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Give us full rights to our home and native land

Young children pose in front of a teepee and log cabin in Portage La Prairie in 1904.

Alexander Galbraith/Alexander Galbraith

"Let me be a free man, free to travel, free to stop, free to work, free to trade where I choose, free to choose my own teachers, free to follow the religion of my fathers, free to talk, think and act for myself – and I will obey every law or submit to the penalty."

- Chief Joseph of the Nez Perce, Jan. 14, 1879

Contrary to popular belief, Chief Joseph was not a war chief. He was a community chief. This statement reminds us that he understood that a community is a combination of innovative individuals and their willing commitment to community responsibilities. I use this quote often when I speak because our quest for individual freedom from the Indian Act and the Department of Indian Affairs will only be realized when we are able to look after our collective responsibility.

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For me, a book about establishing a system of property ownership that protects our title and jurisdiction and unleashes our individual creativity is just the next part of this agenda.

However, my real interest in a book like this started in the fall of 1997 when I visited Chichen Itza. The pyramids, monuments and other public infrastructure at Chichen Itza were built around 600 AD, or 1,500 years ago.

As I stared, I had an epiphany. Our people built this without the aid of federal government funding. We had governments that financed themselves.

We had individual property rights. Our clothes and shoes were not made to fit everyone. Our winter homes belonged to certain families. My community had individual property rights dating back to the early 1800s to specify where our potato crops were.

We achieved success because we created balance between our individual creativity and our collective responsibility. We created systems that supported and encouraged initiative and ensured we generated public resources to sustain our communities and advance our cultures.

Since then, we have become the poorest of the poor. The Indian Act has removed us from the economy. It destroyed our economic institutions. It destroyed our ability to trade and raise revenue. It saddled us with a property-rights system that prevented trade and created a 100-year credit crisis, from which we have yet to recover.

Every Indian leader has been dedicated to rebuilding our communities and economies. The path I chose was to legislate our way back into the economy and build institutions that implement our collective rights and release our individual creative energy.

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To fully realize the value of our land, we need a secure property-rights system. To restore our property rights, we need to first protect our title and underlying jurisdiction. The little bit of land we currently have can never be lost.

In order to advance, we need to find common cause with those who disagree that our governments need to be part of the Canadian federation to reduce our poverty. It is in all our interests to make change. Our poverty costs taxpayers an additional $4-billion every year in higher social, health and education costs. Moreover, because of our younger populations, in 10 years, up to one in 10 retirees will be replaced by a young first nations worker. We have to contribute to this country.

We need the freedom to choose. Throughout our history, we have had the ability to choose successful innovation and reject poor ones. Our most successful innovators were the Mayas, Aztecs and Incas, but each of our cultures built on our competitive advantage and created sustainable economies. After contact, a system of central planning was imposed on us. This did not work in Eastern Europe and it does not work for us.

Hope sees a mighty oak in an acorn. We have prospered in the past. We have been decimated by disease, warfare and most recently the good intentions that created our dependency. We have begun to rebuild the legal and administrative foundation to support markets on our lands. Once we restore our property rights to our lands, I believe we will unleash a wave of first nation creative and entrepreneurial spirit.

In 1910, the Secwepemc people issued a statement to Prime Minister Wilfrid Laurier. The statement spoke of how the people found themselves "without any real home in this our own country." It also reminded the Prime Minister that "we expect much of you as the head of this great Canadian nation, and feel confident you will see that we receive fair and honourable treatment."

It has been more than 100 years since we made our case to Canada, but I believe that with the passage of the First Nations Property Ownership Act, in the words of my ancestors, "We will make each other good and great."

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This excerpt, written by C.T. (Manny Jules) is from the foreword to Beyond the Indian Act: Restoring Aboriginal Property Rights by Tom Flanagan, Christopher Alcantara and André Le Dressay, published by McGill-Queen's University Press, 2010.

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