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Harper government to introduce law to allow private property on reserves

The Conservative government will introduce legislation that would allow first nations members living on reserve to own their property, a radical change that aims to spur economic development in native communities that choose to embrace the new law.

It's all part of an ambitious Conservative agenda to bring fundamental changes to relations between Ottawa and the first nations – on property rights, on matrimonial rights, on financial transparency and on education.

The act would potentially affect more than 366,000 natives living in more than 600 first nations communities, comprising some 2.7 million hectares of land. However, each first nation would be able to choose whether to introduce private property onto reserves. As yet, only a handful of native leaders support the idea.

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Reforming the relationship between first nations and the government has become a priority for the Conservatives. A fair chunk of the legislative agenda over the coming year will be devoted to that reform.

The Conservatives have long supported the principle of extending property rights to reserves, but have not committed to legislation.

However, a government official, speaking not for attribution because Aboriginal and Northern Affairs Minister John Duncan comments publicly for the government on native policy, said Sunday a new act was coming.

"We intend to move on our commitment to implement legislation to allow on-reserve property rights," the official confirmed. "There is solid support from first nations for this and we'll work with them." There is no word on when the government intends to introduce the bill.

The move is strongly opposed by many chiefs, including Shawn Atleo, who was re-elected in July as National Chief of the Assembly of First Nations.

Band councils fear that, beyond offending traditional communal approaches to land ownership, transferable property rights could lead to non-natives taking control of land on reserves.

For the same reason, many chiefs also oppose Bill S-2, which would protect the matrimonial property rights of women living on reserves if their marriages end.

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The Conservatives are determined to push the bill through, however, though timing remains an issue.

In the United States, President Barack Obama recently signed into law legislation expanding property rights on reserve. The HEARTH Act allows native communities to approve trust land leases directly, rather than requiring approval from the Bureau of Indian Affairs.

Mr. Duncan is also throwing his support behind a private member's bill that would, among other things, allow native governments to enact bylaws, and natives on reserves to draw up wills – something other Canadians and their governments take for granted, but that the antiquated Indian Act prohibits.

Conservative MP Rob Clarke, who put forward the bill, said Sunday the goal was to "take care of some of the small stuff" as a way of rewriting or perhaps even one day scrapping the Indian Act.

The proposal drew the wrath of the Federation of Saskatchewan Indian Nations, who were "outraged and insulted" for not being properly consulted.

But the government official said Mr. Duncan "supports the thrust of the bill," which "seeks to remove some of the impediments of the Indian Act that prevent first nations from participating more fully in Canada's economy."

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Mr. Duncan has several other priorities of his own, including a new First Nations Education Act. The bill was to have been introduced this fall, but the government official reports it has been postponed until 2013, to provide more time for consultation. Nonetheless, the Conservatives are committed to having the legislation passed into law by September, 2014.

The new law is expected to permit first nations who choose to participate to form regional or provincial native school boards that will allocate funding for schools, teachers and principals, while establishing a native-centred curriculum that meets provincial standards.

The government is also committed to passing its First Nations Financial Transparency Act, which would require band councils to post their salaries and benefits on a website for all to see. Although many chiefs and councillors work hard for little money, some do the exact opposite.

This ambitious agenda conflicts with another Tory tendency – to exercise tighter controls over failing reserves.

A federal court judge ruled last week that the government was wrong to send in a third-party manager when the housing crisis at the Attawapiskat Reserve in Northern Ontario garnered international headlines.

The Tories' heavy-handed approach to Attawapiskat damaged relations with the chiefs, whose good will the government will need as it seeks to implement the most sweeping program of aboriginal legislation in decades.

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About the Author
Writer-at-large

John Ibbitson started at The Globe in 1999 and has been Queen's Park columnist and Ottawa political affairs correspondent.Most recently, he was a correspondent and columnist in Washington, where he wrote Open and Shut: Why America has Barack Obama and Canada has Stephen Harper. He returned to Ottawa as bureau chief in 2009. More

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