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Downtown is where real governments go

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If the current incarnation of the First Nations Governance House project at Polo Park is belly up, why not build it downtown instead?

That’s the question smart friend and reader James Ham just e-mailed me, and it echoes one we were talking about in the newsroom this week when word filtered out that the city’s first urban reserve might be in limbo.

James suggested CentreVenture, which has grand plans for the downtown get involved and see if the 10-storey assembly hall and administration building couldn’t be built on some of the many vacant parcels of land downtown.

"I am really sad this building will be buried out in a warehouse district," wrote James. "I would like to see it in a place of prominence in our city where Aboriginals can take more pride in it (a reminder, perhaps, of how far they have come), somewhere the Aboriginal community can feel more like a real player in Winnipeg's economy/prosperity and somewhere those who I think sometimes dismiss Aboriginals can look at it and be reminded of the great work and leadership Grand Chief Ron Evans and company are trying to assert."

Good point. Real governments are downtown. City Hall, the Manitoba Legislature, the American consulate - all downtown. If First Nations want to be seen as sovereign, they shouldn’t hide the symbol of their self-government behind the Old Navy.

But that’s an ideal-world scenario. I haven’t asked AMC Grand Chief Ron Evans, but I wonder whether there’s a parcel of land big enough to accommodate the 250,000 square-foot complex and the gas station that’s integral to the business model.

And, the AMC got the land at Polo Park from Manitoba Hydro for a good price – something that might be hard to replicate downtown.

And, even with the spanner Long Plain First Nation has thrown into the works, the Polo Park land is still Winnipeg’s best and fastest hope of getting an urban reserve. Moving the whole shebang downtown would set the process back probably three years.

Winnipeg has been talking about urban reserves - or Aboriginal economic development zones, the less threatening term Mayor Sam Katz favours – for, like, a decade. All we’ve managed to build so far are two dinky gas stations way outside the city limits.

Every time the idea comes up, it spawns shamefully bigoted comments on local chat rooms and blogs. People fearmonger about slum housing and gang problems and dirty Indians.

That is totally out of step with what an urban reserve actually is. To wit, the very successful one in Saskatoon, where bands have created their own industrial park. I visited it a few years ago and it looks exactly like the view outside my office window here in the Inkster Industrial Park.

The vast and troubling chasm between white fear and modern Aboriginal reality is the best reason to get a large-scale urban reserve up and running right now.

Nothing will cure bigotry better than the realization that an urban reserve is just another boring, glass-fronted office building, with the odd dreamcatcher in the window and the lingering, sweet smell of the last smudge ceremony.

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About Mary Agnes Welch

Mary Agnes Welch joined the Free Press in 2002, first as a general assignment reporter and then covering city hall and the Manitoba legislature before moving to her current post as public policy reporter.

Before Winnipeg, she worked at the Windsor Star and the Odessa American, a small daily newspaper in West Texas. There, in addition to covering more than 20 counties, she took high school football scores from coaches all over West Texas by phone every Friday night.

Mary Agnes is a graduate of Columbia University’s journalism school, has won several Western Ontario Newspaper Awards and has been part of two teams of reporters nominated for a Michener Award. In 2011, she was nominated for a National Newspaper Award in the beat category. She is also the former national president of the Canadian Association of Journalists.

She once misspelled "Shih Tzu" in the paper and received 37 emails from angry dog-owners.

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