Indigenous Communities

First Nation communities acquire tools to create opportunities

Developing action plans under pilot project is multi-step process

Word is spreading amongst First Nation communities in Saskatchewan about a pilot project to support them in developing economic action plans.

“We’re getting calls from communities we’ve never even heard of asking us to come and work with them,” says project manager Andrew Baigent of Urban Systems.

The company, which has done extensive similar work with First Nation communities in B.C., launched the project in Saskatchewan with four communities in the central part of the province about a year ago. Their plans are now complete, and Urban Systems has been asked to collaborate with six more First Nation communities in Saskatchewan.

An initiative of Aboriginal Affairs and Northern Development Canada, the pilot project is helping to anchor Urban Systems’ new branch in Saskatchewan. The work has involved developing a template to identify economic development opportunities best suited to each First Nation community.

Andrew says an all-important first step in the process is understanding each community’s inventory of land. It’s a considerable task given the many dynamics at play in First Nation communities. There’s the traditional reserve land, for instance, but also land acquired through treaty claims, lease-hold properties such as lodges that First Nations operate on leased sites, and land that’s simply been acquired by the community over the years, which can include sites in cities and urban areas.

“Before they can even get to what the economic development opportunities are, they have to fully understand what their land portfolio is,” Andrew says.

“They can’t figure out what you’re going to do in economic development until you know what you own.”

This process took several months with the inaugural four communities and involved researching land titles, leases and maps. Everything has been digitized for efficiency and ease of access.

Next came extensive consulting with the community to identify priorities for economic development. A working group as well as community leaders and members were all engaged. All four of the inaugural pilot project communities chose three economic development sites, including two in more urban settings and one that’s more rural or involves natural resource extraction.

The focus then turned to determining the highest and best use for these lands. “It sounds complicated but really it’s not,” Andrew says. “You look at the property characteristics that will allow the land to be successful,” he says, such as how much traffic passes by, servicing, environment policy such as whether remediation is required. Appraisers are also engaged to determine the pre-acre value for different uses to help determine which uses garner the highest return. Neighbouring properties are analyzed and, in some cases with the four communities, it was discovered that the landowners next door want to joint venture with the First Nation and develop the land in tandem.

The process pointed to a variety of best uses for the four communities, ranging from a residential development with 99-year leases for non-First Nation members to an industrial park in Saskatoon. “There are lots of possibilities based on land economics,” Andrew says. “It’s got to be based on demand — you don’t want to develop a big conceptual plan for something that will never be built.”

With the best uses determined, conceptual plans were created as a guide for discussion with potential financing and business partners. These agencies were engaged at a subsequent networking event, creating the opportunity for future collaboration to drive the economic development opportunities.

Other components of the pilot project included developing a land acquisition strategy for each First Nation community. It’s a strategic blueprint for the future.

“It’s basically a checklist for all future purchases,” Andrew says. “They now know what they want to do as a community so if a piece of land becomes available, they go through a process — almost the due diligence process that developers use — to see if it’s the right piece of land, in the right place, if it has needed servicing, is the right size and in a high-growth area. If you go through the process and it isn’t the right piece of land, that’s OK. They don’t have to buy everything that’s put in front of them.”

Lastly, Andrew says, action plans were created for each community with 15-20 steps listed to facilitate development. They can range from establishing an economic development corporation to beginning site preparations to negotiating service agreements. “They’re all there and the way we presented it is those steps that are complete get a checkmark and there are boxes for the others to still do.”

The whole process of developing these economic development action plans has had an empowering effect on the First Nation communities, Andrew says. The engagement and education has helped to fuel energy to move forward and be part of Saskatchewan’s burgeoning economic prosperity. There’s also the realization of the possibilities, as the Urban Systems team shared with the Saskatchewan First Nation communities some of the successes crafted by First Nation communities in B.C.

“They saw pictures of 1,500-lot subdivisions being built in the Okanagan and a two-million-square-foot shopping centre in Delta that’s being built through a partnership, and they were excited. They realize what might be possible,” Andrew says.

He notes feedback provided through surveys as part of the community consultation process were full of ideas, and there was great direction provided on future purchases as well as actions like establishing economic development corporations.
“There is momentum,” Andrew says.

Progress will require further capacity building and collaboration, but Andrew says the First Nation communities involved in the pilot project are now better positioned for economic prosperity.

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