The daylong conference on urban-reserve development in and around Winnipeg Wednesday looked like the first step in a much bigger plan.
The Long Plain First Nation Urban Reserve Conference was designed to set the stage for a promising future for aboriginal and non-native business partnerships in southern Manitoba.
By the end of the conference, it was clear the next steps will decide the success of the venture outlined Wednesday by Long Plain Chief Dennis Meeches and Southern Chiefs Organization leader Terry Nelson.
The pair want to create millionaires on Manitoba First Nations.
Their plan sounded simple enough. Swan Lake, Roseau River, Brokenhead and Long Plain First Nations own a combined 242 hectares of land in and around Winnipeg, which they want to develop into hubs of commerce.
"I think it's a nice beginning for more discussion on urban reserves," said Assembly of Manitoba Chiefs leader Derek Nepinak.
As Manitoba's senior grand chief, Nepinak's support is key to smoothing the path with the federal and provincial governments for economic development. He indicated it's time to move forward.
"There remains a lot of misunderstandings about urban reserves in the greater community and a lot of positives can come out of this," Nepinak said. "People think urban reserves are about tipped-over cars and skinny dogs, feral packs of dogs. But that's not the case. There's an extensive trading economy (among aboriginal groups) across the continent and the issue for our purposes is: There is an opportunity here for foreign investment that benefits everybody."
Nelson was elected earlier this winter as grand chief of the body representing 35 southern Manitoba First Nations on a single campaign pledge.
He promised First Nations the means to write their own economic tickets.
The conference heard four parcels of land owned by Swan Lake, Roseau, Brokenhead and Long Plain could generate $400 million a year in retail sales and pump $40 million back into the impoverished communities.
"This is not about problems. This is about solutions. This conference is about throwing open the doors to the business community of Winnipeg," Nelson said.
"We could end up with five urban reserves inside the city of Winnipeg that are owned by one First Nation," said Nelson. "It all depends on what the structure will be."
To Nelson, the barrier to economic freedom is the antiquated Indian Act, which he equated to the Berlin Wall.
"We will break down the Berlin Wall here. We will create millionaires here... Urban reserves will be a place where profit is not a dirty word," Nelson said.
To do that, he has to convince the First Nations they have a better shot of success outside the Indian Act.
Nelson promised the Kapyong Barracks -- the focus of a protracted court battle with Ottawa over constitutionally protected aboriginal rights -- are in the SCO's plans for development. "They may not like us in Tuxedo or Whyte Ridge but we are coming," he said.
About 200 local aboriginal business leaders and politicians attended the conference, among them a new breed of aboriginal executives ready to act as brokers for business relationships between non-native investors who have money and aboriginal entities that have land.
Setting up a relationship that protects both is key to business success, said Mickey Werstuik. The band councillor from Westbank First Nation in B.C. outlined how Westbank created a thriving business hub over the last 50 years. It pumps hundreds of millions of dollars into the Okanagan Valley's economy.
The message at the conference was $500 million -- the capital needed to launch the first joint urban-reserve development here -- isn't a big obstacle.