Urban reserves are helping First Nations across the country rejuvenate themselves and are pumping millions into local economies. Yet at a recent forum about the future of a vacant military base as an urban reserve, Winnipeggers were afraid of having one in their back yard.  

What are the realities of urban reserves? And what benefit can they have?

What is an urban reserve?

An 'urban reserve' is land in or next to a town or city that is recognized as reserve lands by the Crown.

First Nations get a break on paying taxes for certain items and often don`t have to pay income tax for money earned on reserves.

There are two types: Reserves that have basically always existed next to or had urban centres grow around them. The Opaskweyak Cree Nation and the town of The Pas in northern Manitoba is an example of this.

Then there's the more modern urban reserve. These are lands that have been purchased by a First Nation and then designated as a reserve by the Crown.

Just because a First Nation buys land or property, it doesn`t automatically become a reserve.

How are urban reserves created?

Usually it's through a process called Treaty Land Entitlement. When historic treaties were signed, some First Nations never got all of the land they were promised. Or sometimes, for different reasons, reserve lands were lost or taken.

When some First Nations negotiated compensation, it included the option to obtain or buy land in or near urban centres.

Depending on where a First Nation is located, it can take many years to have land converted to a reserve. In Saskatchewan, the process can take as little as two years. In Manitoba, it can take as long as 12 years.

What do urban reserves look like?

Most urban reserves are indistinguishable from the area around them.

The Madison Reserve is Winnipeg`s first urban reserve, belonging to the Long Plain First Nation.  It`s located in a complex of offices and industrial buildings and other than a sign on the Petro-Canada gas station, it`s impossible to tell where the reserve begins and the city ends.

How does a city, town or municipality benefit from urban reserves?

In Saskatoon and British Columbia, urban reserves have pumped millions into their local economies. Business set up on urban reserves are often a mixture of First Nation and non-First Nation owned and operated.

The Muskeg Lake Cree Nation has had an urban reserve in Saskatoon since 1988. The area is now considered an economic driver for the entire city, with businesses there employing people of all backgrounds.

The mayor of Saskatoon has spoken publicly several times about the economic benefits of urban reserves in that city.

If First Nations aren't taxed, who pays for municipal services like fire protection and water?

Since reserves are tax-free zones for First Nations people, most urban reserves negotiate `municipal service agreements` with the local government. 

These often take into account how much tax could have been collected from the property and First Nations pay a comparable fee instead. 

Two years before the Sapotaweyak Cree Nation established an urban reserve in the western Manitoba town of Swan River, they negotiated a municipal service agreement with the town council. 

The fees in that agreement pay for services that would have been covered by taxes.

Do the laws of Canada apply on an urban reserve?

When First Nations negotiate for the creation of an urban reserve, by-laws are often developed to be compatible with the municipality around them.

There has been tension in the past, however, because First Nation-owned businesses on urban reserves allowed smoking or didn't hide tobacco products on sale.

At a recent public meeting in Winnipeg, Manitoba's Treaty Commissioner Jamie Wilson said most First Nations want urban reserves to be seamlessly integrated into the surrounding cities and towns - both in appearance and in terms of administration and law.