Leader of Southern Chiefs Organization calls urban reserves 'our path out of poverty'
By: Alexandra Paul
Winnipeg Free Press
Newly elected Southern Chiefs Organization leader Terry Nelson has big plans for urban reserves in and around Winnipeg.
He believes they can generate millions of dollars in revenue and provide much-needed funding to impoverished First Nations.
Nelson plans to start with four urban reserves and their combined 242-plus hectares. His game plan is to orbit the city with developments that are prosperous.
He is convinced the four urban reserves could, if they were packaged to investors as a unit, generate $400 million in retail sales and $40 million a year to pump back into their impoverished home reserves.
The Southern Chiefs Organization represents 33 Manitoba First Nations. Nelson was elected grand chief last month.
Nelson is currently organizing the first conference on his grand design in Winnipeg at the end of this month. One of the delegates will be from Westbank, a prosperous First Nation in B.C.'s Okanagan Valley, who will lay out a model for success. Invitations are going out to the city's business leaders and the conference is open to First Nations people. It is closed to news media.
"There are a lot of different models. The thing is not to reinvent the wheel. Here's a model that works and Westbank will come in and talk about it. It's a clear message: 'Here's how we do it, if you want to duplicate what we've done,' " Nelson said.
For chiefs such as Brokenhead's Jim Bear, pushing an urban reserve through the Indian Act is a form of torture.
Brokenhead, the site of one of two aboriginal-run casinos in Manitoba, took five years to convert one small slice of its land on Winnipeg's outskirts to an urban reserve.
"In terms of business, that's no problem. In my community, we know how to structure a business deal," Bear said.
The Indian Act is another thing entirely. The Ojibway First Nation, 80 kilometres north of Winnipeg, is making its way through a federal process to get out from under the Indian Act. It wants to manage its own lands, similar to the powerful and wealthy Westbank First Nation.
Brokenhead is also canvassing Saskatchewan's urban reserves for development advice.
"It's always good to listen to the front-runners," Bear said.
Under Nelson's plan, four First Nations -- Swan Lake, Roseau River, Brokenhead and Long Plain -- would package their parcels and let the SCO market them for capital development.
Each of the four would retain ownership of their own urban reserve.
The conference, Feb. 26 at the Marlborough Hotel, is hosted by the only First Nation with an urban reserve inside city limits. Long Plain, located on the western outskirts of Portage la Prairie, has a square block in Winnipeg and another urban reserve on the outskirts of Portage.
In his campaign literature and in the weeks since his election, Nelson has repeatedly told chiefs they're sitting on untapped wealth.
The biggest hurdle is the Indian Act, with its tortuous process of creating urban reserves.
"The Indian Act is our Berlin Wall and we must tear down that wall," Nelson said, paraphrasing the late U.S. president Ronald Reagan's famous quote in emails to chiefs this month.
"Most of our 33 First Nations in SCO have an unemployment rate between 60 and 95 per cent. My expectation is that Westbank First Nation will be clear that the path to investment rests on the structure of urban reserves that protect investors, allows profit and creates alliances between First Nations and the business leadership. Urban reserves are our path out of poverty."
In an interview, the new SCO grand chief said he's learned his lessons about what not to do. As chief of Roseau River First Nation, he used the threat of a rail blockade to force an $80-million land settlement and took possession of property on Highway 6. The land deal was swift, settled in one summer in 2008, but today the 30 hectares sit almost empty, with only two businesses in place.
This time will be different, Nelson vowed.
"We're not here to dictate to the First Nations. We're saying, 'Here's what other people who have been successful have done. It's your choice,' " he said.
Those lessons are married to another conviction: Economics and politics don't mix. As a former director of the Tribal Council Investment Group, Nelson said he's seen the mess politics can make of business.
"It ran into politics," he said, dismissing the tribal model, now struggling to stay afloat, as a failure. "It ran into politics. I won't do business by committee. Urban reserves have to be... profitable. Profit is not a dirty word."
When all four urban reserves are up and running, their combined size would be a fraction of what could be down the road. Peguis, for example, is owed 67,499 hectares, the biggest chunk of treaty land entitlement in southern Manitoba.
And there's more land coming. The combined treaty land entitlement for five of the seven First Nations that signed the treaty in 1871 is 90,036 hectares, still only a fraction of what they're owed.
That's huge, powerful enough to reshape the province's business landscape, and it's coming, Nelson said.
"The process of treaty land entitlement conversion is deliberately long, costly and faces immense bureaucratic hurdles," Nelson noted in his campaign promises that got him elected. "Regardless, the TLE is a legal obligation that will be fulfilled and urban reserves in the City of Winnipeg can't be blocked forever."
Swan Lake, Roseau River, Brokenhead and Long Plain own the following parcels of land in and around Winnipeg:
■ Long Plain: one hectare in a square block on Madison Street, two blocks west of Polo Park. Now home to Yellowquill College, Manitoba's First Nations-owned post-secondary institution.
■ Swan Lake: 18 hectares in Headingley on Highway 1 at the west Perimeter Highway. Known for Arboc's gas bar and smoke shop.
■ Roseau River: 30 hectares on Highway 6, on the northern Perimeter. Known for Red Sun, a gas bar and smoke shop, plus a VLT lounge.
■ Brokenhead: several parcels of land totalling 188 hectares. They're located near Highway 59 north of the Perimeter Highway and close to the Meadows golf course. In five years, they managed to get three hectares through the tangled federal conversion process