A great deal of confusion and rancour arises over the question of whether aboriginal Canadians should have individual property rights on reserve lands. Is this a goal to aspire to, or an attempt, as claimed by some indigenous leaders, at further assimilation? On one hand, non-aboriginals tend to see aboriginals as one homogeneous cultural group; on the other, some aboriginals project a universal view of collective property ownership on all groups that's simply not accurate.
When Europeans first came to B.C., for example, they found 32 diverse language groups. These groups operated independently as organized societies, possessing complex social institutions, arts and cultures, and well-developed barter economies. And most had strongly developed notions of property ownership.
The coastal people I'm from, the Tsimshian, had very defined ideas about private and collective property ownership. Tribes had well-delineated territorial boundaries for the lands they owned. Any non-tribal entity wishing to use the resources from such a territory were expected to seek permission and, if allowed, to pay what amounted to a tax on any wealth taken from the territory.
Individuals and families possessed further rights to harvest and hunt in certain areas. Individuals owned their personal chattels and what might be considered intellectual property rights to sing specific songs or dance particular dances. As a result, a rich and powerful culture of trade and entrepreneurship flourished. Early European traders recognized the commercial skills of the Tsimshian by referring to them as the Phoenicians of the northwest coast.
Without such a system of property ownership, coastal indigenous people might have found results similar to the early American colonists. The people in the original 13 colonies initially owned the lands collectively, and starved as a result. It wasn't until a form of private property ownership was introduced that people began to work their lands harder and smarter. As Peruvian economist Hernando De Soto has pointed out, where there isn't clear private property ownership, the productive potential of such lands are greatly underused, and those lands essentially amount to what he calls "dead capital."
What people forget is that owning property individually rather than collectively changes your mindset toward it - the care you take of property is much greater when you own it. You didn't have to go too far into a typical communist country (or reserve) to realize the woeful neglect that collective property ownership often results in. On the other hand, China, with its brand of "socialism with Chinese characteristics," clearly recognized the value of creating forms of private property ownership. The role this has had on lifting its massive population to a higher standard of living can't be denied.
In a similar manner, aboriginal Canadians need to embrace forms of private property ownership if they're to escape the poverty of economic dependency - a system foisted on them by the archaic Indian Act, under which reserve property isn't even collectively owned directly but by the federal Crown in trust for their use and benefit.
Many aboriginal groups see the Indian Act system of land ownership as an antiquated barrier to progress. As a result, they're developing forms of private property ownership more akin to their traditional systems. New treaties in B.C. are resulting in the Nisga'a, Tsawwassen and Maa-nulth First Nations adopting forms of a Torrens system of property ownership. Their leaders clearly understand that private property ownership is a prerequisite to lifting their people from the economic morass created by the Indian Act.
Calvin Helin is a lawyer, entrepreneur and author.
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