I said goodbye to a close friend last week. No, no one died. This friend is a piece of land about nine acres large on the flank of a small mountain running down to a tiny lake, centred around a Swiss-chalet house built by Czech immigrants in the late 1960s.
It was the first property I owned. And in almost 13 years of playing, growing and loving there, my family and I grew deeply attached to it: to the trees, the streams, the animals and birds, even the smell of the air. The crunch of the snow in winter, the soft beds of moss in shady meadows, the sounds of my family and friends gathered round a fire late into a summer night.
These are life sensations one can have anywhere, to be sure. But this little piece of the earth was mine. In my mind, at least, it became a part of who I am, and the poignancy of each little experience and memory is that much deeper. But life is about change, and priorities change. Now someone else is looking after my old friend.
Perhaps because I grew up in rural and wilderness regions of Western Canada, the idea of owning one’s own patch of ground is deeply engrained. But the notion of land ownership is a slippery one.
These were some of the emotions I was feeling when I read about the federal government’s plans to introduce legislation to allow private property ownership on First Nations reserve lands in Canada. Sold as a way to spark First Nations economic development, it’s a radical departure from the collective stewardship that is the backbone of the reserve system. The changes would affect about 366,000 people living on 2.7 million hectares of reserve territory in Canada.
I think it’s an artificial, ideological proposal that would create more problems than it would solve. But I have to question myself: when I gained such deep satisfaction from owning my own little domain, why should First Nations people be deprived of the opportunity in their own communities?
For some nations, there could certainly be entrepreneurial gains to realize, especially on those close to large urban areas or in prime tourist regions. One could think of Kahnawake on the outskirts of Montreal. Or the Osoyoos territory of oft-lauded NK’MIP Chief Clarence Louie, who rarely misses an opportunity to promote a business solution to Native social challenges.
But there is something missing in the Conservative government’s proposal, which could become law as early as 2014. Have the people directly concerned been asking for the right to individually own property on communally held reserve land?
The sound of crickets is deafening.
Federal Native Affairs Minister John Duncan says there is solid First Nations support for the change. But, apart from the predictable cheerleading from the punch-drunk Tory Senator Patrick Brazeau, few Native leaders have voiced support for the privatization of reserve lands.
The opposition is not so quiet. It is strongly opposed by the Assembly of First Nations National Chief Shawn Atleo. And the Federation of Saskatchewan Indian Nations issued a statement saying they were “outraged and insulted” for not being properly consulted on the legislation.
That’s because there are major flaws to the proposal and because it’s a solution that is being imposed with next to no demand by the people directly concerned.
Trevor Greyeyes, a writer and member of Manitoba’s Peguis First Nation, is eloquent in listing the obvious drawbacks. First and foremost, he wrote in the Winnipeg Free Press recently, granting property rights to an impoverished population “will only erode a land base that is already too inadequate to sustain the current population”.
Given that most reserves in Canada are in remote areas with few natural resources or agricultural potential, the value of much of that land is theoretical at best, Greyeyes notes. That would make loans difficult to obtain, and would likely come loaded with onerous conditions that would almost ensure a high rate of personal and business bankruptcies.
Many people would end up worse off, highly indebted and beholden to Canada’s rapacious banks. The winners would be the very people funding the Conservative Party in power in Ottawa.
This proposed law is one of a series of radical changes to the Indian Act the Tories have planned. The overall result will be to weaken community ties and benefits for the profit of a small economic elite, both on-reserve and off.
If a First Nation overwhelmingly supports the notion in a referendum, an argument could be made that the community should have the right to dispose of its lands as it sees fit. But, in most cases, the majority of people will end up deprived of the use of territory the community will once have enjoyed collectively.
And there’s the rub. The added value that my family and I gained from my little patch of territory was only available to us because I am lucky enough to have had enough money to invest at a time land was much cheaper. But, in the end, I realize one can never truly own the land. Because the land ends up owning us.