Hot! It makes good sense to study native land use

MontrealGazette.com – Opinion/Editorial
September 6, 2010

It’s an enduring mystery: Why do some of Canada’s 633 native reserves flourish, while others wallow in poverty and social problems, and still others muddle through in between? We can all hope that a new federal initiative to answer that question will lead to real improvements.

To be sure, the situations of reserves vary widely. Some are well-situated near big cities or other sources of wealth, while others are in remote unpromising regions with few resources and little infrastructure.

But the federal Indian Affairs department, refusing to accept that as the whole answer, has now undertaken a study of 65 of Canada’s most successful native communities -about 10 per cent of the total. Most of these, the Globe and Mail newspaper reported, are fairly far south -that is, close to cities, where a casino, an industrial park or some other development can generate revenue.

The study is to be focused on land-use policy, which seems reasonable but has set off alarm bells among some chiefs and others, who are jealous of their powers and wary of conservative thinkers, in and around the Conservative federal government, who have long denounced collective land use on reserves. Current law gives band councils powers undreamed-of except by the North Korean leadership: police, education, health care, welfare, housing, jobs and more can all flow through a chief and councillors who may be corrupt or inept and who might have been chosen by a poorly-regulated election.

The Canadian Taxpayers Federation cites, for example, a 555-person Manitoba reserve, average income $20,000 in 2008-09, where the four leaders each made $106,000 or more in salaries, plus travel expenses. On one Cree reserve near Edmonton, average income $15,000; the chief was paid $327,000, tax-free. On many reserves, pay figures are secret.

A cornerstone of this whole over-centralized power structure is the control of land. Communal ownership means nobody can use “his” or “her” land as security for a loan to start a business, for example. That’s why we hear more and more talk about changing land-title arrangements on reserves — including from John Duncan, the new federal Indian Affairs minister.

And that’s why native organizations, which speak for chiefs, not whole populations, are so resistant. Predictably, they are grumbling about this new land-use study, just as they grumbled about the idea of giving Elections Canada power to supervise band elections.

But there is no legitimate reason to resist this government study. Where best practices can be shared, they should be. And while there can never be any formula for economic success or social progress on all reserves, a close look at what works is still worthwhile, because it will also serve to shine a spotlight on what’s not working.

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