Privatizing First Nation land would be disastrous

A debate that has been swirling around in Indian Country has gathered more speed recently.

The issue revolves around Indian land and its ownership status. Should it be privatized or should it stay as a part of a collective? The question about what to do with Indian land has always been on the table.

In the early part of the 20th century, after most of the available land was opened for settlement, land speculators cast greedy eyes upon Indian land. We were considered a vanishing race at the time, with much more land than we needed.

Large chunks of reserve land were surrendered under dubious circumstances as a result, often with the unambiguous assistance of the Department of Indian Affairs. Recent land claim settlements have provided money to purchase the lost land. That, combined with treaty land entitlement, has seen the rapid growth in Indian-held land in Saskatchewan.

Now the public discourse has turned to First Nations' property ownership. The First Nations Tax Commission today is developing a land title system for policy consideration by aboriginal governments. This is a controversial topic that has been largely silent in Saskatchewan.

Land is held in common by all the members of a First Nation. Our people regard reserve land as land that our ancestors held back at the time of treaty. It is not land given to us, but is there for use by future generations.

If First Nations decide to sell their land, the Indian Act has a specific process for its surrender. There must be a band referendum.

In the past, Indian Affairs allowed the land surrender with a simple show of hands at a band meeting. Our elders have horror stories of the government withholding rations to coerce people to surrender their land.

The federal government has the constitutional responsibility for First Nations people and land reserved for them under section 91 (24) of the British North America Act. This clause, in effect, protects the collective title to the land held by First Nations. The privatization of Indian land would require a change to the Constitution.

Western civilization is hung up on property ownership. The fact that a group can hold land in common is anathema to this view.

Some Indian land has been coveted by land speculators, real estate developers and individuals looking to make a quick buck. On the other hand, much of the land in remote areas holds no real estate value, and the people exist in an economic vacuum.

It would appear that the old real estate maxim of location, location, location is what's really driving the value of First Nations lands.

Bands that have succeeded in large-scale development are generally close to urban areas, and those mired in poverty are often far from any commercial centre.

Private ownership of the land appears to have little to do with it. Yet, that doesn't stop right-wing thinkers from wringing their hands about poor Indians being denied access to economic opportunities that exist out there.

But today's leaders such as Chief Clarence Louis of the Osoyoos Band or Chief D'Arcy Bear at Whitecap are busy developing First Nation lands, and the banks are coming to them.

There appear to be two alternatives for First Nation development: Continue to develop the land base with a collective approach; or risk it all by privatizing the land.

We've been fortunate in Saskatchewan. Land claims settlements and treaty land entitlement have allowed our band councils to purchase land near or within cities.

This land with commercial value has become a valuable source of economic development. In Saskatchewan's major cities, gas stations, casinos and office buildings have sprung up on Indian land.

Many First Nations people who live off the reserve have invested in real estate and know about home ownership. But on reserve, home ownership does not hold the same investment potential.

On-reserve real estate holdings can exist, but that requires a vibrant economy. If a person builds a home on a reserve, he can own the building but not the land. He can sell that home only to another band member. This lowers the price of real estate, and makes a home part of one's legacy to the next generation rather than an investment. Real estate for investment purposes exists off-reserve.

Indian land is not real estate. It is our homeland, and to privatize it would be disastrous. This land is a legacy from our forefathers and we must turn it over to the next generation.

First Nation communities are not like small towns or rural communities. Reserve populations are families that have lived together for at least 135 years. We are related and share a common heritage.

Without the reserve that we hold in common, we would be a rootless diaspora that lacks both a past and a future.

Doug Cuthand is a columnist with The Saskatoon StarPhoenix, which first printed this article.


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