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Hitting the Jackpot / Solutions

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SOLUTIONS

There isn't one quick fix for the social and economic realities plaguing Canada's First Nations.

Closing the education, income and health gap between First Nations people and non-aboriginal

Canadians requires a lot of work on a lot of fronts. Here are some options.

Create property rights

This is a controversial one. Reserve land is held communally. The Crown owns the land, the band controls it, and individual band members don't have private title to their homes or lots.

There are some, including many in the federal Conservative Party, who argue giving private property rights to First Nations would allow families to build equity and create a sense of pride that comes with ownership. People would pay to repair and renovate their homes to add value instead of waiting for the band to do it.

A home's equity could then be passed down to the next generation, mortgaged to start a business or used as collateral. It could also give bands the chance to levy property taxes, the kind that fund local services in towns and cities.

Property ownership might also encourage businesses to set up on reserve, tempering the risk that a new chief might revoke a company's permission to operate.

Some bands, including the Nisga'a in British Columbia, have already moved toward private property rights, essentially stepping out of the Indian Act and allowing parts of their reserve lands to be held privately. Other bands have navigated the Indian Act's red tape to lease land to businesses or homeowners for 99 years.

The worry, though, is if each band member owns his or her own land outright, over time portions of the reserve will get sold off, eroding the land base guaranteed to First Nations in treaties. Since reserves are a fraction of each band's traditional nomadic lands and since many bands are still entitled to thousands of acres of outstanding land entitlements, the slow sell-off of reserve lands would compound the historic tragedy.

Fix the education system

Only about a third of kids on Manitoba reserves graduate from high school.

Here's why: Most reserves don't have a high school to begin with.

Most kids move to Winnipeg, Thompson or Brandon for high school -- which is often a recipe for failure. And education funding on reserves is about 20 to 30 per cent less per student than in provincial, off-reserve schools.

Most students on reserve don't get the same number of instructional days. They lack gyms and art programs and special classes for kids with learning disabilities. They follow a hodgepodge of curriculums and standards.

The funding gap also plagues health care and housing, but many people -- from former prime minister Paul Martin to Assembly of First Nations National Chief Shawn Atleo -- say the one place where more cash could make the biggest difference is in education.

A series of reports and national studies are underway on the state of reserve schools and how to fix them. Those reports are giving aboriginal leaders hope a new funding deal or some national education legislation setting standards might soon be in the offing.

Speed up treaty land entitlements

At last count, more than 20 bands in Manitoba were still owed at least 647,289 acres promised generations ago by treaties with the federal government. Called treaty land entitlements (TLE), the outstanding land covers an area more than five times the size of Winnipeg.

Making good on those 130-year-old promises has been a remarkably slow and bureaucratic process that began 35 years ago. It's only been in the last decade or so that real progress has been made in Manitoba, thanks largely to a 1997 framework agreement signed by 15 bands, Ottawa and the province, which owns most of the Crown land the bands might want. Still, Saskatchewan is basically done its TLE process and Manitoba has miles to go.

A TLE allowed Swan Lake First Nation to buy land in Headingley for a smoke shop and gas bar, which then snowballed into other ventures that made the band one of the most successful in the province. In the same way, TLEs could be the key to helping remote bands such as Shamattawa and Barren Lands create revenue streams, jobs and prosperity for their communities.

All told, it takes about eight years to turn private land into a new reserve and six years to transfer Crown land. In the last 14 years, not even half the land owed to Manitoba bands under the framework agreement has been transferred.

"It's taken 14 years to get here and it may take another 14 years to finish," said Chris Henderson, executive director of Manitoba's Treaty Land Entitlement Committee.

Speeding it up would be a godsend to struggling bands.

There have been attempts -- former federal Indian affairs minister Jim Prentice pledged to transfer 600,000 acres in four years, but only got about half finished by his 2010 deadline.

Henderson says he believes the timelines could be cut in half, a move which could kick-start economic development on reserves.

Better band governance

The litany of scandals on reserves is depressing.

-- Botched and confusing elections such as the one that has paralyzed Roseau River First Nation.

-- Exorbitant salaries and expenses paid to some chiefs and councillors.

-- Tales of nepotism and favouritism, where the band allocates houses to supporters and delays the welfare cheques of dissenters.

All that creates a sense among many Canadians that First Nations cannot manage their own affairs, that the billions earmarked for reserves are being misspent or worse and that real progress won't be possible until chiefs and councils learn how to govern fairly and openly.

There are what's called "capacity" issues on reserves -- not enough well-trained, qualified lawyers, accountants, social workers and managers willing to move to remote places to help run things. That's changing, but slowly.

There is also a new generation of chiefs in Manitoba, professionals such as Pukatawagan's Arlen Dumas and Sagkeeng's Donavan Fontaine who are more open, more business-like and more pragmatic than their old-school predecessors.

The federal government is also trying to encourage more trust with legislation requiring chiefs and councils to publicly post their salaries and all band income or risk losing their federal support. There is also legislation coming to give bands better election rules, including tighter rules to prevent election fraud and mandating four-year terms rather than two-year.

Resource sharing

Few reserves have the right to develop any of the natural resources on their traditional lands. Most First Nations want the ability to share in the wealth created by resources such as gold, nickel or logging but can't because of rules stipulated by the Indian Act and a federal decree giving provinces control over natural resources.

But giving First Nations a chance to get their own investors to develop mines and other operations on their own territories would be a huge step toward economic independence. It requires a willingness to co-operate on the part of both the federal and provincial government as well as to work to complete the treaty land entitlement processes outlined above.

Mary Agnes Welch and Mia Rabson

Republished from the Winnipeg Free Press print edition February 11, 2012 J5

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