Native Land Policy Faces Overhaul

Worth A Look, Aboriginal Futures, Frontier Centre

Ottawa — Breaking with the traditional communal approach to first nations’ lands, the federal government will endorse private ownership of land and housing on reserves as part of a package of new aboriginal policies to be unveiled this spring.

Federal and aboriginal officials are also expected to announce an overhaul of native education, including support for a national system of school boards and greater links between native schools and provincial education ministries.

The new land policy likely will include rules barring non-natives from buying on-reserve properties.

Introducing private housing markets for reserves would mark a significant policy change for the federal government.

Ottawa intends to set up a new entity, expected to be called a first nations housing authority, that would handle mortgages and assist band councils in creating real estate markets on reserves.

Advocates argue that property ownership would allow aboriginals to accumulate personal equity that could then be used to help finance business ventures or higher education. It is also expected it would encourage individuals to voluntarily make repairs to their on-reserve houses, rather than rely on band councils or Ottawa for such work.

The Auditor-General has warned the lack of quality housing on reserves has reached “crisis” levels.

Some of Canada’s 633 reserves allow private ownership of property, but most continue to operate on a communal system in which the federal government owns the land and the band council manages the housing supply with money from Ottawa.

Former Indian affairs minister Andy Mitchell rejected private ownership last year as contrary to aboriginal tradition, but his successor, Andy Scott, has embraced the notion.

The Assembly of First Nations has recently come to support the move — as long as some form of first nations’ housing authority run by aboriginals will make the rules and mortgage decisions. The AFN also wants the federal government to continue funding social housing for aboriginals, both on reserves and off.

Phil Fontaine, national chief of the AFN, said chiefs had traditionally opposed private ownership because they saw it as undermining Ottawa’s treaty obligations to provide shelter for aboriginals.

“People have been conditioned to consider [communal ownership] as the only option,” he said. “Private ownership is not something that was ever central to the government’s housing strategy as it relates to first nations. That can be achieved, in our view, without alienating first nations’ [concepts of] land.”

Mr. Fontaine said he is urging the government to set up a native-run agency that would replace existing federal housing programs and oversee a move toward private ownership and improved social housing.

Private ownership would diminish divisions on reserves over housing, he added. “We need to de-politicize this as much as we can. Chief and council are expected to determine who gets a house, and that’s not something chiefs and councils ever wanted.”

The private ownership idea is currently included in discussions and draft documents by senior officials working on a series of announcements for a special cabinet retreat on aboriginal issues, sources say.

At the retreat, set for May 31, federal officials and aboriginal groups are also expected to outline their plans for native education. Further details involving links with the provinces would be announced in the fall at a special first ministers’ meeting on aboriginal issues between Prime Minister Paul Martin and the premiers.

Currently, the more than 500 on-reserve schools operate in a legal vacuum with no national standards or curriculum. While some reserves have bodies similar to school boards and links with provincial education ministries, most do not.

But, privately, government officials are confirming that no new money will be announced at the retreat to go along with the new policies.

Instead, aboriginals will be asked to wait until the fall first ministers meeting — or even the next budget — for funding commitments.

Still, Mr. Fontaine said he has taken recent comments by federal officials to mean money would be announced at the cabinet retreat.

“We’re pressing very hard to have some spending announcements, because that was the understanding . . . that we were to expect positive decisions would be taken at the cabinet retreat and then further positive decisions at the first ministers’ meeting,” he said.

Until recently, mainly conservative groups, such as the Canadian Taxpayers Federation, had advocated private ownership on reserves.

Tanis Fiss, director of the CTF’s centre for aboriginal policy change, praised the news that the government is open to promoting market forces on reserves.

“We’d really like to see them go down that path, because, obviously, it gives native Canadians more control within their community,” she said, pointing to Ontario’s Six Nations reserve west of Toronto as having successfully created its own real estate market.

“It provides far more options and flexibility within the communities as well as more stability, because under the current system, it’s often the chief and council who decides who lives where and who gets the home renovations.”

Government insiders say issues to be discussed at the cabinet retreat have been complicated by the AFN’s insistence that the retreat also include a final resolution to the question of residential schools compensation. Mr. Fontaine has put blanket compensation for all former students of residential schools at the top of his priority list, a plan that would cost nearly $6-billion.