Urban Reserves Gaining Acceptance

Aboriginal Futures, Commentary, Frontier Centre, Media Appearances

A gas station on 22nd Street has joined the growing number of "urban reserve" businesses throughout the province, a phenomenon which seems to be gaining widespread acceptance.

Much of the initial uproar of a decade ago has subsided. Neighbouring businesses, other levels of government and the general public realize Cree Way Gas West on 22nd Street and other urban reserve companies make the same payments to municipalities and school divisions that other businesses do.

"Yes, I heard about it. I don't really have any opinion on it," said Tracy Hovde, assistant manager of another 22nd Street gas station, Esso on the Run.

There is also acknowledgment that these urban reserve lands aim to compensate bands for land denied them after the treaty signing, and have been a vital source of economic growth and integration for First Nations people.

"It's a way for First Nations to become economically self-sufficient. Many reserves are remote, and this gives them access to markets," said Joseph Quesnel, a Lethbridge-based analyst for the Frontier Centre for Public Policy.

"This is a significant opportunity for First Nations. It's good for a lot of reasons."

Quesnel, who has followed the issue of urban reserves for years, said there was significant opposition at the beginning. Businesses and others maintained there was an "unlevel playing field."

Reserve status allows First Nations businesses to obtain a refund of five per cent on its provincial gas and tobacco taxes.

In the case of Cree Way, owned by the Muskeg Lake Cree Nation, officials estimate that will amount to approximately $100,000 per year.

First Nations would normally be exempt from paying school and municipal tax as well, but require the city servicing. First Nations and cities sign "service agreements" equal to the taxes that would have been paid on the property. First Nations also agree to abide by any zoning regulations or other rules.

As for the school taxes, some urban reserves pay an annual fee equal to the amount of tax. Others can pay a one-time, upfront fee equal to 70 per cent of the estimated taxes that would have been paid over the next 25 years.

If the parties cannot agree, the federal legislation calls for binding arbitration. That's never happened for the urban reserves established in and around Saskatoon by Muskeg Lake, English River, One Arrow and others.

"It's a government-to-government relationship. It's been positive all around," said City of Saskatoon community services general manager Randy Grauer.

"It's a revenue-neutral proposition," said Greater Saskatoon Catholic Schools superintendent Don Lloyd. He said he supports urban reserves as a way to compensate First Nations for past wrongs, and called the arrangement "fair and reasonable. It's a revenue-neutral proposition."

Muskeg Lake has long been one of the most entrepreneurial Saskatchewan First Nations. They converted dozens of acres of previously unused land in Sutherland to reserve status more than 10 years ago. Several businesses, including dry cleaners, law offices, trucking companies and the original Cree Way Gas location now thrive, and there are plans to develop the final parcel soon, said Paul Ledoux, general manager of Muskeg Lake's independent investment agency.

"It's a long process and you spend a lot of time and resources, but everyone has been very supportive," said Ledoux.

"These revenues will help enhance our education, housing, sports and other youth programs. This will bring huge benefits to our community."

Ledoux credited the vision of previous Muskeg Lake leaders such as Wallace Tawpisin and Harry Lafond.

"We can't always rely on government. We need our own resources, our own opportunities."

Cree Way West obtained reserve status in late-December. Ledoux and others will be at Cree Way West today at 2 p.m. for the ribbon cutting and grand opening. A feast and round dance is then scheduled for 4 p.m. at the White Buffalo Youth Lodge on 20th Street.