Natives deserve same property rights as all Canadians
NationalPost.com – FullComment
9 August 2012. Jonathan Kay
The concept of fee-simple home ownership is so straightforward that most human beings — outside of North Korea and Cuba, at least — don’t even think of it as a “concept.” Yet it is the bedrock of our society’s wealth and economic stability.
Look up and down your street. Unless you live on a military base or in a government-run low-income housing development, the homes you see are owned by private citizens — in most cases, by the people living in them. Each one provides more than mere shelter. They provide a nest egg for retirement; and a source of mortgage credit for temporarily distressed families, or for small business owners seeking seed capital.
They also provide families with a bricks-and-mortar stake within a geographical community. This sense of ownership and belonging in turn leads to numerous sociological benefits. Academic studies show that, as compared with renters, homeowners move less frequently, have stronger social ties with their neighbours, participate more in elections, report higher life-satisfaction and self-esteem, experience less crime, collect less welfare, exhibit less teen pregnancy, and raise more stable, well-educated families.
If there is a community that cries out for all of these benefits, it is Canada’s native population, especially those living on poor, isolated reserves. Yet, perversely, these are the only communities in Canada where one is legally forbidden from owning a house and the land under it.
On reserves, land is owned by the Crown, which in turn permits First Nations to use it for their collective use. Houses typically are built and maintained by bands or bureaucrats — with no economic input from (or equity for) the occupants. It is an artificial, Soviet-style arrangement.
Whenever a crisis erupts in a remote community such as Kashechewan or Attawapiskat, visiting journalists and politicians invariably are shocked at the poor condition of the homes. But this isn’t because Ottawa is nickel-and-diming Canada’s native reserves. Rather, it’s a function of the perverse economic incentives facing the natives who live in those homes.
Consider, for instance, a typical (off-reserve) Canadian homeowner who wakes up to find a leak in his basement. The carpet, he notices, is beginning to soak through — and there’s a musty smell. Fixing the problem will cost thousands of dollars, but the homeowner nonetheless puts down his money, and fast: He knows that once mould sets in, his whole house can become toxic. If he waits too long, the basement may need to be gutted entirely. Even if he doesn’t use his basement as a living space, the homeowner has equity in the structure: He knows that investing in necessary maintenance will pay off when he sells the house. That’s why properties in communities that have high rates of home ownership typically are so tidy and well-kept: Each house-proud owner is simply responding to market incentives.
But now consider the very different incentives facing a reserve-resident family with a leaky basement: Even if the owner can find a qualified contractor in his community, why would he plunk down a nickel of his own money to pay for a house that he didn’t build, didn’t buy, and doesn’t own? He also knows that his reserve is essentially a welfare state, with the band council controlling all capital expenditure. If he just waits for his house to become uninhabitable, he’ll eventually get a new one.
Bigots often make much of the decrepit condition of many reserves, arguing that it speaks to some flaw in the collective Indian character. Nothing could be further from the truth: If white Canadians lived on reserves, and were subject to the same laws of collectivist property ownership, their homes would be every bit as decrepit. The economic incentives at play are entirely race-neutral. It’s our policies — which confine natives to an archipelago of communist bantustans — that are racist.
Fortunately, there are signs that the Harper government may be moving to fix Canada’s property-rights double standard. “We intend to move on our commitment to implement legislation to allow on-reserve property rights,” a government official told the Globe & Mail last week. “There is solid support from first nations for this and we’ll work with them.”
As Tasha Kheiriddin suggested in her Thursday National Post column, the timing for this might have much to do with pipeline politics. But no matter the motive: Good policy is good policy.
Indian chiefs — and their lobby group, the Assembly of First Nations —oppose such privatization. But then, why wouldn’t they? After all, the present system allows every chief to act as a property czar, with the power to dole out homes to some subjects, and take them back from others. They are like the nobles of the late Middle Ages, trying to preserve their feudal entitlements in the face of market capitalism.
The collectivist model for Canadian reserves is based on the noble-savage myth that natives — because of some mystical, inveterate attachment to the land — are somehow immune to the economic principles that govern the rest of humanity. That lie has done hideous damage to native communities all across Canada for generations, and it is time that it be put to rest. All Canadians — of whatever skin colour — should get the same property rights the rest of us have enjoyed for centuries.