In the recently tabled federal budget, the government has committed to look more closely at private property ownership of reserve lands, claiming it is the only way First Nations can achieve their full economic development potential.
“I think it’s ridiculous,” said Robert Louie, chair of the First Nations Land Advisory Board and chief of Westbank First Nation.
“All of the work that we’re doing right now under First Nations Land Management accomplishes everything that needs to be accomplished, except we don’t transfer land to fee simple. We don’t want to and don’t have to.”
The federal government, with support from the First Nations Tax Commission, suggests that fee simple or private land ownership will allow development to occur at a faster pace than what is allowed under the Indian Act.
But this is already happening through the First Nations Land Management Regime, said Louie, whose organization recently recommended 18 First Nations be accepted under the regime. There are 73 First Nations across the country in the process of, or already operating under, their own land codes. Members of the land management regime can opt out of the 34 land-related sections of the Indian Act, allowing them to manage their land, resources and environment. It allows the nations to avoid red tape, bypass federal government approval, and allow economic development to occur at the same rate as municipal counterparts.
The budget document states, “Some First Nations have expressed an interest in exploring the possibility of legislation that would allow private property ownership within current reserves. Economic Action Plan 2012 announces the government’s intent to explore with interested First Nations the option of moving forward with legislation that would allow for this.”
Louie said he recently spoke to Aboriginal Affairs and Northern Development Canada Minister John Duncan who indicated that six to eight First Nations had expressed interest in First Nation Property Ownership. Louie balks at the number, saying he would be “very surprised” if that number is even as high as three. There are 633 First Nations in Canada.
Assembly of First Nations National Chief Shawn Atleo backs up Louie’s perspective.
“It is very clear that, by and large, the majority of First Nations do not support the move toward private property,” said Atleo in response to the federal budget and Finance Minister Jim Flaherty’s inclusion of private property ownership.
In 2010, a resolution was passed at the AFN’s Special Chiefs Assembly rejecting the First Nation Property Ownership Act, and calling for “a strategic lobby to oppose federal legislation for a First Nation Property Ownership Act.”
Manny Jules, chair of the First Nations Tax Commission and former chief of the Kamloops Indian Band, declares support for the act in a Web site saying the “costs of doing business on First Nation lands will be substantially lowered; the economic value of First Nation lands will be substantially improved; private initiative and entrepreneurship will be greatly enhanced.”
But Louie said this is already being accomplished without First Nations having to sell their land. First Nations that have implemented their own land codes, including Westbank First Nation, have shown that financial institutions and investors “are very comfortable with the structure that we have today.”
Why the federal government would be pursuing First Nation Property Ownership with so few First Nations interested in it is unclear to Louie, unless the federal government is looking to pass on responsibility to the provinces and cut the federal budget even further.
If the land becomes fee simple that means it falls under the provincial lands registry.
“That’s a huge concern and worry that First Nations have. Once you bring in the provincial registry land system then you have a different government, a different view point as far as lands are concerned. And that causes a lot of uncertainty among First Nations,” said Louie.
“If there isn’t much more interest, if it’s going to die on the vine, I just don’t know,” he added, noting that the federal government could pass the proposed legislation, presenting it as an option to First Nations.
“I’m coming down pretty harsh on the process because that’s where the chiefs are at,” Louie said.