About 274 years ago, the first white guy set foot in Winnipeg. Some of his buddies have been acting like they’ve owned the place ever since.
On Sept. 24, 1738, a Quebec explorer named Pierre Gaultier de Varennes, better known as La Vérendrye, got off a boat at The Forks and established Fort Rouge along the Assiniboine River. Although the fort was just a short-lived trading post, this marked the beginning of a European presence in what’s now Winnipeg.
Before La Vérendrye showed up, this soggy corner of the continent had been home to one group of indigenous people or another for about 6,000 years. By the time the first European explorers and fur traders were inching their way into southern Manitoba, the Assiniboine, Cree, Dakota and Ojibwa were all established in the area.
But the first Europeans to actually see this place — and pretty much everywhere else in North America — made the mistake of assuming there were never that many people living here. That’s because smallpox and other European diseases were racing across the continent, wiping out people whose immune systems were unable to fight off foreign microbes.
For example, Hudson’s Bay Company records reveal Assiniboine bands lost about 50 per cent of their people every time a wave of disease hit in the 1700s and 1800s, adding up to a cumulative population loss of well above 90 per cent after European contact. By their mere presence on the continent, white guys unwittingly depopulated the place.
But since the surviving First Nations tended to be small and struggling, the first settlers also made the mistake in the 1800s of assuming the locals had never really mastered the art of living comfortably off the land.
In turn, this erroneous assumption led to the belief First Nations would benefit from a European cultural makeover: a sedentary farming existence, rather than a semi-nomadic life of hunting and fishing. And that ill-advised strategy persisted well into the 20th century in the form of the residential schools system, which sought to wipe out any remaining vestiges of indigenous culture.
The cumulative effect of all this, as most Winnipeggers are acutely aware, was nothing short of cultural genocide. Yet somehow, Manitoba’s First Nations endured and are now on the cusp of finally becoming equal partners in a less overtly racist society.
But racism endures, in both the institutional and common form. The irrational reaction in some circles to the Kapyong Barracks decision only illustrates how much further this city and this province have to progress.
On Friday, a Federal Court judge ruled Ottawa has to consult with four Manitoba First Nations before it disposes of a highly desirable chunk of surplus military land in Tuxedo.
What this means is Peguis, Long Plain, Roseau River and Sandy Bay First Nations may realize their dream of gaining ownership of all or part of the former Kapyong Barracks. Such a move would go a long way toward settling outstanding treaty land-entitlement claims.
What the First Nations intend to do is develop the Kapyong land and use both short-term and ongoing profits to fund improvements in their communities. If they set up the land as an economic-development zone, businesses on the properties could also provide employment opportunities that aren’t available on the First Nations themselves.
While the federal decision was hardly unexpected — Ottawa is already in the midst of negotiations — aboriginal leaders nonetheless celebrated. But the reaction of some Winnipeggers was bizarre.
The fear the First Nations will set up an "urban reserve" inside Winnipeg sparked irrational and frankly racist fears of The Rez coming to the big city, when in fact what the First Nations are proposing is not really that different from what any other developer would propose.
First Nations leaders would like to build a mix of commercial and residential buildings on the Kapyong land. Any development they proposed would have to conform with existing city zoning regulations. An aboriginal-owned condo tower would look no different from one owned by a developer of any other ethnic background. A First Nations-owned Boston Pizza outlet would offer the same menu items as one owned by another franchisee.
The First Nations may also seek to set up a special economic-development zone that could grant them special taxation powers. That is where the misleading term "urban reserve" comes in, as such zones exist as political jurisdictions unto themselves. But again, anything inside such a zone would have to conform to city zoning regulations and would look just like any other development in Winnipeg.
Most city councillors as well as Mayor Sam Katz are extremely supportive of either option — the straight-up First Nations-owned development or the economic-development zone.
Nonetheless, the mere mention of the term "urban reserve," used as media shorthand Friday, had racists among us foaming at the mouth. Most infamously, Progressive Conservative party youth president Brayden Mazurkiewich was forced to resign his volunteer position after tweeting and Facebooking about "freeloading Indians" setting up on the land and possibly selling "smokes."
Other young Tories, it must be noted, were among the first to condemn Mazurkiewich’s comments. There’s no reason to believe the Progressive Conservative Party of Manitoba is racist.
But the mere fact a person with any form of public profile would not think twice about displaying such ignorance suggests we could all better acquaint ourselves with First Nations issues.
To be fair, treaty rights are poorly understood by many non-aboriginals. The treaty land-entitlement process, a legal means of compensating First Nations located in highly developed areas with land located outside their borders, can strike the uninitiated as counterintuitive or even generous. But this is not just a means of righting a historical wrong: It could provide First Nations with an economic leg up.
Unfortunately, there are Winnipeggers who don’t care about history and take offence to any suggestion Canadians have harmed the nation’s original occupants. To them, any reminder is just another guilt trip.
This is unfortunate. Unless you are First Nations, Métis or Inuit, you are a relative newcomer to this place. It doesn’t matter whether you stepped off a flight from Frankfurt yesterday or are descended from one of the Selkirk settlers who travelled over from Scotland in 1812.
To recap, Europeans came to this continent and unintentionally wiped out more than 90 per cent of the population. They then quite intentionally declared war on some of those who remained and confined the rest to plots of land where traditional indigenous economic strategies no longer made any sense.
Non-aboriginals then parcelled up the rest of the land, took it for their own and radically altered it. Finally, they spent more than a century trying to assimilate any indigenous people who somehow survived all the earlier unpleasantness.
After all that, Canada came to its senses and devised a legal mechanism that might, in Winnipeg, allow four First Nations to take ownership of 65 hectares of desirable real estate.
If that’s way too generous, then you and I have very different ideas about what constitutes generosity.