Sioux Lookout is taking a serious look at establishing an urban First Nation reserve to stimulate economic development.
The initiative is on the agenda for Sioux Lookout's upcoming Economic Development Summit, Nov. 17 to 19 which will address growth areas in mineral exploration, value-added forestry and bio-energy.
Some of the invited guests are keynote speaker Chief Clarence Louie of British Columbia's Osoyoos Indian Band and former Winnipeg Mayor Glen Murray.
The town and area First Nations will be launching a feasibility study on urban reserves which will involve public education and local input. The Northern Ontario Heritage Fund, FedNor, Lac Seul First Nation and the municipality are all chipping in to pay for the $200,000 study due out next March.
If it goes ahead, Sioux Lookout could have the first urban reserve in Ontario.
“We know there are models out there that have worked for 25 years,” said Florence Bailey, the town's economic development officer.
The idea of an urban reserve has been a local topic of conversation for a couple of years as a way to pick up the local economy.
The northwestern Ontario town of 5,300 is a service hub for many remote First Nation communities in the province's Far North.
The town has an idled sawmill, McKenzie Forest Products, and harvesters with the woodland divisions with Buchanan Forest Products are out of work as well.
On the mineral exploration scene, Sioux Lookout has very little activity nearby. The town is on the winter road network and all the exploration equipment rumbling through the town is on its way north.
With the town's population consisting of one-third Ojibway and comprises about 50 per cent of the local school enrolment, Bailey said it underscores the need to provide local jobs and skilled training opportunities for young people.
An urban reserve is a federal designation of reserve land within, or adjacent to an urban centre.
It's considered an economic development tool to provide First Nation business owners with a chance to establish themselves with an urban area and employment and training opportunities for Aboriginal people.
They are common in Western Canada in small places like Portage La Prairie, Manitoba or cities like Vancouver.
Bailey said people conjure up urban reserves as only business park developments, but they can be scattered all over town.
Sioux Lookout has a number of First Nation-owned businesses that could apply to have their privately-owned land designated as federal reserve.
The town's First Nation population is financially well off. The average wage of a First Nations person in Sioux Lookout is $40,000, about $3,000 higher than the national average. Many work in health care, education, social services and the retail sector servicing about 24,000 people in 29 outlying Treaty 9 and 3 communities.
”Sioux Lookout has been described as one rare community in Ontario that has a First Nation middle class...and we're quite proud of that,” said Bailey.
Urban reserves are regarded as one way to settle outstanding Native land claims.
The only difference being Saskatchewan has a treaty land entitlement framework in place which sets out how land claim settlements are dealt with. Ontario does not and the land claim process is very slow, said Bailey.
There are also federal funding incentives available to help First Nation people work through the legal requirements of the process.
The town has brought in the city planner from Prince Albert, Saskatchewan, one of the community reserve models they are examining.
Bailey characterizes the cultural acceptance from residents to the whole concept as “cautiously optimistic.”
The local conversation has not been without its vocal detractors in public meetings and newspaper letters-to-the-editor. That's why summit organizers are asking representatives from the Canadian Institute for Conflict Resolution to help facilitate the discussion at the November event.
Some Canadian public opinion polls say urban reserves offer unfair tax advantages to the bands that run them because goods and services can be purchased tax-free and Status Indians earning incomes on these reserves don't have to pay income tax.
Bailey said dealing with those issues will be part of the community discussion.
“We're determined to investigate and find out what our options are. A big piece of this public education and letting people know what it is, and what it isn't.”
To mitigate the loss of any municipal taxes, Bailey said often times agreements can be struck where an urban reserve association supplies a grant to cover the provision of municipal services (water, sewer, fire protection) in lieu of paying taxes.