Urban reserve: a healing bridge

Deborah Froese
March 17, 2015
Mennonite Church Canada
Kapyong Barracks
L to R: David Balzer, Leah Gazan, Chief Glenn Hudson  and Jamie Wilson
Leah Gazan
Steve Heinrichs
Winnipeg, Manitoba

It may not look like much, but the abandoned 90 hectare site of Kapyong Barracks is prime real estate. It could also be a healing bridge, says Steve Heinrichs, Mennonite Church Canada’s Director, Indigenous Relations.

The former military base in Winnipeg is the centre of ongoing litigation between the federal government and 7 First Nations communities in Manitoba who want to transform it into an urban reserve.

Heinrichs views the development as a terrific opportunity for First Nations and non-First Nations people to find a way beyond the destructive impact of colonialism. “Land issues are foundational issues for the church to grapple with in their relationships with First Nations and Indigenous communities, because land is so important to them," he said. He likens the process to the biblical Jubilee, a 50 year cycle of reparation that forgave debt and returned land to its original owners.

On March 5, 2015, Mennonite Church Canada and Canadian Mennonite University (CMU) co-hosted a Face2Face discussion about the potential impact of an urban reserve in the well-off Tuxedo neighbourhood of Winnipeg. On Being Good Neighbours: An Urban Reserve at Kapyong? took place in Marpeck Commons, CMU’s new library building located within 2 km of the barracks. About 300 people crammed into the Commons, spilling onto stairs and into an open seating area on the mezzanine above.

Chief Glenn Hudson of Peguis First Nation, Jamie Wilson, Commissioner for the Treaty Relations Commission of Manitoba, and Leah Gazan, Faculty/Special Projects Coordinator at University of Winnipeg and President of the Social Planning Council of Winnipeg, formed the presenter panel.

The panel did not shy away from the challenges they face. “A lot of people haven't been on a reserve and don't know more than the negative stories they see on the news,” said Wilson. “We need to share positive stories.”

He pointed to successful urban reserves developed in other provinces. In east Saskatoon, Sask. Muskeg Lake Cree Nation turned a derelict train yard into a thriving commercial hub for First Nations and non-First Nations business. Huron-Wendat First Nation created a successful tourism centre just outside of Quebec City, and developed a four-star hotel in the city’s downtown.

“We're not talking about lowered property values but green space and business,” Wilson said.

Kapyong was abandoned in 2004 when the military base relocated to CFB Shilo, Man.  Three years later, the federal Treasury Board attempted to sell the site to the Canada Lands Company, a Crown corporation, for dispersal.  But before that sale could be completed, a group of First Nation communities challenged it in court on the basis of treaty agreements with the Federal government.

In 1871, the government promised more land to Treaty One signatories than it delivered. In order to meet that deficit, the federal government is legally required to offer any Crown lands labelled as surplus – such as Kapyong Barracks – to Treaty One communities, explained Heinrich in a conversation following the event.

In 2009 Justice Douglas Campbell ruled in the First Nations’ favour, but the federal government has since appealed the decision.

The First Nations communities involved in the dispute are led by Chief Glenn Hudson of Peguis and include Brokenhead, Roseau River, Sagkeeng, Long Plain, Sandy Bay and Swan Lake.

Gazan noted that Winnipeg is in the midst of a housing crisis. Had the urban reserve been allowed to proceed when the land was vacated in 2004, Kapyong could have been used as rental or affordable housing. Now the buildings are dilapidated. In addition, millions of tax payer dollars have been spent in court. “There is a downside to not developing Kapyong,” she said. 

Sharon Braun Stone, whose backyard faces Kapyong, expressed concerns about what an urban reserve might consist of, how it could affect property values and what impact it could have on lifestyle.  Stone, who has been a resident for 17 years, said that over 500 homeowners back onto the abandoned barracks.  “We want to know what’s going on.”

Another local resident who introduced himself as “Jack” pointed to the rapidly growing indigenous community in Winnipeg. He shared some apprehension about the current state of affairs in some segments of the community and wondered how that would impact the future. But he also said that rights and responsibilities to care for land are shared by First Nations and non-First Nations people alike. To First Nations people, he said, “I want you to have great success.”

With ongoing litigation, it’s too soon to develop a concrete plan. However the panel pointed to the potential for both residential and economic development, and affirmed the necessity for ongoing conversation with Winnipeggers.

Chief Glenn Hudson noted that they are seeking ways “to reach out to Tuxedo and get input from surrounding community, including high schools and young people,” just as his great grandfather Yellow Quill had sought the opinions of his community before signing the original treaties.

He said that developing an urban reserve at Kapyong provides an opportunity to heal some of the relationships that have been damaged by colonialism.

Kapyong would not be the first urban reserve in Winnipeg, but it would be the largest. Currently, Long Plain First Nations owns land close to Polo Park, a major shopping centre. It is home to Yellow Quill College and a convenience store. Peguis recently purchased the former Motor Vehicles Branch building on Portage Avenue. Other business or office buildings throughout the city are owned by First Nations and are technically considered urban reserves. But with 90 hectares, any developments on Kapyong would create a substantially larger economic and business hub.

Gazan said that she viewed the Face2Face session as the beginning of many discussions addressing the potential for Kapyong. She invited the community to respond to Maclean Magazine’s recent labelling of Winnipeg as the most racist city in Canada.  “Maybe Kapyong could make us the most responsive.”

“Legal proceeding may determine who gets the land,” said discussion moderator David Balzer as the discussion drew to a close, “but love may determine what kind of neighbours we will be.”

Photo Credits: 
Deborah Froese