Urban Reserves: Common Misperceptions and Quiet Success

When people first hear the label of urban reserve they likely think of it in a negative light and visualize some kind of poverty stricken ghetto. In reality there could be nothing further from the truth. Urban reserves are an opportunity for aboriginal groups to do what the rest of Canadian society takes for granted; that is have a chance at being economically successful. Not surprisingly aboriginal groups have recognized the negative stigma associated with the term urban reserve and have now decided to call such land economic development areas (EDAs). Hopefully this blog post will remove some of the misperceptions in this often controversial issue (at least in Manitoba) and build support for the framework that is so successful.

Before building support for the idea of EDAs, there needs to be some fact finding about what this label actually means. First and foremost an EDA is often a commercial area within a city that operates businesses and uses the profits to support the rural reserve with amenities that the rest of Canadians take for granted. Services such as running water, roads, electricity, and healthcare are some services that are supported through these businesses. Often people do not understand that such basic services are unavailable on some rural reserves. EDAs can also include housing arrangements as people from the home community are encouraged to work at the businesses operating on the reserve land.

Do aboriginal businesses pay taxes? Aboriginal groups and individuals are required to pay the same taxes as other Canadians. The only exception is when the transaction or employment is on reserve land which, under section 87 of the Indian Act, stipulates that aboriginal personal property on reserve land is tax exempt.[1] In an EDA this means that property, sales, and income taxes will not be collected. However, being on reserve land means that aboriginals are not included in the services that the city would normally provide for taxpayers such as sewer and water, fire protection, among many other services. To overcome this obstacle, aboriginal groups have negotiated service payments with the municipalities where the EDA is situated to provide the same government services for a cost. Generally, the payments that are negotiated are comparable to what would be paid in property and other taxes had the business and land not been on reserve.

So how does land become reserve land? In 1997 the Canadian government, Manitoba government, and The Treaty Land Entitlement Committee signed the Treaty Land Entitlement Act to compensate aboriginal groups which never received the land that was included in treaties. In order to gain land, the Treaty Land Entitlements Act gives aboriginal groups the right to purchase designed surplus lands from the crown and a fund for purchasing privately held land at market value. The claim for land then moves through the additions to reserve process to be designated as reserve land.

Has this been a successful process? Yes. Saskatchewan has been touted as a leader in the area of EDAs and has the oldest EDA established in 1988 which has been a boon to the Saskatoon economy employing around 400 people and bringing millions of dollars to the local economy. Manitoba can learn a lot from the success of the Saskatchewan leadership on this issue and hopefully see through the myth and misperceptions to fully embrace the idea of economically successful aboriginal peoples.

On my next post I will look into specific cases in Manitoba and New Zealand to compare and contrast the process and progress that each has chosen to take.

David Scammell

[1] http://www.aadnc-aandc.gc.ca/eng/1100100013800/1100100013801