Winnipeg Free Press - PRINT EDITION

Urban reserves have an unfair image problem

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As everyone knows, the way you describe something can have a significant impact on how your listener will perceive what is being discussed. Take the phrase urban reserve -- such as the one proposed by a group of First Nations for Winnipeg's Kapyong Barracks -- for instance. Some people hear these words and, unfortunately, conjure up scenes of poverty, poor housing and general social malaise.

Yet, would such a proposal be imbued with the same preconceptions if it were instead called an economic development area (EDA)? If Manitoba Treaty Commissioner James Wilson had his way, that would be the term employed when speaking of the project -- and if evidence from other cities is any indication, it is a far more accurate description of what may someday be built.

Winnipeggers might not realize this, but there are more than 120 aboriginal EDAs across the country. As the City of Saskatoon notes on its website, these "urban reserves are tremendous economic, social, and cultural development opportunities that benefit the entire community including First Nations and non-First Nations people."

In fact, that city's Asimakaniseekan Askiy Reserve is a case study regarding the potential of these initiatives. Established in 1988, it breathed new life into a rundown part of town. Today, dozens of aboriginal and non-aboriginal businesses flourish side by side in what has become the new commercial hub of southeast Saskatoon. Too often when First Nations issues are brought up, misconceptions and stereotypes abound.

One argument that has been put forth against EDAs, for instance, is tenants will not pull their financial weight in the big city.

At least in part, this stems from the generally murky understanding many Canadians have of aboriginal responsibilities regarding taxation. While the sales-tax exemptions that apply to reserves in rural areas would be in effect on an EDA, only registered status Indians can take advantage of these exemptions when purchasing goods and services, and only on reserve land.

Under current tax law, all businesses located on EDAs are required to collect sales tax and are subject to all applicable taxes outlined by law or by agreements negotiated with the municipality.

More significantly, in other cities the local government and the First Nations bands sign service agreements that outline the aboriginal group's financial contributions to the broader community.

In Saskatoon, the government provides services (police, fire, snow removal, water and sewer) in exchange for a fee that is calculated in the same way as property taxes -- and the fee equals the amount that would be paid by any comparable business as their municipal tax dues.

Because most Winnipeggers have never seen an urban reserve in action (while there is one in the city, it is not particularly well-known), they may be tempted to transplant their idea of a rural reservation into an urban context.

But this fails to recognize that remote northern Manitoba is different in almost every way from the capital city -- and for the First Nations hoping to own land in Winnipeg, this is exactly the point.

Aboriginal entrepreneurs want to set up shop in an area where they have access to a large customer base; the ability to network with other companies; and the advantages of lower operating costs, reliable Internet and communications infrastructure and better transportation. These are all benefits urbanites take for granted, but are just not found in the areas in which most First Nations communities are located.

With the return of the Jets, the construction of the CMHR, the opening of IKEA and other developments, it seems Winnipeg is going through a bit of a renaissance. It makes sense that the province's aboriginal people want to capitalize on and contribute to this success.

Like their counterparts across Canada, they seek to improve their communities' self-sufficiency and recognize the best place to do so is in the city, which has the wealth, dynamism, and critical mass of population that are key for economic growth. Cities offer First Nations the ability to diversify their economic base while accessing new training and business opportunities that may never be available in rural locales. In turn, evidence shows successful EDAs provide employment for both aboriginals and non-aboriginals alike, while injecting money into the community and contributing to the broader economic development of the city in which they are found.

Perhaps such a description will help generate a new image of what could, if done well, be a very positive initiative for both Manitoba's First Nations and its capital.

Benjamin Gillies is a political economy graduate of the University of Manitoba. He works as a consultant in Winnipeg.

Republished from the Winnipeg Free Press print edition February 2, 2013 A15

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