Legislating Communal Native Poverty

Commentary, Aboriginal Futures, Frontier Centre

The recent fracas at the Manitoba Legislature, where riot police repelled a crowd of belligerent natives, did not contribute much to a reasoned debate over the aboriginal problem.

The rallying cry for the protestors was "Jobs, Not Welfare!" Fair enough. The question that needs to be asked is, "Why don’t natives have as many jobs as any other ethnic group?" Manitoba has, after all, the lowest unemployment rate in the country.

Racism? Probably not. In an earlier age, Africans, Asians, and even groups like the Irish and Ukrainians suffered their share of cultural whiplash in the dominant British and French societies in Canada. But all of them eventually rose through the phenomenon of upward mobility that characterizes free and dynamic market-based economies. Natives have not kept pace.

What happened to make them less successful? Look at the playing field. For aboriginals, it is not level. Contrast their condition with that of other Canadians, and you quickly discover how.

For instance, most families own their own homes, and the land they sit on. The legal structure set up decades ago, by a series of eleven treaties that established the Indian reserves, prohibits natives from experiencing this kind of decentralized ownership. The Indian Act mandated that all such property be owned "in severalty", or communally.

That means that natives on reserves have no incentive to maintain or improve their homes, because they have no security of possession. Those who do it anyway are mocked for their efforts. Consequently, the average dwelling on reserves, although newer than its counterpart in other Canadian communities, decays rapidly.

Another provision of the Indian Act, the infamous Section 89, forbids non-natives from seizing assets on reserves. Other Canadians can leverage their holdings to obtain credit and capitalize the businesses that create jobs. Natives who live on reserves and go to a bank to take out a car loan so they can drive to work have to lie about their address.

Most people in Canada started out poor, but they achieved increased prosperity by means of family groups who acquired assets by working hard and increasing them over generations. The Indian Act simply forbids natives from having similar property rights. It legally excludes them from the prosperity around them.

Even the special rights accorded in law to natives, the rights to hunt and fish on Crown land, have legal shackles. They are limited to personal consumption, and if a First Nation member tries to sell his catch, he becomes a "poacher", subject to fines and imprisonment. A property right only has meaning if it includes the freedom to use and dispose of one’s goods.

Farming on reserves was initially crippled by a similar ban on the sale of agricultural surpluses, and other arcane restrictions. Pile on the commercial straitjacket of Section 89, and it’s clear that potential native farmers face impossible odds. Sixty percent of the reserve land in Canada is arable, but most acreage planted is worked by non-native farmers who wheel their machines down the road from properties that can be capitalized. That mainstay of the Prairies, the family farm, is prohibited from existing on reserves.

That’s why we’ve seen the huge exodus of natives to cities. The unemployment rate for urban aboriginals may be high, but it sure beats the 90% rate they faced back home. In wider society, where normal property rights allow material and spiritual progress, natives will eventually catch up to other ethnic groups, because they have a better chance on a level playing field.

To sum up, legislated poverty destroys job prospects for natives.