Proposals to encourage private land ownership on Canada's reserves will be part of in-depth parliamentary hearings in the new year aimed at finding new ways to boost economic activity in first nations communities.
Conservative MP Chris Warkentin, who chairs the House of Commons committee on aboriginal affairs, said a wide range of witnesses will be invited to appear when Parliament returns after its current recess, including advocates of private land use on reserves. The committee chair said suggested witnesses include Manny Jules, chief commissioner of the First Nations Tax Commission, and University of Calgary political science professor Tom Flanagan – two leading advocates for a proposed new law called the First Nations Property Ownership Act.
The committee will also hear from native leaders who strongly oppose private land use on reserves and who will advocate for creative uses of long-term leases.
This week a prebudget report by the House of Commons finance committee urged the government to examine the proposal, which would allow natives to own private property within the communal land of reserves.
Mr. Warkentin noted that in his committee's initial hearings on the issue, MPs heard Nisga'a leaders speak favourably of private land rights, which are part of their self-government agreement.
"They're encouraged and excited about that provision," the Peace River Alberta MP said. "There are different ways that communities are looking at doing this, but all [are]essentially allowing the land to be used as a tool for economic development."
The chair of the Nisga'a Nation, Kevin McKay, told the committee this month that his community's move to private – or fee simple – residential property "is unprecedented in aboriginal communities, not only in Canada but indeed around the world." He also said it represents major opportunities.
But the push by Conservatives in this direction comes in the face of sound rejection by the vast majority of Canada's first nations leaders. Assembly of First Nations chiefs overwhelmingly voted to reject the idea at a 2010 gathering in Winnipeg, with only three dissenting votes.
Westbank First Nation Chief Robert Louie, who also chairs the First Nations Land Advisory Board, said that near-unanimous opposition to the idea hasn't changed. He warned that the government will face major opposition if it attempts to bring in legislation along those lines.
"There's going to be such a huge outcry against this," he said, noting that the proposal is viewed by many first nations as on par with the hated 1969 federal government white paper that attempted to do away with the reserve system.
Mr. Louie said the economic success of his own B.C. community – which is home to 8,500 non-band members who lease their properties – shows leasing arrangements can win the support of investors and big banks without sacrificing reserve land.
Mr. Louie and the AFN argue there are other property-rights models that are proving successful and should be expanded.
In particular, there are now 58 first-nations communities that have voluntarily opted into the 1999 First Nation Land Management Act, which gives communities direct powers over land codes for commercial and residential property on reserve, while keeping communal land rights in the hands of the community.
An AFN policy paper disputes that there is a "stark choice" between traditional collective land use and private land use.
"The reality is there is a range of options and models that can combine communal values and individual landholding in ways that meet the priorities and values of different peoples," the paper states.
"While Canada is well aware of these issues, there is no dialogue with first nations to design a process to address them."
NDP MP Linda Duncan said her concern is that while private land ownership may work for individual homeowners, the debate is ignoring larger questions of how commercial land changes would protect the environment. Whether it's an oil sands company or an independent gas station, she said, Ottawa and the communities need to sort out how to enact and enforce environmental rules.
She also questions why Ottawa isn't focusing on less controversial land changes. "Why throw all your eggs in that basket?" she asked. "There may be lots of other feasible options where you don't get people's backs up."