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Despite pleas for infill development, Kapyong barracks have been fallow for five years.

JOE BRYKSA/WINNIPEG FREE PRESS Archives Despite pleas for infill development, Kapyong barracks have been fallow for five years.

The federal government levelled legal broadsides at First Nations claims to the blighted Kapyong barracks, arguing in court Thursday that money is their only motivation.

Federal Crown lawyer Harry Glinter said Manitoba First Nations were repeatedly invited to make an offer on the vacant military base before it was slated to be sold to a Crown development firm. The bands failed to do so, and he says they now are advancing a flimsy claim to one of the choicest pieces of property in the province.

"What really is at issue, to be blunt, is money," said Glinter. "They think they can get a better deal from the government than from Canada Lands, and that is probably true."

Glinter faced off in federal court against lawyers for seven First Nations who say Ottawa should have consulted them before moving to sell Kapyong to Canada Lands. They've asked Federal Court Justice Douglas Campbell to review the case and order Ottawa to consult.

The bands, including Long Plain and Brokenhead, want to use some or all of the 90-acre parcel for housing, educational facilities and native-owned enterprises to help lift their people out of poverty.

But the court challenge has delayed an already painfully slow and bureaucratic process. Despite pleas for infill development, Kapyong has been fallow for five years, ever since the Princess Patricia's Canadian Light Infantry regiment relocated to CFB Shilo near Brandon. Many of the homes on the base stand empty despite rock-bottom vacancy rates in the city. The land has actually declined in value since the soldiers left and the city and province have seen millions in tax revenue from new construction evaporate. And Canada Lands, which has been behind progressive and eco-minded developments across the country, has closed its Winnipeg office and sent its point man back to Toronto while the case drags on.

Glinter called the case little more than "a legal sideshow to a major political event."

But Norman Boudreau, the lawyer for the First Nations, said native people have been waiting generations for Ottawa to keep its promises. He said the case wasn't only about money.

"It's also about rights that have gone unfulfilled for 200 years, and the duty to consult," he said

Much of Thursday's hearing was spent arguing over the chronology of events -- when the land was declared surplus and when a new policy was put in place allowing Ottawa to earmark certain high-profile parcels as "strategic" and therefore beyond the reach of First Nations.

The First Nations argued that Ottawa ignored repeated letters from bands like Long Plain expressing an interest in Kapyong and instead designated the barracks "strategic" without consulting the First Nations.

But Glinter said he was offended by the suggestion that Ottawa slyly created a new policy that yanked the best pieces of property out of the land claim process. He call that a conspiracy theory and said bands like Peguis and Brokenhead knew that some surplus land could be declared "strategic" all along.

Glinter also argued that, under the Treaty Land Entitlement process, bands were paid millions in cash when there wasn't enough vacant Crown land available to make good on outstanding treaty promises. Once the bands took the cash, they gave up their right to claim surplus federal land. The government isn't obliged to consult bands about land they can't claim, he said.

The hearing wrapped up Thursday, but it could be months before Campbell issues his ruling.