11/04/2013 02:26 EST | Updated 01/23/2014 06:58 EST

B.C.'s Nisga'a Becomes Only First Nation To Privatize Land

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The Nisga'a Nation in northwestern British Columbia has become the only First Nation in Canada to let its people own tribal land privately.

The First Nation's land registrar says it has now signed off on the first three transfers of property to individuals in the Greenville area of the remote First Nation's land.

The community's leaders say that by allowing their people to own private property on tribal land, something most aboriginal people living on reserves can't do, they'll be able to get a loan, using land as collateral.

And they believe with those loans and opportunities will come new businesses and the prospect of prosperity.

The Nisga'a government's economic development officer Bert Mercer is among the first to apply to become a private property owner. He is proud to show off his home and the well-groomed grounds it stands upon.  

"It's going to add value, an additional $30,000 maybe," he says.

But many critics have raised concerns about the privatization of First Nations lands, saying it's a step toward losing their lands, and perhaps toward assimilation.

Toronto lawyer Pamela Palmater is a Mi'kmaq from New Brunswick and a harsh critic of private land ownership for First Nations.

"Once you put it into the hands of individuals, it's gone, especially for impoverished individuals," she says.

The Nisga'a acknowledge that once citizens own their land they can transfer it, sell it or will it to anyone including non-Nisga'a. It could even be seized by a bank in a bankruptcy, but they say the risk is worth it.

The Nisga'a was the first B.C. band to sign a modern treaty with the provincial and Canadian governments in 1998. The controversial deal gave the Nisga'a 1,930 square kilometres of land in the lower Nass Valley, self-government powers akin to municipal governments and $190 million in cash.

Nisga'a people were exempt from paying sales tax for a transitional period of eight years after the treaty's signing, but in 2008, the Nisga'a started to pay GST and PST, as well as taxes on fuel and tobacco as part of the historic treaty.

The Nisga'a Lisims government passed the Nisga'a Landholding Transition Act in November, 2009, giving members a chance to own their own homes on native land in B.C.'s Nass River Valley, north of Terrace.

They are now able to mortgage their property or transfer, bequeath, lease, or sell it to anyone they choose, aboriginal or non-aboriginal. The system is voluntary and all private land will remain subject to Nisga'a laws.

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