Rights not a cure for Indian Act
Posted: April 02, 2010. By Peter Foster
Aboriginal people are just like us. They have the same desire to “better their condition” and acquire property, and the same “propensities to trade.” The problem is that they don’t live in the same conditions or cultural environment as us. It costs Canadian taxpayers billions of dollars each year to keep native people in a squalid state of isolated dependency. Meanwhile there is a vast “Aboriginal Industry” whose interests are dependent on exploiting white guilt, extolling primitive “culture” and suggesting that the solution to all problems lies in self-government and successful land claims.
How to escape from this nightmare? Surprisingly, according to a new book, Beyond the Indian Act, by Tom Flanagan, Christopher Alcantara and Andre Le Dressay, the answer is … by more self government and land claims! Or rather a system which cements and secures collective ownership as a way of more easily allowing individuals to own property. The reforms they propose would, they claim, facilitate pride of ownership, and enable individuals to build equity and borrow for entrepreneurial activities. It would also provide a growing tax base for local aboriginal governments.
This approach certainly seems a major reversal for Professor Flanagan, who once castigated the whole notion of “First Nations” as a fraud.
The book is partly inspired by the theories of Hernando de Soto, the Peruvian economist. Mr. de Soto has suggested that what holds back the poorest people is lack of property rights. Ten years ago he wrote a book, The Mystery of Capital, which pointed to the entrepreneurial skills of those who lived on the fringes of big cities in poor countries. He suggested that these skills could be turbo charged if the people could gain title to the little plots of land on which they lived, and thus borrow against them.
However, Mr. de Soto was writing about people who showed remarkable entrepreneurship without secure property. Also, the fact that they chose to locate themselves on the margins of cities indicated that that was where the opportunities lay. Meanwhile there have apparently been all kinds of practical, legal problems to “unlocking” this potential.
To suggest that a wave of aboriginal entrepreneurialism might be unleashed by gaining ownership of a piece of land hundreds of kilometers from the nearest jobs is dreaming in Technicolour. Similarly, to suggest that there might be some surge in property values on remote reserves if rights were more clearly delineated also seems a stretch. Finally, if property values did increase, why would anybody imagine that the consequent increase in borrowing capacity would not go into consumption rather than investment? (This would, of course, be entirely the right of the property owner.)
Certainly, land is more valuable on reserves where resources are located, or which sit next to expanding urban areas, but the problem is to make sure that the benefits of resources and/or location find their way to the average native. That seems to be one of the main thrusts behind the book’s proposals.
One of the promoters of a First Nations Property Ownership Act is Manny Jules, a former chief of the Kamloops Indian Band. He notes his band’s success in building an industrial park on his reserve’s land, which is now home to 400 businesses. The problem is that very few of those businesses are run by aboriginals. Being a rentier may be better than being a rent-seeker, but the route to self worth is lined with jobs.
Meanwhile one of the most jarring aspects of Mr. Jules’ introduction to Beyond the Indian Act is his suggestion that “we,” that is, Canadian aboriginal people, should somehow be respected as the heirs of the Aztec, Incan and Mayan empires. With respect, this ranks with Greek financial authorities claiming they should not be judged too harshly because they are the descendents of Plato and Socrates.
Education is the real key to enabling future generations to live in and contribute to the modern world. Unfortunately, too much aboriginal “education” is built around the notion of “preserving the culture.” This in fact amounts to consigning natives to living in a stone-age zoo, or a mental prison. Meanwhile we might note that the aboriginal-managed First Nations University in Saskatchewan has been mismanaged into insolvency.
Beyond the Indian Act does an excellent job of laying out the evolution of the concept of property rights and the complexities of the property system on which Western capitalist democracies are built. But while government is the ultimate guarantor of those rights, it can also be the world’s greatest predator. That seems to be the case when it comes to the kleptocratic tribalism on many Indian reserves.
Some communities with enlightened leadership have done a good job in local development. The book makes much of the success of the Nisga’a in B.C. But for most bands, even when they are close to the urban action, there remain a multiplicity of problems. To achieve full value, reserve property would have to be open to purchase by non-natives, which would be seen as the thin end of the wedge.
While more secure individual property rights may be necessary, they are very far from sufficient to solve the terrible problems — including isolation, dependency, substance abuse, mismanagement and joblessness — inflicted upon natives by well-meaning paternalism, self-serving humbug, and the depredations of their own “leaders.”