Prince George ready to convert part of downtown into reserve land

The city of Prince George is supporting a proposal to convert a portion of its downtown core into urban reserve land under the ownership of the Lheidli T'enneh First Nation.

On Wednesday night, council voted 7-1 to write a letter of support for the Lheidli T'enneh First Nation's proposal to Indigenous Services Canada.

If the bid is successful, two locations will become reserve land — the Nation's administration office on Brunswick Street and the Uda Dune Baiyoh, or  House of Ancestors conference centre and parking lot on Vancouver Street, as well as the adjacent parking lot, covering a total of 6,150 square metres.

It would make Prince George — located roughly 500 kilometres straight north of Vancouver  —  the latest in a series of more than 120 municipalities across Canada, including Winnipeg, Saskatoon and Fort St. John, to embrace the concept of urban reserves as a way of moving forward in their relationship with local First Nations.

The greater Prince George area is home to roughly 90,000 people, approximately 13,000 of whom identify as Indigenous.

A total of  6,150 square metres of land covering two buildings and one parking lot would be converted to reserve land should the proposal move forward.
A total of 6,150 square metres of land covering two buildings and one parking lot would be converted to reserve land should the proposal move forward. (Natural Resources Canada)

The majority of council spoke enthusiastically in support of the project, describing it as a win-win for the city and the First Nation.

"We talk the talk on reconciliation," said Coun. Garth Frizzell. "This is where we make a decision ... this is just a bit of a no-brainer."

"We're fortunate to be partners with the Lheidli T'enneh," said Coun. Brian Skakun. "I look forward to working with them on this."

The sole councillor to vote against the motion to support the proposal was Kyle Sampson, who said he wasn't opposed to the idea in principle but wanted more time to meet with Lheidli T'enneh leadership to learn about the logistics and whether the First Nation had plans to request more property be converted to reserve land in the future.

"I like to know all information when making decisions," he said.

Coun. Cori Ramsay said at recent local government meetings, she had heard from leaders in Fort St. John who spoke "very positively" of their own process of converting municipal land to reserve land while noting work would have to be done to figure out the logistics of moving the project forward.

Lheidli T'enneh chief and council were unavailable to comment on the decision.

How urban reserves work

From left to right, Lheidli T'enneh Chief Dolleen Logan, elder Darlene McIntosh, Coun. Crystal Gibbs, Coun. Joshua Seymour, and Prince George Mayor Lyn Hall hold the First Nation's new flag together before it was raised to full-mast at a ceremony at the city hall on Jan. 4.

An urban reserve is when land in or near a municipality is converted into reserve land, as recognized by the federal Crown.

Historically, reserves were placed outside urban centres in remote and rural locations.

In the case of the Lheidli T'enneh, reserve land was created several kilometres outside of what is now Prince George after the village site near what is now downtown was burned and members forcibly removed in 1913 to make way for the city and railway.

However, members continue to work and live in the city itself. In recent years, the First Nation has established a larger presence by purchasing a former theatre, which has been converted into the Uda Dune Baiyoh conference centre and meeting space and is being considered for conversion to reserve land.

Like reserves in more remote locations, First Nations get a break from paying taxes for certain items and often don't have to pay income tax for money earned on urban reserve land. However, they do pay for services such as water, garbage collection, police and fire protection through contracts negotiated with the municipality where they are located.

According to a staff report, the estimated loss in property taxes if the land is converted would be $114,046.51 in 2024 values.

In a letter to the city of Prince George, Kuldip Gill of Indigenous Services Canada said when the federal government receives a request from a First Nation to add to reserve land, it encourages local governments and the province to work with the First Nation using a "good neighbour" approach when negotiating how the costs for city-provided services on reserve land will be paid for.

"By working together, we can advance our collective work in the spirit of reconciliation and a nation-to-nation relationship."

Past processes for converting new land into reserves have taken upward of two years.