Reserve property ownership long overdue: ex-chief
Published Tuesday, August 7, 2012 11:27AM EDT
While critics argue the federal government's plan to allow private land ownership on First Nations reserves flies in the face of tradition, supporters counter the potential economic benefits are too good to pass up.
Former Kamloops first nation chief Manny Jules is the current chief commissioner of the First Nations Tax Commission and a supporter of a law that would fundamentally reshape the current relationship between Ottawa and the residents of First Nations reserves across the country.
Under current laws designed to respect the firmly-entrenched, traditional communal approach to land ownership, it's up to band councils on the more than 600 reserves comprising more than 2.5 million hectares of land countrywide to build houses and approve repairs to existing properties.
Jules told CTV News Channel that the current process has a number of drawbacks, not least of which is a "250 to 800-year housing backlog" in some First Nations communities. Besides addressing the basic housing shortage, Jules said rewriting property ownership rules would open the door to other opportunities as well.
"The title to the land should be transferred to the collective interest of the First Nation," Jules explained, suggesting it would then be up to local band councils to set the precise rules and regulations of ownership.
The likely outcome, he said, would be that the new property owners could more easily apply to mortgage their properties, for instance, without having to get the approval of the council or minister first.
The idea is not a new one, by any stretch. Nor is the opposition to it.
In 2010, for example, the Assembly of First Nations adopted a resolution decrying the concept of full land ownership, known as "fee simple," as the gateway to an eventual loss of collective rights on reserve lands.
That's because such a change could mean any "fee simple" land up for grabs would be available to non-reserve residents and developers too.
But Jules does not believe the legislation promised in the federal Conservatives' last Speech from the Throne will lead to dire consequences.
In that June 2011 speech, delivered a month after the Conservatives won a majority in the last election, the government promised to "ensure that people living on reserve have the same matrimonial real property rights and protections as other Canadians."
Instead, Jules said the new law will merely allow each band to set its own rules.
"Once they're established and approved by the collective interest, then members would be free to pursue mortgages or be bonded," he said.
"There's no consensus across the country to get rid of the Indian Act," Jules added. "So any change, no matter how minor it is, is going to be met with opposition by First Nations groups."
The B.C. Nisga'a First Nation signed a treaty in 2000 that opened the door to fee simple land ownership, but it's yet to be implemented.
Other first nations have found different ways around the current rules, offering long-term leases, for example, that bring some benefits of ownership without the actual transfer of land titles.