Middle of nowhere

Kapyong can shatter assumptions

Whether it was early indoctrination or just my own failures as a student, at least two Great Canadian Myths found their way into my consciousness by the time I had finished elementary school.

The first was that Canada was a peaceful country. It was a point of pride that we had apparently never gone to war. We were the “peacekeepers” who stepped in (confusingly, with guns and planes) to settle disputes between supposedly less civilized parties.

The second myth was that indigenous peoples were merely quaint relics from the past – important but abstract groups from the explorer days who allowed white people to build the country we know today.

Both of these assumptions now seem absurd. For better or for worse, Canadian forces have been killing people fairly consistently since Confederation. And as of 2011, there was a quickly growing population of 1,400,685 Aboriginal People in Canada, despite a centuries-long campaign of systematic cultural genocide.

Nearly 160 acres surrounding the corner of Grant Avenue and Kenaston Boulevard serve as an ongoing visual reminder of both of these myths.

The former Canadian Forces base known as Kapyong Barracks was decommissioned in 2004 when operations moved to the newer and more remote CFB Shilo. The land was sold to a Crown corporation for development, but several Treaty 1 First Nations balked – First Nations technically had first dibs on any “surplus” federal property since over a million acres promised to them in 1871 were never delivered.

Driving by and seeing Kapyong as a kid always instilled a sense of cognitive dissonance in me. If Canada was such a peaceful country, why did we need so many camo trucks? Why the hell did we need a tank?

Once its vast parking lots were emptied and some of its windows boarded up, the base came to better reflect my assumptions about the Canadian military – it was a relic of my grandparents’ generation, no longer active or necessary. I’m not sure if one of these impressions – dissonance or denial – is better than the other, but what’s clear is that a space as large and visible as Kapyong can have a profound impact on the perceptions of those in its community.

A decade after Canadian forces cleared out, and after facing a decade of federal resistance, Long Plain First Nation chief Dennis Meeches said last Wednesday that a land transfer deal is finally looking immanent. The result will likely be Manitoba’s seventh – and largest – urban reserve.

This is a huge economic opportunity for Manitoba’s First Nations and reason for all Winnipeggers to celebrate. Concerns about the economics of capitalism aside, if we’re going to structure society in such a way that demands commercial success for a community’s well-being, it’s only fair that investment opportunities are available to those who have been historically relegated to unprofitable land.

And perhaps just as importantly, this reserve, nestled between two affluent, near-suburban neighbourhoods, can demonstrate to those who would doubt it that indigenous cultures and communities are fundamental and important parts of Winnipeg’s identity.

How we use our land says a lot about who we are as a city. It also has the potential to reinforce or interrupt the myths we tell ourselves. This vacant, former military compound’s future as an urban reserve is a myth-busting opportunity we should all welcome.

Tim Runtz is the Comments editor at The Uniter, an associate editor at Geez magazine, and an occasional bicycle mechanic.

Published in Volume 70, Number 10 of The Uniter (November 12, 2015)

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