While some Canadian cities’ urban reserves are major economic and residential developments, Winnipeg has only recently started taking steps in this direction.
Saskatoon boasts a celebrated urban reserve complex, with office buildings, residential space and service centres; Halifax has dedicated many city blocks to entrepreneurial aboriginal leaders.
But Winnipeg, despite nearly 1/12 of its urban population being aboriginal, only has the Red Sun Gas and Smoke Bar on Highway Six and the Perimeter.
The Roseau River Anishinabe First Nation bought the land that now houses Red Sun in June 2006, hoping to develop it commercially instead of following the residential model of most urban reserves.
The land sits on the main path out of Winnipeg for 36 of the 64 rural First Nations communities in Manitoba.
Roger Carriere is the CEO of Highway Six Limited Partnership, the development company Roseau River formed for the site.
He has high hopes for Red Sun.
“We’ve moved VLTs (video lottery terminals) off the [residential] reserves to make a gaming centre. Our phase two will see a medical centre and a hotel complex.”
“We’re always looking for new investors, from other First Nations and anyone else who wants to share in our success.”
Davy Doer, manager of the gas station and convenience store, said his customers are predominantly First Nations. Status-carrying First Nations people receive gas discounts and tobacco rebates by buying on reserve land.
Not everyone is happy about these incentives. Colin Craig, Manitoba director for the Canadian Taxpayers Federation (CTF), claims such business incentives confer an unfair advantage to reserve businesses, at a cost to other citizens.
“It’s an uneven playing field; it gives the reserve businesses tax advantages, which lets them sell their goods at a lower price.”
Although Craig concedes that reserve incentives are needed for now, he and the CTF lobby the national government to remove all race-based tax laws within 20 years.
But Carriere claims commercial developments on reserve lands are critical for allowing First Nations people to make their start in business.
He said the fees paid to the municipal government for services like water and garbage pickup make up for the lost land and property taxes, with the added bonus of increasing employment and prosperity for the aboriginal community.
“These developments are not just good for the Roseau River,” he said. “They allow citizens who could not otherwise do so to involve themselves in the economy. Participation in the economy is what everyone wants.”
Winnipeg has a long history of discussing urban reserves. In 2005, Number Ten Architectural Group designed a proposal for a big urban reserve complex on Madison Street behind the big-box stores on St. James Street.
The proposal included a library, museum, restaurant and day care along with a government services complex. This plan is still in the works.
Carriere himself worked with a team planning to develop a commercial reserve on 10 acres of land in St. Boniface during Mayor Glen Murray’s term.
When the administration switched over in June 2004, the deal fell off the table, prompting Carriere to explore partnerships with rural municipalities just outside the city.
“Basically we said, ‘If you don’t want our business, we’re not giving you our business.’”
The city hasn’t entirely stopped discussion on the issue. Lillian Thomas, city councillor for the ward of Elmwood-East Kildonan, wrote a policy plan advocating for urban reserves after touring commercial reserves in Saskatchewan.
However, Thomas was discharged from her role as secretary for urban aboriginal opportunities and the report never left the Executive Planning Committee.
Thomas released the report individually in 2005.
“I wanted to make sure that this report was made public without any changes,” Thomas wrote on her website. “There were some issues in the report that I felt were not being adequately addressed.”
Councillor Mike Pagtakhan (Point Douglas), who took over the portfolio, was not available for comment by press time.
Carriere feels the Red Sun site will pave the way for other developments.
“It will be bigger than Muskeg Lake (in Saskatoon), the biggest [urban reserve] in Canada. We’re moving forward and we’ll prove to everyone the value of these developments.”
Published in Volume 63, Number 26 of The Uniter (April 2, 2009)