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Urban reserves are a proven success in Saskatchewan

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When the time-tested bannock recipe was passed from mother to daughter, who could have known it would play a central role in a highly successful restaurant business?

Nearly 20 years later, Micsotan, the Cree word for "eat," still makes fresh bannock and home-cooked meals daily, caters to large crowds, and employs family members and many local young people.

But what truly makes this a stand-out success, beyond the mortgage-free home and lakefront property of the owners, is the restaurant is located on an urban reserve in Saskatchewan.

Utter those two words in Manitoba -- urban reserve -- and you're in for a debate over a little-understood and often maligned economic development concept intended to help First Nations become economically self-sufficient.

Of course there is ignorance out there, with some people thinking "urban reserve" means an "urban ghetto," with its associated poverty. But if economic success stories from across Canada are studied, it is through partnerships between First Nations and municipalities that significant economic progress is achieved, for all parties involved.

Saskatchewan, with 49 urban reserves across the province and many more pending, is the first place to look should Manitoba want to examine urban reserves, their outcomes and their potential.

Chief Cliff Tawpisin of Muskeg Lake Cree Nation said the urban reserve established in Saskatoon has generated jobs and wealth for both communities and, importantly, has fostered trust that is a critical component of the ongoing working relationship.

Urban reserves, after all, are not relocated versions of remote and northern communities, but specially designated centres for economic growth within urban communities. Some are as small as a single lot while others can be parcels in the eight- to 14-hectare range.

In these economic zones, opportunities to build real wealth and equity are created, rather than the old-school focus on easy-come, easy-go cash. Importantly, urban reserves also have the potential to create new jobs and business-investment opportunities in previously disregarded or underdeveloped urban areas.

Think of the downtown business improvement zone and the urban reserve concept isn't nearly as intimidating. Or consider China's special economic zones, which were created to speed the transition into a capitalist free-market system. Where these zones exist, economic growth flows.

Paul Ledoux is the CEO of the Muskeg Lake Economic Development branch and has witnessed the benefits first-hand.

"An urban reserve has given our First Nations community the opportunity to develop commercial ventures which helped us enhance our community services and programs through the net profits of our enterprises," he said.

Once thought of as enclaves of unfair advantage, the urban reserves in Regina and Saskatoon are benefiting not only the First Nations communities partnering in development, but also the municipalities and surrounding areas.

Look back as far as 1993, when the 52,000-square -foot McKnight Commercial Centre first opened. It provides a solid example of how jobs can be created during the construction phase, ongoing revenue sources generated through the leasing of space and new skills developed by members of First Nations communities in the property-development and management fields. In turn, partnerships like this deliver economic spinoffs and new income for partnering municipalities.

Educating Manitobans about the potential benefits of urban reserves, for First Nations and cities, is a crucial stage in the process.

"There will always be misconceptions from the general public no matter where an urban reserve is located," said Ledoux. "However, we found that fact-based, open communications helped grow understanding of the importance of urban reserves as an economic and social tool for First Nations communities."

Chief Tawpisin agreed, adding municipalities are key in helping educate the public with ongoing updates to the wards to ensure everyone knows what is going on and why.

In Manitoba, we have a long way to go to build strong municipal-First Nations working relationships, and an even longer way to go to generate wealth in our First Nations communities. While the road to creating urban reserves cannot be expected to be all smooth sailing, this is an opportunity for our province that is ripe for the taking.

If we look to best practices across Canada, we can build upon the success that Saskatchewan is having. If we engage in partnership-building and strong communications, we can create opportunities that transcend identity.

If, like Micsotan, we start with a simple, time-tested recipe, we can move First Nations, one family at a time, from outside the fort to willing, active partners in our intertwined economic futures.

James Wilson is commissioner of the Treaty Relations Commission of Manitoba, a neutral body mandated to encourage discussion, facilitate public understanding and enhance mutual respect between all peoples in Manitoba.

Republished from the Winnipeg Free Press print edition November 29, 2012 A17

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