A reserve that works
by Margret Kopala

Published in the Ottawa Citizen, November 19, 2005

Should next week's first ministers' meeting with aboriginal leaders take place as planned, Prime Minister Paul Martin's vaunted "transformational change" will be high on the agenda, but the growing phenomenon of urban reserves suggests such change is already underway in Saskatchewan.

Soon, Winnipeg Mayor Sam Katz and several Manitoba chiefs will visit Saskatoon to find out how it is done. And, spurred by Kashechewan and a pressing land claim in the Toronto area, a letter from Ontario Premier Dalton McGuinty requesting more information about urban reserves recently landed in the mailbox of the Federation of Saskatchewan Indian Nations (FSIN).

"Urban reserves are vehicles of economic opportunity," says the federation's third vice-chief, Delbert Wapass, whose portfolio assignments include urban affairs. Today, he says, 45,000 of Saskatchewan's 90,000 aboriginal people live off reserve. "Urban reserves are situating to become part of both aboriginal and mainstream worlds, serving consumers and employing people in both."

The agreement that Saskatchewan's provincial government and First Nations signed with the federal government in 1992 allocated approximately $446 million for unsettled claims that could then be used to make land purchases, including land owned by municipalities. Saskatchewan is now home to 28 urban reserves but it is in Saskatoon's east end that the most successful of these is located.

Originally intended for development as a federal correctional facility, the 33-acre Muskeg Lake urban reserve, also known as the McKnight Commercial Centre, resembles a typical industrial park. Humming along better than most, it houses more than 40 businesses, some aboriginal-owned, some not, with a comprehensive wellness centre, including an MRI facility, in the planning stage. It employs 300 people.

This positive economic picture derives partly from a requirement that Indian bands and municipalities achieve agreement in such areas as land servicing, bylaw application and enforcement, and dispute resolution. Muskeg Lake Cree First Nation and Saskatoon, for instance, agreed that the city would provide all municipal services (garbage pickup, police protection, etc.) and direct services (water and electricity). In return, Muskeg Lake collects taxes and pays an annual, lump-sum municipal services fee -- usually the same amount the city would receive in municipal taxes. To administer the reserve, Muskeg Lake Cree First Nation incorporated a business arm. Apart from treaty Indians who do not pay taxes on earned income or native-owned businesses which do not pay sales or gasoline taxes on reserves, in Saskatoon the level playing field prevails. This keeps local businesses generally supportive.

More important, it exposes aboriginal enterprises to competition and modern values beyond drugs, alcohol, diabetes and teenage suicide -- the genocidal coffin destroying so many of today's rural reserves and plague of aboriginals who, in the 50 years since they have been allowed to leave their reserves, have moved to the cities. Instead, Muskeg Lake generates some $4 million in revenues for reinvestment in the industrial park, in housing and in a seniors' residence.

So far there are no residential urban reserves. To be sure, it's difficult to see how they would work or even that they would be desirable. In any case, urban reserves in any configuration are no panacea. They do not address the inherent collectivism and institutional paternalism of the reserve system, nor is it clear they are putting real cash profit into the pockets of significant numbers of individual band members, something the federal government, for all its largesse, fails to do as well.

But urban reserves offer First Nations the potential of some financial independence by being economically viable and reaping benefits from mainstream work.

This is no mean feat given routine unemployment rates of 90 per cent on rural reserves and 50 per cent in the cities where aboriginal youths cannot find even entry-level jobs. Paying service fees also gives urban reserves a voice and common cause with taxpayers on issues affecting everybody. A century after the fact, that alone is transformational change.

MARGRET KOPALA’s column on western perspectives appears every other week.

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