Support gathers for proposed law to allow private property on reserves
Posted By: Anthony Jay Henhawk Jr.
To: Members in First Nations & Aboriginal Rights
MONTREAL - A proposed law that would allow First Nations to own the land they live on, reversing hundreds of years of aboriginal policy, is gaining support among native leaders and the country's political class.
The government is quietly getting behind the idea, providing the funding for a feasibility study and policy conference while all the national parties have expressed varying degrees of support.
A more public campaign is being led by the unlikely tandem of a native taxman and a conservative political scientist, who together are promoting property-right reform as a solution to endemic poverty on reserves.
Chief First Nations tax commissioner, Manny Jules, has teamed up with Tom Flanagan, a prominent academic and onetime top aide to Stephen Harper, on a new book and speaking tour.
They argue land ownership would achieve what years of government intervention hasn't: a real-estate boom in native communities, improved governance and an end to chronic housing shortages.
The economic argument is complemented by an emotional one. Fifty years after aboriginals first got the right to vote in Canada, the campaign to own property is being called the next front in the fight for equality.
"What's happened is that we've been legislated out of the economy," said Jules.
"I want to legislate us back in."
Since the reserve system was set up, status Indians have essentially lived on land borrowed from the government.
As their property doesn't qualify as a seizeable asset, banks have been hesitant to offer mortgages, lines of credit or small business loans.
"Most Canadians don't know that," Jules said. "I think it's time we should own lands like other Canadians."
Though several types of property rights currently exist on reserves, such as certificates of possession, they tend to add to the cost of doing business with status Indians by creating legal confusion and administrative headaches.
Under Jules' proposal, the title of a reserve would be transferred to the band currently occupying it. The band would then be able to turn over individual property titles to its members.
Introducing private property to reserves, according to Jules, will encourage more homes to be built because it gives status Indians a stake in their value.
He says it will also create a class of people with a vested interest in better governance.
"People are obviously a little hesitant about the concept but, the fact is, the successes that Canada has had (are) a direct result of having private property regimes," Jules said.
Jules is currently trying to drum up support for the idea among First Nations. He has been tasked by the federal government to come up with a list by year's end of bands willing to opt-in to such a program.
The Department of Indian and Northern Affairs has also given him support to host a policy conference in the fall, which he hopes will kick start the process of drafting the legislation.
Indian Affairs Minister Chuck Strahl refused to comment on the proposed reforms, but Jules says Ottawa has been receptive to the idea.
"The government recognizes this is a critical need from a policy standpoint," he said, adding that it costs taxpayers $4 billion annually to fund anti-poverty programs on reserves.
While Jules is leading the charge among native communities, Flanagan has taken to the lecture circuit.
He has co-authored a book — "Beyond the Indian Act: Restoring Aboriginal Property Rights" — that provides a history of native property rights in Canada and spells out why drastic reform is needed. Jules wrote the foreword.
"There will never be adequate housing on Indian reserves as long as most homes are built and owned by government," the book states.
The book claims reserves have been unable to benefit from the market because property rights are so unstable, which drives up transaction costs for economic development.
As the intellectual godfather of the current Conservative government, Flanagan's support could lend the proposal some institutional clout.
It also risks turning it into a lightning rod for partisan criticism.
Flanagan's 2000 book, "First Nations, Second Thoughts," was accused of advocating assimilation — a charge he denies.
The University of Calgary professor admits there are some concerns over the proposal.
Audience members at some of his talks have questioned whether privatizing land might actually deepen inequality. The fear is that people might be worse off if a few millionaires immediately gobbled up homes now owned by the federal government.
But the idea privatizing native property rights — which both Jules and Flanagan stress would be done on an optional basis — has received support from all the national parties.
"It's not a case in this instance of the market versus government," Flanagan said. "It's a case of using government wisely to make a market in land possible."
Both the Tories and the Liberals campaigned in 2008 on promises to create a lands-title system. Even the NDP has indicated it's not opposed to the principle of privatizing native lands.
"Without access to using property as collateral, economic development is stymied because banks aren't going to step up and loan money," said Jean Crowder, the party's aboriginal affairs critic.
"If First Nations want to look at this as part of their solution I'm not sure that we who enjoy the free market approach have the right to say no to that."
The problem, for Flanagan, isn't convincing federal political leaders, it's "getting First Nations to come forward and take this big step."
To that end, both the book and the campaign are intent on correcting what they maintain are certain misconceptions about the history of native property rights.
"I want to explode these myths that we didn't have property rights, that we were some socialist utopia," Jules said.
Such myths originated, according to Flanagan, with European settlers, who used them as a justification for taking native land.
More recently, he says, the radical left appropriated the native cause and recast aboriginals as "natural communists who've never been part of the capitalist system."
"It's a tragic colonization of the mind when you take people's understanding of their own history," Flanagan said.
This has fed a so-called culture of dependency, which Jules blames for the hesitancy to get behind the proposal.
"What I want to do is break that mould so that we begin to trust ourselves, so that we can empower individual members to release their imaginations and become entrepreneurial," he said.