Chief Glenn Hudson

Chief Glenn Hudson

March 23, 2015

Within sight of Winnipeg's shiny new IKEA store lie dozens of abandoned buildings on acres of desolate land that First Nations are eager to transform into a neighbourhood with green space, retail shops and commercial property.

But the federal government refuses 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.

"As Christians we are compelled to foster dialogue that crosses the divides of humanity," David Balzer said during a March 5 panel discussion at the nearby Canadian Mennonite University.

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, he said, First Nations want a strong relationship, including consultation, with existing neighbourhoods.

"It's an opportunity to showcase our talents as First Nations people in terms of development," Hudson said.

Most comments from the audience were enthusiastic and supportive.

The 160 acres in question is a former military base that the federal Treasury Board decided to sell in 2007 to the Canada Lands Co., a crown corporation that was to oversee the land's redevelopment and resale.

The plan was immediately stalled when four 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.

The matter has been before the courts ever since and may end up at the Supreme Court.

Treaty relations commissioner James Wilson said the land "is a symbol of both the negative side of the relationship with First Nations and the hopefulness that could be in that relationship."

Wilson said he prefers the term economic development zone rather than urban reserve because most people think of reserves as the impoverished places they see in the news which do not represent the vast majority of First Nations communities.

Urban reserves allow First Nations to build and own wealth-creating enterprises in cities where a larger population offers a better chance of success.

Employment and other opportunities on urban reserves are also open to non-aboriginals, 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."