WINNIPEG — Within sight of Winnipeg’s shiny new Ikea store lie dozens of abandoned buildings on acres of desolate land that First Nations say they are ready and able to transform into a neighbourhood with green space, retail shops and commercial property.
But the federal government is refusing to give up the land to the First Nations, and some residents of the affluent bordering communities of Tuxedo and River Heights may not want a so-called urban reserve in their backyards.
“We may not solve the legal issues here,” said David Balzer March 5 at the nearby Canadian Mennonite University, where a panel discussed the possibility of First Nations ownership of the land, “but as Christians we are compelled to foster dialogue that crosses the divides of humanity.”
A Tuxedo resident in the standing room only crowd of more than 300 wanted to know what exactly the First Nations intend for the site, but Peguis First Nation Chief Glenn Hudson said putting money into a detailed plan doesn’t make sense until the ownership issue is decided. However, Hudson said, First Nations want a strong relationship with the existing neighbourhoods which includes consultation.
“It’s an opportunity to showcase our talents as First Nations people in terms of development,” he said.
The land in question is the former Kapyong Barracks, a 64.7-hectare site vacated in 2004 when the 2nd Battalion, Princess Patricia’s Canadian Light Infantry relocated to CFB Shilo near Brandon, Man. In 2007, the federal Treasury Board decided to sell the site to the Canada Lands Co., a Crown corporation that was to oversee the land’s redevelopment and resale.
But that plan was immediately stalled when the Long Plain, Swan River, Peguis and Roseau River First Nations asked the Federal Court to overturn the decision under a treaty land entitlement claim. Such claims are intended to settle the debt owed to First Nations who did not receive all the land they were entitled to under historical treaties.
In 2009 the Federal Court declared the federal government didn’t do enough consultation with First Nations groups who had outstanding entitlement claims. The First Nations lost in the Federal Court of Appeal in 2011 then won again when the case was sent back to Federal Court in 2012. The federal government appealed and that decision is currently being awaited. If the government loses it will likely appeal to the Supreme Court, adding years to a final ruling.
“That parcel of land is a symbol of both the negative side of the relationship with First Nations and the hopefulness that could be in that relationship,” said treaty relations commissioner James Wilson. “It can become something we can do in this city to respond to some of the national accusations we have faced,” Wilson said, referring to Maclean’s magazine calling Winnipeg Canada’s most racist city. He said there are 154 urban reserves in Canada but few in Manitoba and only one so far in Winnipeg, which includes a post-secondary college.
Wilson said he prefers the term economic development zone rather than urban reserve because most people think of a reserve as the impoverished places they see in the news which do not represent the vast majority of First Nations communities. Urban reserves give First Nations the opportunity to build and own wealth-creating enterprises in cities where a bigger population offers a better chance of success.
Hudson said it’s ironic Winnipeg lags behind other cities in the number of urban reserves because “this is where we originally signed the treaties.” He added that employment and opportunities on urban reserves are also open to non-Aboriginals. “The time has come for us to take that next step,” he said.
Wilson said Winnipeg being on Treaty 1 land “is not to be taken lightly. Everyone in this room has treaty rights and if we want Canada to live up to its potential we all must uphold the law. It needs to benefit everyone.”
Questions and comments from the audience were enthusiastic and supportive. A woman who described the Kapyong land as “literally my backyard” asked only that she and her neighbours be kept informed of what may be in store.