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The Southern Chiefs’ Organization will revitalize the former Hudson’s Bay Building, as seen in downtown Winnipeg, on Nov. 10, 2022.Shannon VanRaes/The Globe and Mail

It takes a bit of imagination to see a neighbourhood rising from an expanse of fields in southwest Winnipeg where a lonely bus stop stands sentinel to a long-gone army base.

But Whelan Sutherland paints a vivid picture of the biggest urban reserve in Manitoba, with schools, thousands of homes, green space and commercial zones.

“This is reclamation of our territory,” said the CEO of Treaty One Nation, which represents seven First Nations. “We’re building a full-blown community.”

It’s one of a pair of major Indigenous-run development projects taking shape in Winnipeg – both on sites that are former symbols of establishment power – that could give this community more influence over how the city evolves.

The project led by Treaty One will see the construction of a mixed-use neighbourhood on what was a military base in the tony South Tuxedo part of the city. Another, the refurbishment of a derelict Hudson’s Bay Company store downtown, is led by the Southern Chiefs Organization, or SCO, which represents 34 First Nations.

The projects follow in the footsteps of other Indigenous-led initiatives, including plans for multiple high-rise buildings by the Squamish Nation in Vancouver and Muskeg Lake First Nation’s urban reserve in Saskatoon.

There’s extra resonance to the projects in Winnipeg, long the country’s most Indigenous large city.

Indigenous people make up 14 per cent of Winnipeg’s residents, a proportion that is both larger than the 8.6 per cent in Edmonton, the next highest, and expected to keep increasing. Census data released in September showed the city’s Indigenous population was 102,080 in 2021, an increase of 9,000 over five years earlier.

The Indigenous presence in Winnipeg is growing because of the community’s high birth rate, but also because the city attracts people from remote communities seeking opportunity. Winnipeg has actively sought migration from the northern part of the province.

This transition can pose challenges, with some newcomers ending up on the street or in substandard accommodation and both of the Indigenous-run projects make a point of including housing for their people

The former Kapyong Barracks, named for a Korean War battle, was decommissioned in 2004. Mr. Sutherland said Treaty One has expansive plans for a site it calls Naawi-Oodena, which means “centre of the heart and community.”

Once complete, the property would include areas set aside for businesses, for culture and for 3,000 homes in a mix of densities. These residences won’t be exclusive to Indigenous people and could be bought by anyone.

While the site is going to be an urban reserve and not legally part of Winnipeg, its infrastructure will connect it to the surrounding city. Bylaws and zoning will be complementary with Winnipeg’s, Mr. Sutherland said.

The area is divided into five chunks, with plans to build first on 3.1-hectare (7.7-acre) block A and 7.1 hectare (17.5-acre) block B. Mr. Sutherland said that in two years these should feature apartments and businesses owned by Treaty One.

About a 10-minute drive away are the gates of Fort Garry, all that remains of the 19th-century bastion from which Hudson Bay Company officials governed what was then the Red River Colony. The company eventually surrendered its administrative powers and became just a retailer. In 1926 it opened its western flagship, a grand location on nearby Portage Avenue.

In recent decades the street has gone downhill and so has the store. The location was closed in 2020 and the company announced last spring it would give the property to the SCO.

The organization hopes to turn it into hundreds of units of housing. Some of this would be market rate, but the goal is to subsidize most units for students and elders. Plans also include a clinic and a pharmacy on site, as well as an assembly hall. All of this will take years.

As part of the project, the SCO also plans to move its local office from an industrial area near the airport to the HBC site, only blocks from the legislature. Grand Chief Jerry Daniels, the SCO leader, called establishing their presence close to the seat of power an important statement.

It’s also symbolic, he noted, that the group is taking over a building formerly run by The Bay, which for generations was the law of the land in Western Canada. They plan to dedicate part of the site to a museum.

“The history needs to be told,” the chief said. “The real history.”

But work is not without its difficulties.

The transfer of the former store to the SCO was announced last April. In the summer, Grand Chief Daniels said the formal handover should have been complete in August, but had been delayed until September. In January, property records showed the HBC still owned the site. In an e-mail late that same month, an SCO spokesperson cited complications, including some related to the overhead walkways connecting the site to nearby buildings, and said the transfer was expected soon.

That handover, and the work by Treaty One, comes at a time when Winnipeg is making efforts to reflect better its sizable and growing Indigenous population.

The city is looking at civic names such as streets and parks and assessing whether they fit today’s world. It’s not a painless process. Reanna Merasty, the chair of the Welcoming Winnipeg Committee, says that the city sometimes gets racist pushback. Some locals also reacted angrily when, instead of official Canada Day commemorations on July 1 at the popular downtown location The Forks, the site hosted a celebration of multiculturalism. However, what was called “A New Day” still drew thousands.

The projects at the former Kapyong Barracks and the former HBC building stand out in a city where many Indigenous people feel bypassed by decision makers.

Activist and Métis naturalist Jenna Vandal believes that Winnipeg plays a special role in forging a more just future for Indigenous residents, pushed by the weight of the demographic tide.

“We can be a beacon of change for others to follow,” she said. “To me, we’re the leaders in reconciliation and we have a huge responsibility.”

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