Thursday, December 20, 2012

Native Rights and Reserves: They are the problem

The long and troubled relationship between First Nation peoples and the Crown has blinded many to patent absurdity of the current situation. It has blinded them to the fact that Attawapiskat is a natural consequence of an economic and legal relationship built around Native rights, the reserve system, the Indian Act and Native Self government. In any other context this would be self evident. Indeed, imagine if the government happened to, oh, legally define what it means to be Chinese, created a department of Chinese affairs, created Chinese rights, reserved land for Chinese so defined and exempted Chinese living on reserve land from paying property taxes, sales taxes and in some cases taxes of any kind. No one would doubt that is a recipe for disastrous social relations. So, why would anyone doubt the same about Native Affairs, native rights and native reserves?

Of course the situation is even worse than just described. Not only has Canada set up hundreds of tax havens for Status Indians to take advantage of, it also provides incentives for Status Indians to stay on them or move to them. Specifically, the feds hold out the promise of free housing, a promise to pay for upkeep and the promise of never imposing not only no property tax or sales tax, but also in some cases no income tax. The federal government will pay for any needed infrastructure. Realizing, the patent absurdity of its ironclad guarantee, the government drags its feet, provides the bare minimum level of funding for housing, upkeep and infrastructure and to, add insult to injury, proceeds in less than timely matter. In other words, the government has every reason to create living conditions that repel even as its moronic promises attract.

In practice government foot dragging does not always work so well. Some of these tax havens are so isolated and so utterly economically unviable that the government is dammed no matter what it does. If it builds up these communities too much it runs the risk of attracting more people to them. However if it does too little, the very scarcity of jobs in these places ties people living there to land all the more. The less assets, work experience and education a person has the more attractive the prospect of obtaining free housing, however squalid, becomes. There is a long waiting for housing in Attawapiskat. This dispite the fact that the community has a staggeringly high unemployment rate and by any objective measure is a hell hole. A bird in the hand is better than two in bush as it were; a dilapidated house in the hand is better than the dim prospects of a better house elsewhere.

The only possible way out this mess, viz., abolishing native rights, abolishing the Indian Act and privatizing reserve lands, has been forever blocked by section 35 of the Constitution -- a decision, by the way, that renders Trudeau's time in office an abject failure. The best the government can do is to amend the Indian Act to allow for the creation of fee simple lands, thereby switching the financial burden of maintaining and upgrading housing from the federal government to individual home owners, and empowering bands to impose property taxes. This will give the people living in Attawapiskat and like communities additional economic incentives to leave. Namely, either property taxes and the cost of upkeep will drive people away in the absence of a job, or the prospect of using the capital from the sale of one's house and land will.

That said, introducing fee simple opens a whole host of other problems. For example, as the idiocy of native self government is maintained in all cases, non natives purchasing native lands would have no right to take part in band elections. There would be taxation but no representation. Such a situation would greatly depress real estate values on reserves -- especially on remote reserves. Band councils must be transformed into municipal councils. The notion of a government built around a legally defined race is not only economically problematic, it is ideologically putrid. Moving to a fee simple model also does not eliminate such lands as tax havens.

The reserve system, premised as it is on the notion of native rights, is a bureaucratic, fiscal, jurisdictional, legal, intellectual and sociological abortion that does nothing save waste mountains of money, breed corruption, black marketeering and poverty, encourage tax evasion (e.g., cigarettes), instill in the native community a vile sense of identity based on “blood” and breed racism in the Canadian society at large. If politicians and the media want to accept this as Canada's historical cross to bear, so be it. However, it is high time both acknowledge that the problem is intractable so long as the only possible solution, viz., the abolition of native rights and Indian Act and privatization of reserve lands, remains legally untenable.

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