Edmonton takes first step in establishing urban reserve

The City of Edmonton will work on a strategy to establish a First Nations reserve within city boundaries, council agreed unanimously at a meeting Monday. 

Alberta is the only western province without an urban reserve, councillor says

Chief Billy Morin of Enoch Cree Nation is advocating for Indigenous-designated areas, starting with a gravesite in the west community of Glastonbury. (Dave Bajer/CBC)

The City of Edmonton will work on a strategy to establish a First Nations reserve within city boundaries, council agreed unanimously at a meeting Monday. 

The city will work with neighbouring First Nations over the coming weeks on a blueprint for an urban reserve within areas of Edmonton. 

Chief Billy Morin of Enoch Cree Nation says a designated urban space could pave the way for economic, social and reconciliation benefits for Indigenous residents. 

"It just means more connection, more services that the federal government can offer and more community and family," he said.

These could be on hand in the heart of the city,  Morin said, instead of having to travel 200 to 300 kilometres to access those services on their First Nation.

The agreement would see pockets of Edmonton designated to Treaty 6 First Nations, starting with a small gravesite in the west side community of Glastonbury. 

"That would be a great act of reconciliation for us to have just the final say and to be able to watch over and to own the land, at least on paper, that particular gravesite where our first chiefs are buried," Morin said. 

Urban reserves vary from small gas stations within a municipal district to bigger commercial developments, Morin noted, and with about 80,000 Indigenous people in Edmonton, the economic potential is broad. 

"What I envision one day maybe is some office towers, maybe downtown and we have a vertical urban reserve where First Nations have a one-stop-shop for residential services," Morin said.

Act of reconciliation

Sarah Hamilton, councillor for Ward 5 in the city's southwest, suggested the move in a motion Monday after she met with Morin last year. 

Alberta is the only province in western Canada that doesn't have an urban reserve program, Hamilton pointed out. Urban reserves are found in other major cities including Saskatoon, Regina, Vancouver and Winnipeg. 

"This, I think, is an act of reconciliation to give people who are perhaps living on nations around the city, who are living in our city but belong to a nation outside of our city, it gives them a home within our city." 

Establishing an Indigenous-directed space would offer economic spinoffs, she suggested. 

"I think we're also talking about a tremendous economic opportunity, not just for members of First Nations, not just for the First Nations themselves, but for all Edmontonians," Hamilton said. "Urban reserves mean development. It means commerce. It has a lot of potential for our city."

Several councillors spoke in favour of the move, including Tony Caterina who remembers talking about it in 2008 when Saskatoon established its first urban reserve.

"It makes a lot of sense, especially for this city with the number of Indigenous people that we have here who either live in Edmonton or move back and forth into the city for goods and services," Caterina said. 

Morin floated the idea of an urban reserve in 2016, he said, when Enoch Cree Nation signed a memorandum of understanding with the city on protecting the gravesite in Glastonbury.

Morin said creating an urban reserve even for the gravesite won't happen overnight.  Land would be negotiated at market rate and the nations would have to figure out services like fire, water, garbage and policing. 

"I want to reassure Edmontonians that this isn't something Indigenous people get for free," Morin said. 

City administration is expected to present an urban reserve report to council in three months after working with the confederacy of Treaty 6 First Nations.