Conservative MPs are proposing a fundamental change to Canada's reserve system, advocating legislation that would allow natives to own private property within the communal land of reserves.
The change – recommended Wednesday in a Conservative-led prebudget report by the House of Commons finance committee – would mark a dramatic shift for individuals living on reserve. It would make it easier to accumulate wealth and to use homes as collateral when seeking bank loans to start businesses.
But the notion is likely to face stiff opposition: The Assembly of First Nations has already bristled over earlier hints that the government was planning a move in this direction.
The proposal arrives as federal aboriginal policy is coming under close scrutiny. Graphic images of poverty in Attawapiskat have cast the spotlight on shameful conditions in dozens of reserves across the country. Under political pressure, the Conservative government is sending emergency housing to the Northern Ontario reserve, but questions remain over how Canada can best address the causes of the larger housing crisis. Prime Minister Stephen Harper is preparing for a special summit with AFN National Chief Shawn Atleo early in the new year.
Many reserves – particularly those near cities – already allow home ownership and mortgages via long-term leases with the band, but such arrangements must jump through the legalities of the 1876 Indian Act. That law, which still governs first nations, created reserves as communal plots of land owned and managed by the federal government for use by status Indians.
In the pre-budget report tabled on Wednesday, the committee calls for the federal government "to examine the concept of a First Nations Property Ownership Act as proposed by the First Nations Tax Commission."
"I think it's fantastic," said Manny Jules, the head of the commission, who has been advocating the idea for years. Mr. Jules wrote the forward for a book on the topic last year, called Beyond the Indian Act: Restoring Aboriginal Property Rights, that was co-authored by University of Calgary political science professor Tom Flanagan.
Mr. Flanagan is a former campaign manager and adviser to Mr. Harper. He had previously written a book called First Nations? Second Thoughts, that attracted controversy by challenging many of the accepted positions of native leaders.
Mr. Jules and Mr. Flanagan argue that, while not a panacea, having access to private property would lead to major improvements in the lives of many native Canadians. They also recommend that the legislation be optional rather than mandatory. Mr. Jules says there are about 10 communities out of the more than 600 first nation reserves in Canada that are ready to move in this direction, while others are expressing interest.
Mr. Jules said that in light of the current focus on aboriginal issues triggered by the attention on the living conditions in Attawapiskat, he's hopeful that now is a good time to push for change.
"Because reserves are owned by the federal government, it limits the marketability of the land," he said.
But Mr. Atleo of the Assembly of First Nations has previously given a cool response to indications from the Conservative government that it was looking at moving in this direction. In 2010, he noted that AFN chiefs had rejected the concept of private property.
"What's needed is not blanket privatization, but bold innovation," he wrote in The Globe and Mail last year. The AFN could not be reached for comment on the report, which was tabled Wednesday afternoon.
A spokesperson for Aboriginal Affairs Minister John Duncan said the government "will continue to assess the feasibility of this proposal as well as continue to gauge first nation interest in the initiative."
NDP finance critic Peter Julian said the report's recommendation falls far short of what is needed for the government to help impoverished communities like Attawapiskat.
"That doesn't address what is a clear crisis," he said.
Mr. Jules says over the years he has run across two main objections. The first is that private property would allow non-natives to own reserve land.
His response: "Well, white people own all the reserves now. It's in the hands of the federal government."
The second objection is that critics fear Canada is preparing to copy the 1887 Dawes Act, which empowered the U.S. president to break up reservation land, leading to "checker board" reserves of mixed ownership.
Mr. Jules insists that can be avoided by allowing first nation communities to retain the underlying title of the land. Communities could decide, he said, whether to limit who can buy property on reserve.
"This would be a big boost to the Canadian economy," he said.