10/06/2012 12:10 EDT | Updated 12/10/2012 05:33 EST

First Nation Private Property Proposal Feeds Fears Of 'Land Rush'


Imagine a piece of land. For millennia, it gives you everything you need. Your family farms it, hunts on it, fishes and traps on it.

Then one day, a man comes along, plants a stake in the ground and calls it his. He tells you you can stay on the land, but you have to manage and develop it on his behalf, with his approval.

"WTF?" you might be thinking. "This is my land, why can't I do what I want with it?"

This scenario describes, in broad terms, the status of aboriginal land in Canada. Any time an aboriginal member wants to develop part of their land, they can't do it without the approval of the federal government, representatives of the very people who took their land to begin with.

It's a situation Manny Jules is trying to reverse. The former chief of the T'Kemlups (Kamloops) Indian Band has a bold idea for giving land back to his people: take the feds out of the equation and let aboriginals do what they want with it.

In his home province of British Columbia, it isn't getting as much support as concern about a "land rush" for reserve land.

The federal government announced in March its intention to introduce legislation that would permit private property ownership within reserve boundaries for any First Nations that were interested.

Though the legislation has yet to be drafted, Jules and his organization, the First Nation Tax Commission, has already drawn up a template for the feds.

"Because of the Indian Act, we've been, in effect, legislated out of the economy," he told The Huffington Post B.C. "What we have to do is legislate our way back into the economy, and therefore let our imaginations run free and be able to have innovative solutions."

First Nations don't own any land. They manage reserves on behalf of the federal government via band governments, a system set out in the Indian Act.

Under those rules, an Indian band must seek the approval of the feds when doing just about anything on their land. If they want to lease some land for commercial purposes, for example, they must go through the Department of Aboriginal Affairs and Northern Development.

As Jules tells it, the need for federal approval leads to delays on developments that go well beyond the time frames seen in the private sector.

"It takes about six to 10 times longer to do a development on reserve land," he explains. "That's because you're dealing with a bureaucracy that's removed from your own community. You're having to deal with (Aboriginal Affairs) who are really looking at liability issues.

"When you start thinking like that, it means that any proposal, no matter how good it is, is going to take time to do."


Under Jules’ proposal, the legislation, once drafted, would allow reserve land to be transferred to band governments after a "positive vote" by a given community. Individual bands would be able to adopt the legislation on an optional basis.

The band could then decide whether to transfer pieces of their land to individual members, whether through lease or "fee simple" title. That means an individual, rather than the band or the feds, could end up owning the land themselves.

Private ownership of reserve lands is seen as a key way to help lift aboriginals out of poverty. With a piece of land, members would have collateral in case they wanted to get a business loan, providing them with at least one major requirement for stimulating economic activity.

"The challenge always has been, how do we begin to create an economy that we can participate in and have ownership and jurisdiction over those lands so that we can be an equal partner in the development of these lands?" says Jules.

As it stands, Jules' idea is drawing a cool reception among B.C. First Nations. He can name at least four bands that are interested in his proposal but it's difficult to find support elsewhere.

"I do hear a lot more opposition than I do support," says Lucinda Phillips, chief of the Mount Currie Band near Pemberton. "Mainly, we don't even have enough land as it is to house our current population.

"If more of my community members could be able to use their land to get a mortgage, get their own businesses, that's a positive thing. But if we start getting members selling off land to bigger organizations, leasing it, whatever they decide to do with it, I would just find it challenging."

Her comments are echoed by Stewart Phillip, grand chief of the Union of B.C. Indian Chiefs. He says there's widespread opposition to the notion of what he calls "privatizing reserves."

"If you look at the Musqueam, I think they only have a couple hundred acres," Phillip says. "The fear is that it would completely erode the communal land base, because it would give the ability of individual property owners within a particular community the ability to sell their property.

"It kind of creates a land rush, you know, it throws Indian lands on the open market without any real parameters or safeguards."


If First Nations were to jump into the property game, what would be their effect on B.C.'s real estate market? After all, with the availability of more land comes the opportunity for more housing development in the province’s lucrative market.

Pat Kelly, a realtor and owner of the Whistler Real Estate Company, says it's too early to tell.

"There [are] too many unknowns to predict," he says. "If they bring all this stuff on as fee simple, again, what's the timeframe we're talking about? Is it happening tomorrow? The next 100 years?

"(First Nations) are not all even considering monetizing their assets, they're all trying to come up with their own plans based on what their bands want them to do, something for us all to speculate on, mostly."

The time frame of First Nation land turning private is as much a mystery as the legislation itself. The federal government has given little indication as to how long it will be before it shows up in Parliament.

That may mean that Manny Jules has a little more time to sell the idea in his home province.

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