Canada is in the midst of a federal election and it is time for some new ideas for aboriginal policy. What follows is a wish list for five future aboriginal policy changes the next government should seriously consider.
The Indian Act
It can be argued that the current plight of Aboriginal people was created in 1867 when the Canadian Constitution gave the federal government explicit responsibility for “Indians and lands reserved for Indians,” thereby precluding provinces from legislating for Indians. Meaning the myriad of programs available to any other citizen of a province are not available to Indians living on reserve land, therefore; the federal government must create a separate layer of bureaucratic overlap. Consequently the federal government – by having programs specifically for Indians – treats Indians differently than other Canadians.
Clearly, treating one group of Canadians differently – often with preferential treatment – is wrong both morally and intellectually. For more than 130 years, Indians have been segregated from Canadian society by the Indian Act. Fortunately there are no legal or constitutional barriers to ending the exercise of federal jurisdiction over Indians. Though the federal government has sole jurisdiction, that does not also mean that it must exercise it. Therefore, the federal government can, and should, abolish the Indian Act and policies of segregation.
Private Property Rights
Markets work best when property is privately owned. The land which comprises a reserve is owned by the Crown and is controlled collectively by the native band council, not by individuals. This communal arrangement imposed by the Indian Act produces problems for aboriginal individuals and entrepreneurs. Most Canadians can borrow against their own private property, which is how capital is obtained to invest in new business ventures.
If native communities are to become economically self-sustaining, the reserve land which is now held by the Crown should be transferred to individual natives living on-reserve, and to band members living off-reserve. It will be up to natives themselves to decide if they want to transfer the land into a communal arrangement or allow for the property to be owned and managed individually.
Tax relief and tax reform must be based on the principle of fairness. Taxes should be based on income; meaning if people do not pay taxes, it should be because they are too poor to pay, not because of their ancestry.
The tax exemption now provided for natives living and working on reserves is a provision of the Indian Act, not the Canadian Constitution. The Indian Act is like any other piece of legislation, capable of being amended and/or abolished at any time. Taxation at all levels (municipal, provincial, federal) should be phased in for natives over a period of ten years. As it is now, an artificial competitive advantage for native businesses has emerged.
Accountability on native reserves is lacking but there are ways to solve that problem. One possibility is to have native governments collect taxes in the way other levels of government collect taxes: through income taxes, property taxes and a multitude of other measures. This would have an immediate effect on the size of government on reserves, which is unreasonably large in comparison to non-native communities of similar size. Reserve governments should be subject to the discipline of being accountable to taxpayers. This would gradually reduce the excessive size of government on reserves.
In order to increase the level of accountability on reserves, the payments currently transferred to native band councils should be re-directed to individuals. The money necessary for native governments could then be taxed back by the local native government.
Under the current systems, once the federal government transfers money (tax dollars) from the federal departments to native band councils, The Auditor General of Canada no longer has the authority to audit how and where the money is spent. Without checks and balances, inefficiencies, redundancies, corruption and even abuse may occur.
A system of independent annual financial audits and operation audits of Indian bands – similar to how the federal and provincial auditors conduct their audits of government departments and programs should be implemented. Expansion of the current Auditor General’s mandate to include native bands is imperative for true accountability and transparency to occur.
Regardless of which party is successful on October 14, it is highly likely that politicians would agree Canadians – all Canadians – are fundamentally alike. Therefore it makes sense that all legislation and government policy must be based on fairness and equality – not race. As former Prime Minister Trudeau once stated, “The time is now to decide whether the Indians will be a race apart in Canada or whether [they] will be Canadians of full status.” In other words, the time for equality is now. Let’s hope the next government has the will to change aboriginal policy.