permit for the developers to continue altering the site.

In November 2012, after Campbell decided not to pursue another term, his son-in-law Wayne Sparrow ran and was elected chief in his place. 

Sparrow led the band as it continued negotiations over the site and, earlier this month, the Musqueam First Nation announced it had finalized the purchase of the land from the developer.