— Feature —

urban reserves


What would an urban reserve look like in the middle of Edmonton?

Indigenous populations in Canada are growing, especially in urban areas. According to the 2016 census, half of the population of First Nations people live in the western provinces. From 2006 to 2016, the number of Indigenous people living in a metropolitan area of 30,000 or more increased by 59.7 percent.

In the Royal Commission on Aboriginal Peoples, established in 1991, Chief Georges Erasmus and Justice Renée Dussault called Canada, “A test case for a grand notion” where people with different cultures and perspectives shared resources and power. They write, “The story of Canada is the story of many such peoples, trying and failing and trying again, to live together in peace and harmony.”

Urban reserves are one such way in which to try this out. They have been around in one form or another for a few hundred years. There are currently around 120 urban reserves in existence right now in Canada. One of the first modern urban reserves was created in Muskeg Lake Cree Nation in Saskatchewan about 30 years ago.

There are two ways they have traditionally developed. The first is a reserve based near or within a city. This type of urban reserve dates back to the 1800s. The second, also called a new urban reserve, is a sort of satellite holding by a First Nation band. One example of this would be Yellow Quill First Nation owning a small street in Saskatoon, which includes a First Nations bank.


Urban reserves are a modern way of envisioning postcolonial Indigenous spaces for commerce, community and recreation.

“A lot of the current research challenges that these reserves are still very much governed by colonial norms,” said Zane Davey, a graduate student from McGill University in the School of Urban Planning. Davey would like to see more when it comes to the development of urban reserves and was personally motivated to research these areas because he sees the possibility for creating new Indigenous spaces with urban reserves.

“Right now they are at the beginning stages of establishing indigeneity and decolonization within the urban space.”

Historically, a lot of the development on urban reserves was focused on commercial or industrial growth: things that are important to a community’s success. They have not had as much of a focus on housing for community members.

But the social aspect of an urban reserve is an important consideration. “I believe that it could become a space in which culture is celebrated, where there is Indigenous housing, [such as] social housing provided to members of the nation,” Davey said.


CHIEF BILLY MORIN, the youngest chief in Enoch Cree Nation history, declined to be interviewed for this piece as he is not currently speaking about urban reserves. However, Chief Morin did an Ask Me Anything in June on this topic in conjunction with the Edmonton Federation of Community Leagues.

“It takes time, it takes effort, it takes teamwork,” Morin said in his recorded presentation about the creation of urban reserves. “Earlier this spring my awesome City Councillor Sarah Hamilton made a motion that the city will develop an urban reserve strategy.

“First Nations have their own rights and rules, but they live under the auspices of the federal government,” Morin continued as he explained about the sovereignty of Indigenous people and why urban reserves are important.

The key ideas regarding urban reserves and why they benefit First Nations people include social aspects, cultural aspects, and urban planning.

“Can an urban reserve lend itself in a plot to the city that provides services to Indigenous people in a different way than the great service providers that already exist?” Morin asked regarding the question of whether urban reserves can also address homelessness in Edmonton.

Urban reserves would likely be able to bring in additional resources through the federal government that the province or the municipality would not be able to, to help battle issues such as homelessness and addiction.


Both Davey and Morin are working to address the stigma of urban reserves based on many people not understanding how they work.

“As soon as someone mentions a reserve being built in the city, settler conditioning definitely makes people think of stereotypes, rural and neglected areas,” Davey said. “People think you’re going to have reserve dogs running around.”

The business owners on an urban reserve also face stigma when people mistakenly believe that there aren’t any taxes paid on the land. This may cause people to resent the new business owners, but it is based on a misunderstanding of how fees are paid.

“TAXES [ARE] A BIG WORD for all Edmontonians and it is a big word for First Nations too,” Morin said. He was referring to the misconception many people have that First Nations people don’t pay taxes. In fact, Indigenous people do still pay income tax. But they may not pay property tax if they live on a reservation.

According to the City of Edmonton’s website, municipalities are involved in providing services to the urban reserve lands through a municipal fee- for-service agreement and may also play roles in community notification and in bylaw and land-use planning harmonization as the urban reserve is developed.

Davey said when it comes to educating the public, the city should be responsible for informing them about the economic benefit for the municipality through shared revenue. They should also be mindful of their bylaws and planning restrictions to avoid further imposing colonial notions of living spaces on the urban reserve. Davey argues that it is important to take the opportunity for urban reserves to have their own sovereignty in how they control the land they have acquired.

The fee-for-service that is paid by the First Nation in lieu of municipal taxes would pay for the costs of policing, fire, drainage, bylaw enforcement and all of the other services a city provides.

At the same time, Davey said it is important to take the opportunity for urban reserves to have their own sovereignty in how they control the land they have acquired.


In Winnipeg, Treaty One Territory, there is a project on the former Kapyong Barracks site in west Winnipeg, which is now Canada’s largest urban reserve. The Kapyong Master Plan speaks to the highest ideals of Indigenous city-building. They plan to use the designs from Indigenous artists and landscape architects and to promote Indigenous design.

As a part of creating their master plan, Treaty One Nation, Canada Lands Company and the City of Winnipeg worked together on a community engagement process that included neighbouring residents and businesses. They hosted a powwow at the site and gathered feedback on preliminary design and planning concepts. From that input they created a community that focused on holistic elements in urban design. There are cultural camps and education integrated with community spaces, residential areas and even stormwater management facilities.

As Edmonton partners with Enoch Cree First Nation to develop urban spaces for Indigenous people, it is a good time to imagine how the city can also help to showcase Indigenous architecture, public art, and even memorial spaces. This is a unique chance to develop Indigenous-municipal relations and showcase First Nations culture as it exists in 21st Century Canada.

An urban reserve in Edmonton is an opportunity for all of us to live together in peace and harmony.