Earlier this year, the Canadian National Railway agreed to provide rail transportation services for a new multimillion-dollar rail spur and oil terminal to be constructed on the Birdtail Sioux First Nation.
It’s a project that could give the small Dakota nation a great step forward in terms of job creation and economic development if the plan proceeds as Chief Ken Chalmers hopes.
As the Sun has reported, the plan is to build the spur along parcelled sections of reserve land that will be leased out to various corporate partners — many of which are already showing great interest in the development.
The first major project along the spur will be a joint venture with Calgary-based Strive Energy Services Ltd. to build an oil terminal, operated under a limited partnership with the First Nations.
But before the reserve can move forward with this enterprise, the land along the railway spur will have to be designated for commercial development, and only the federal government can make that change. It’s a cumbersome process that can take as little as 30 days, or several months — perhaps longer. In the meantime, the wheels of process and business grind to a halt while the First Nation wades through red tape.
While Chalmers says he’s committed to moving his way through the process, it’s an all too familiar story for Canadian First Nations — to do business, you first have to win approval from the feds. It’s an archaic and insulting process to First Nations that treats them like incapable wards of the state.
And it’s part of the reason that economic development is so difficult to create on reserves.
While Canadian aboriginals are able to own land off reserve, they are unable to own land on reserve. There are exceptions of course — there exist certificates of possession that must be approved by the aboriginal affairs minister, and resident families can also occupy pieces of land for years under customary usage, though they have no legal title to the land.
This has created a barrier for First Nations that are left without access to normal financial systems available to any other Canadian, such as mortgage financing and business loans. And that business detriment also dissuades outside corporations from setting up business within the reserve system as well.
But Prime Minister Stephen Harper intends to change all that.
Recently, Harper announced that he and Northern Affairs Minister John Duncan intend to bring forward a First Nations property rights bill, along with legislation to reform the education system on reserves.
As the Globe and Mail has reported, the government says employers in resource industries are complaining of worsening job shortages, and First nations workers could help fill that gap. But to qualify, they need a high school education, at least, and the social stability that land ownership can help provide.
At the same time, native governments would be given a new revenue stream as they can tax native property owners to pay for roads, water systems and other infrastructure.
Under a plan first championed by the former chief of T’kemlups First Nation in Kamloops, B.C., Clarence Jules, the Crown would transfer title of reserve lands to First Nations that “opt in” to the plan if a majority of band members support the idea. It would allow the band to then divvy up reserve lands and allocate plots to individual members.
Jules said this would allow investors to make commitments on reserve “with the same confidence they do anywhere else.” It would also allow First Nations to, as Postmedia wrote, “move at the speed of business” instead of being subject to a cumbersome government approval process.
The majority of chiefs in the Assembly of First Nations have come out solidly against private property ownership, as property ownership is an alien idea to traditional aboriginal notions of their relationship with the land. They say it also opens the door to non-aboriginal ownership of reserve land, which could further reduce their territory.
But in our opinion, if the federal government and First Nations work together to build the legislation, and guard against issues of territorial loss — for example — the elimination of government interference in reserve business matters would be a boon for aboriginal bands that sign on.
It’s also the first tangible plan to break the ongoing cycle of blame and anger under the auspices of the Indian Act that have shackled First Nations with poverty and despair for more than a century.
Republished from the Brandon Sun print edition August 9, 2012