Winnipeg Free Press - PRINT EDITION

First Nations skeptical of Ottawa's plan

Reserve land could be bought, sold

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It's no surprise Manitoba's First Nations are suspicious of Ottawa's plan to rewrite laws and allow First Nations to buy and sell reserve land.

They don't know whether the change would mean lands guaranteed under treaties and the reserve lands could be sold off underneath their feet, plot by plot.

They suspect it does, said Derek Nepinak, leader of the Assembly of Manitoba Chiefs.

"That's problematic. It's an affront to the treaty relationship but we're not surprised because it's apparent the Harper government has very little understanding about what the treaty relationship means to us," said the grand chief of 63 First Nations in the province.

Nothing like private property exists under the collective communal land rights recognized under the Indian Act that governs Canada's 633 First Nations.

Currently, residents of First Nations who want to choose a specific parcel of land and build a house can deal with bands for the right. It's called a certificate of possession. Then they must get a separate permit from Aboriginal Affairs and Northern Development Canada for it to mean anything if they want to build their own homes.

In the end, bands usually end up guaranteeing a mortgage for a bank to risk it. Land on reserves has no marketable property value in Canada.

In the March budget, Ottawa announced it will move to open up reserve lands to private ownership. A spokesman for Aboriginal Affairs Minister John Duncan said Friday the legislation hasn't been drafted, despite news reports in the Globe and Mail this week the legislation is coming.

First Nations have not been consulted on the proposal, Nepinak said.

"We haven't seen any of the draft legislation but there is a suggestion there would be some new type of land tenure that would mirror the system of fee simple."

Fee simple is the legal term for the system of land ownership familiar to homeowners who don't live on First Nations: You buy land, get bank mortgages and build houses.

"At that point the land becomes liquid, meaning people can sell to whomever they choose," Nepinak said.

People need to be wary of that, he said.

Manny Jules, Canada's chief advocate for private property on reserves, is a former chief for the British Columbia First Nation of Kamloops. He hopes to ease the housing crisis and kick-start commercial land development on reserves.

Ottawa is acting on a proposal he's pushing, Jules said Friday. And it's optional. First Nations can adopt or reject it.

"The purpose isn't to sell off the land. It's to empower individuals so they can get a mortgage on their own and build their own homes," Jules said.

Reserve residents and banks will likely approach each very cautiously: homeowners for fear of losing their land and banks for fear they'll end up with land that's unmarketable.

As the federally appointed commissioner for the First Nations Tax Commission, Jules noted the Canadian prairies are governed under a system of treaties that are different from British Columbia.

That shouldn't make matter here, even though he said he understands the prairie suspicions.

"This doesn't lessen somebody's treaty rights... The treaty lands are different. We're talking about (property rights) on existing... Indian reserves," Jules said.

The purpose of private ownership is to transfer reserve land titles directly to First Nations.

"Indian reserves aren't owned by Indians. At all Indian reserves across Canada, the title is owned by the federal government. The proposal we're presenting to the government is simple: The title to those lands should be transferred to the First Nations in perpetuity, in other words, for all time," Jules said.

Republished from the Winnipeg Free Press print edition August 11, 2012 A11

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