An outstanding piece on the future of aboriginals in Canada, in Saturday’s Ottawa Citizen, takes a sympathetic look at the introduction of private property rights by the Nisga’a and includes a highly pertinent quotation from MLI Advisory Board member Calvin Helin (an author, entrepreneur, lawyer, activist and advocate for self-reliance and member of the Tsimshian Nation in northwestern BC) on the subject of holding land as a ward of the federal government: “what’s the point of having assets,” Helin asks, “if they’re of no value to you?”
This question pinpoints a key weakness of the Indian Act at a crucial time. If you get incentives wrong, and getting property rights wrong is a very basic and very powerful way of doing so, you can be sure events will turn out badly. As noted development economist Hernando de Soto (President of the Institute for Liberty and Democracy) wrote about the book Beyond the Indian Act by Tom Flanagan, Christopher Alcantara and André Le Dressay, “You don’t have to travel to Zambia or Peru to see dead capital. All you need to do is visit a reserve in Canada. First Nation people own assets, but not with the same instruments as other Canadians. They’re frozen into an Indian Act of the 1870s so they can’t easily trade their valuable resources. Beyond the Indian Act provides strategies to correct this so First Nation people can generate wealth in a manner that other Canadians take for granted.”
With the future of the Indian Act open to debate as never before (last month the national chief of the Assembly of First Nations, Shawn Atleo, told the AFN the Act should be repealed within five years), Calvin Helin’s perspective is not just important but timely. On what principled basis can the Indian Act be radically amended or even replaced so that those now subject to it are not stuck in the same situation or a worse one?
The Citizen piece also quotes former chief of the Kamloops Indian Band Manny Jules that “If people want to remain under the existing situation, let them be free to do that. But I’m tired of being a ward of the federal government. Our people are tired of being poor. How are we ever going to break that cycle? By creating our own economy, so that we look after ourselves.”
These voices are a badly needed breath of fresh air in a debate that has too often been terribly stale and unproductive, and this article is a must-read for anyone genuinely interested in a better future for First Nations in Canada and a better relationship between aboriginal and non-aboriginal Canadians.