January 24, 2020

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The barracks blemish

First Nations, Ottawa in never-ending battle over prime land at Kapyong

This article was published 27/3/2018 (668 days ago), so information in it may no longer be current.

OTTAWA — Before the bulldozers came, ahead of court battles and leg-high weeds, Winnipeggers bade a solemn, spirited goodbye to the tenants of Kapyong Barracks.

In June 2004, hundreds lined the city streets to salute the departing battalion of Princess Patricia’s Canadian Light Infantry, before they decamped to Shilo.

The weekend included a sunset ceremony at The Forks, a blessing from local elders, and a parting military band performance at Kapyong, which 1,000 local people braved heavy rains to witness.

The battalion held a historic march down Portage Avenue, lead by Lt.-Col. Mike Day. "The footprint our soldiers have in this community is not left in sand. It is carved in granite," he told a city councillor.

The property at Kapyong Barracks, situated on the edge of Tuxedo at the corner of Grant Avenue and Kenaston Boulevard, is worth millions. TREVOR HAGAN / WINNIPEG FREE PRESS

The property at Kapyong Barracks, situated on the edge of Tuxedo at the corner of Grant Avenue and Kenaston Boulevard, is worth millions. TREVOR HAGAN / WINNIPEG FREE PRESS

Since then, Kapyong’s 160 acres have sat like an open scar on the city’s face for almost 14 years. Ottawa and local Indigenous leaders insist there’s a solution around the corner, but they’ve said so for years.

In multiple interviews, officials described challenges in developing the property, which will likely have sat empty for at least two decades before it starts to bear fruit. Even when it does, no one is sure what will be built there.

In 2008, Treaty One First Nations sued Ottawa when it tried transferring the land directly to Crown corporations, sparking a drawn-out court battle that the Harper government abandoned in fall 2015.

Since then, Treaty One officials have met with federal officials roughly once a month. Neither would say what happens in those negotiations.

"While the divestment of surplus Crown lands can be a lengthy and complex process, the importance of consulting with First Nations and communities is an essential part of the divestment process," military spokeswoman Jessica Lamirande wrote in a recent email.

A military official closely involved in the divestment said that aside from the court proceedings, the process around Kapyong fits the general time frame for transferring property away from the Department of National Defence.

"A fairly normal and uncomplicated divestment would take the department between two and three years to complete," said the official, who spoke on the condition of anonymity due to ongoing negotiations. The official stressed, though, that this time frame doesn’t indicate that the negotiations would wrap up by fall 2018.

He also claimed the court proceedings scuttled progress in the normal divestment process, which can be divided into two major parts.

"I’d have to say Canada is the hold-up. But […] I really believe we’re not that far off" - Long Plain First Nations Chief Dennis Meeches

The first part starts with military officials looking for any defence uses for the property, then doing appraisals and assessments for land title, heritage and environmental concerns.

The barracks have been barren since 2004. BORIS MINKEVICH/WINNIPEG FREE PRESS FILES

The barracks have been barren since 2004. BORIS MINKEVICH/WINNIPEG FREE PRESS FILES

The military had to remove some contaminated soil, but Lamirande said a thorough probe found no safety hazards or unexploded ordinances on the site.

The second part would have the military ask other federal departments and First Nations if they’re interested in purchasing the site, and then provincial and municipal governments, in that order. In the rare case none expresses interest, the land is put up for public offering.

It’s between these two parts that Treaty One filed its court case, which largely brought the project back to the first step.

The military left the buildings largely untouched during the legal dispute, and by its end almost all environmental assessments had to be redone.

Some properties had fallen into a state of disrepair, including 18 housing units with hazardous materials, which met the wrecking ball in January.

But the public tender for a demolition contract wasn’t posted until last July — almost two years since the court battle ended — because it required new environmental assessments, and consultations with nearby River Heights and Tuxedo residents about mitigating the associated noise and debris.

The demolitions should be done by late 2019, Lamirande said.

The unnamed official hopes future transfers involve faster demolitions "so it’s not dragging on so long for the community."

He was sympathetic to Winnipeggers who are baffled by a process that is so lengthy. "I’m sure it’s frustrating for them, but there is a lot of stuff that goes on behind the scenes, that isn’t obvious on the property."

