Through the smoke of burning sage and sweetgrass, the future of the Kapyong Barracks site in south Winnipeg became a little clearer Wednesday.
While details are scant about what will replace the decaying buildings on the 160-acre site, it was confirmed most of the land will be redeveloped as an urban reserve.
Natural Resources Minister Jim Carr, Manitoba's only federal cabinet minister, Defence Minister Harjit Sajjan, gathered with 10 First Nations chiefs to announce the signing of an agreement in principle in front of 400 people.
Following an early morning water and pipe ceremony on the Kapyong land, Indigenous honour songs echoed loudly through the main hall at Assiniboia Downs, where the agreement was officially signed at noon.
"Some people get the wrong idea of what we want to do with an urban reserve. We want to show the citizens of Winnipeg that we can be progressive in the right way," Sagkeeng First Nation Chief Derrick Henderson said.
"'We're not going anywhere. We will always be here as Indigenous peoples. We will leave a future for our young people. I want to thank the government of Canada for recognizing Treaty 1 territory."
The agreement will guide the development of a final settlement agreement for the site, which will include terms of the sale and future use of the land.
Once finalized, the deal will see 110 acres transferred to seven Treaty 1 First Nations who will hold the land in common and redevelop it as a joint urban reserve. The remaining 50 acres will be held by Canada Lands Company, the federal crown corporation that oversees public land.
While it remains unclear what will be built at the site, Long Plains First Nation Chief Dennis Meeches said there are many possibilities for a mixed-use redevelopment.
"It's a big parcel of land that we have there. We're looking at condo development. We're looking at government, commercial space, arts, culture, Indigenous war museum, cadet programs, Indigenous cadet programs, green space, convention space (and) hotel space. There's a lot that can be done," Meeches said.
"The development of Kapyong will take some time, but I think the first order of business will be (the potential widening of) Kenaston (Boulevard). I'm hoping to begin immediate discussions with the city on that issue," he said.
Wednesday's announcement was the first public sign of progress on the controversial file, which has been subject to a protracted legal dispute between First Nations groups and the federal government since 2008.
Since troops moved out of the barracks in 2004, the site has sat empty and the buildings have deteriorated. It has long been seen as a blemish on the city, in the heart of one of its most expensive neighbourhoods.
Many details of the agreement in principle remain confidential, said Defence Minister Harjit Sajjan.
He said specifics, such as the sale price, won't be made public until after a final deal is struck. He also said it's too early to say what might be developed on the Canada Lands Company section.
Carr, who is the MP for the area, has said he wants to see the land transferred before the 2019 federal election. On Wednesday, however, he side-stepped questions about whether that is possible.
"The good news is the deal has been signed in principle by 2018. We're very encouraged by that, and we've made very good progress on a relatively short period of time for this government. We look forward to people sitting down now and working out the next steps," Carr said.
A recent Free Press series on the Kapyong Barracks found some area residents worry about the site being turned into an urban reserve, admitting the term had negative connotations for them.
That anxiety is not lost on the First Nations groups set to inherit the land and was touched upon by many of the chiefs who spoke Wednesday.
"To our non-Indigenous brothers and sisters: don't be afraid of urban reserves," Assembly of First Nations National Chief Perry Bellgarde said.
"We have over 100 urban reserves in Saskatchewan and they create opportunities and jobs. This is a good thing. This is the tough work of reconciliation, and it's what we have to do to provide hope to our little ones."
Not all area residents were pleased with the announcement. Paul Knight said any talk of building a casino or a hotel should be considered a non-starter.
"Build some houses, sell off some plots of land, keep some green space. Maybe, maybe, build a small strip mall or two. But any sort of major development like a hotel or a casino should be completely off the table," Knight said.
"We don't want or need a hotel or casino development here. I'm lost as to what the value of that would be. We don't need retail here. If you go from Polo Park to Whyte Ridge, you've got solid retail. How much do you need?"
Another resident, who asked not to be named, also criticized the fact details about the agreement in principle are confidential, adding he doesn't believe the neighbourhood will be properly consulted about the redevelopment.
"If they think this will bring us closer to our First Nations brothers and sisters, then they have another thing coming. This will basically drive a wedge between us," he said.
Meeches, however, believes once people see what's done with the land, concerns will disappear, saying it will be a "win-win" for all involved and a "game changer" for the city.
"I think the word 'reserve' itself has been a challenge for pretty much everybody. But that's what they're called. There's no way around that. It's in the legal text. That's what it is. It's an urban reserve," Meeches said.
"There is, really, nothing we can do about people living in certain locations who may say, 'Well I don't want a reserve in my backyard.' This is Canada, so we have to move forward.
"I think people are going to eventually embrace it. If they're not embracing it today, they will eventually embrace it. They would really have no choice. It's coming."
Ryan Thorpe likes the pace of daily news, the feeling of a broadsheet in his hands and the stress of never-ending deadlines hanging over his head.
Updated on Wednesday, April 11, 2018 at 6:50 PM CDT: Updates
April 12, 2018 at 8:33 AM: Corrects typo