Economic prosperity awaits for First Nation development of urban reserves in Canada

Winnipeg’s Naawi-Oodena urban reserve, on the former Kapyong barracks footprint, to break soil this fall.

First Nation communities across Canada are increasingly achieving economic self-sufficiency and prosperity through the untapped potential afforded by urban reserves.

These reserves, more than 120 across the country, are located within or near urban centres and hold the promise of fostering economic growth, job creation and enhanced social services—an important consideration given that about half of all First Nation band members in Canada live off reserve, within cities.

Ginger Gosnell-Myers, an Indigenous fellow at the Simon Fraser University’s Morris J. Wosk Centre for Dialogue in British Columbia says beyond prosperity itself, this type of development also plays an important role in ongoing reconciliation efforts.

“First nations have typically been shut out of urban prosperity. Most first Nations communities that were close to urban centers were removed. And so their access to power and their access to wealth generation was hampered. The creation of urban reserves is fixing this imbalance,” she says.

Gosnell-Myers, who studies urban indigenous planning, says the development approach for urban reserves varies significantly with some opting for mixed development with business, residential and services, aspects of which may be prioritized for their own members, while others may take a more profit-driven approach.

“[In Vancouver], we have three nations that are purchasing lands and developing them together; they’re prioritizing economic wealth creation,” she says, adding that in many cases indigenous development groups may opt to lease lands to outside developers, rather than develop them to avoid the potential for community resistance based on misconceptions about what urban reserves truly are.

An unequivocal success story
Widely viewed as the best example of urban reserve economic prosperity, the Tsawwassen First Nation secured Crown land south of Vancouver in 2007 after more than a decade of negotiations with the B.C. government. Since forming this urban reserve, the community has been on a seemingly non-stop upward trajectory.

In addition to several major residential development projects, in 2016 the band council approved the development of one of Canada’s largest shopping centres with 1.2 million square feet of retail space.

Then came the construction of a $33-million dollar port authority inspection facility. And then most recently, the opening of a 450,000-square foot Amazon shipping warehouse, creating more than 700 jobs in the Lower Mainland community.

While Tsawwassen First Nation’s success has certainly been boosted by its favourable geographic location near deep sea ports, and soaring land and property values, there’s no reason to believe Canada’s next major urban reserve development can’t thrive just as well.

Winnipeg’s Naawi-Oodena development has its eyes on the prize
Named “Naawi-Oodena”, which means “centre of the heart and community” in the Anishinaabe language, this urban reserve located on the former grounds of the Kapyong barracks in Winnipeg will be the largest of its kind in the country.

After years of protracted court battles with the federal government going back to 2008, a group of seven Manitoba First Nations—Brokenhead, Long Plain, Peguis, Roseau River, Sagkeeng, Sandy Bay and Swan Lake First Nations—eventually took ownership of the lands under the Treaty One Development Corporation (T1N).

In 2019, the government of Canada signed a settlement agreement which allocated two thirds of the land (about 45 hectares) to T1N and the remaining third to the Canada Lands Company, a federal Crown agency. Together they will be responsible for overseeing a multi-year master development plan first made public in 2021.

Kathleen Bluesky, the interim CEO for the T1N says the project will be completed in phases over several years and will eventually include a vibrant mix of retail, residential, recreational, educational and community spaces.

“Right now we’re just working on raising capital and we’re working on phased-in business development so that we are starting with our first business with a target of next March”, says Bluesky.

She says the first business is expected to be a full-service First Nation-owned gas station on Taylor Avenue.

In addition, for the first five years, T1N is aiming to develop 400 residential units with a final target of 1,400 units over the life of the project. Bluesky says their own market research suggests they really have a big opportunity to fill important housing gaps in the city.

Although shovels aren’t expected to break soil until later this fall, slightly later than originally announced, Kathleen Bluesky says she’s confident in the game plan.

“These Treaty One First Nations, this is not new to them. They’re all actively leading economic development for their [communities], so they’re veterans. I think they know how to be strategic so it really makes the job a lot easier when you have decision makers who also have really strong business acumen.”


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