Dozens of military officials are involved in the project, from uniformed Winnipeg personnel to Ottawa lawyers and Indigenous-affairs specialists.

More than 500 cadets bade farewell to Kapyong Barracks May 16, 2004. JEFF DE BOOY / WINNIPEG FREE PRESS FILES

More than 500 cadets bade farewell to Kapyong Barracks May 16, 2004. JEFF DE BOOY / WINNIPEG FREE PRESS FILES

Such officials have already helped develop former military bases in Ottawa, Calgary and British Columbia into innovative housing developments, in lockstep with local First Nations groups — even before Treaty One started its court challenge.

It’s puzzling why, according to the federal court, Ottawa hadn’t done adequate consultation in the case of Kapyong.

"We’ve probably learned something from every divestment that we do," the military official said.

It’s even more unclear what happens at the negotiating table.

Long Plain First Nation Chief Dennis Meeches, who speaks on behalf of the seven bands taking hold of Kapyong, says they’ve already gone over how to divide the land. But it’s unclear whether he meant between Treaty One and various levels of government (such as to expand the road allowance on Kenaston Boulevard), or among the First Nations themselves.

On Jan. 24, negotiators discussed the land’s "purchase price," Meeches said. "I’d have to say Canada is the hold-up. But […] I really believe we’re not that far off."

On Monday, Meeches hinted there was progress when negotiators met last week, and that "there will be a joint statement coming out soon" once the military finalizes it.

Meanwhile, the military official hinted the negotiations involve "discussions that go to other levels of government." Mayor Brian Bowman said the city isn’t part of the talks, but wants to help the land’s development when negotiations wrap up.

"We’ve been trying to get ahead of it as possible, to see how we can develop those lands to create economic growth in that area," he said.

Energy Minister Jim Carr says he’s receiving regular briefings on the talks from Canada Lands Company, the federal corporation that handles land sales, and has repeatedly said those negotiations are "going well."

CLC declined multiple interviews, as they do not own the property.

Three veterans formerly based at Kapyong Barracks take one last tour near the officer's mess Aug. 21, 2017. PHIL HOSSACK / WINNIPEG FREE PRESS FILES

Three veterans formerly based at Kapyong Barracks take one last tour near the officer's mess Aug. 21, 2017. PHIL HOSSACK / WINNIPEG FREE PRESS FILES

As for what will happen to the property, no one seems to know. The military says that’s up to Treaty One.

Meeches said Treaty One is focused on "opportunities for Indigenous people to grow there, and grow our economy."

Last May, he told local media that the site would likely hold a gas station, casino, offices, a condominium and possibly some mixed-income housing. But in January, Meeches seemed to backtrack, stressing that those ideas were speculative.

"It’s just premature to narrow it down," he said, while floating the idea of an Anishinaabe war museum.

He said the plan has always been for an "urban reserve." The existing Madison reserve near Polo Park includes a gas station, Yellowquill College and some local businesses.

"We want to be sure that we proceed in a way that enhances the area, the quality of life for that area."

Meeches also said it was "too early to tell" whether some buildings will stay on the site, or if they’ll be razed entirely, which has happened with other bases.

Carr has said that whatever is built "would be subject to the same zoning requirements, the same bylaws" as the rest of the city. His hope is that it will be entirely out of Ottawa’s hands by next fall’s election.

Meeches said Kapyong will have multiple uses, and promised that Winnipeggers’ patience will pay off.

"We’re almost there, and it will bode well for not only Indigenous people but the City of Winnipeg, and the country. So there’s a lot of opportunity there."

Winnipeg architect Brent Bellamy has followed the Kapyong saga for years. He said the sooner a vision is presented, the quicker the fears will dissolve.

"What’s getting lost in this whole discussion is: What actually is it? We’ve spent 10 years talking about who should develop it, and not enough time talking about what it should be. To me that’s the most important thing," he said.

"It’s definitely a huge opportunity in the middle of our city."

dylan.robertson@freepress.mb.ca

With files from Aldo Santin

Officials say an answer on the future of Kapyong Barracks is coming soon. Officials have been saying that for years. TREVOR HAGAN / WINNIPEG FREE PRESS

Officials say an answer on the future of Kapyong Barracks is coming soon. Officials have been saying that for years. TREVOR HAGAN / WINNIPEG FREE PRESS

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