An ongoing debate in Indian Country in the United States revolves around Indian land and its ownership status. Should tribal lands be privatized and owned privately in what is called ‘fee simple absolute’ by tribal governments or by individual Indians, or should it stay owned as part of a collective by the tribal government and held in trust by the United States?
This debate is coming to the forefront in Canada because certain folks are pushing for privatizing ownership of Canadian reserves and allowing non-Indians to buy and/or lease lands on reserves.
An author opines, in part, in a recent article in a Canadian newspaper on this subject: In the early part of the 20th century in Canada (similarly to the United States), after most of the readily available land had been opened for non-Indian settlement, land speculators cast greedy eyes upon Indian land. Large chunks of reserve land were then ceded under dubious circumstances, often with the unambiguous assistance of the Department of Indian Affairs. Recent land claim settlements have provided money to purchase some of these lost lands. That program, combined with treaty land entitlement, has been part of the rapid growth in Indian-held lands in Saskatchewan, for example.
But now discourse has turned to First Nations’ property ownership issues. The First Nations Tax Commission is developing a land title system for consideration by aboriginal governments.
In the past, Indian Affairs allowed the sale of tribal lands with a simple show of hands at a band meeting. Tribal elders tell horror stories of the government withholding rations to coerce people to surrender land.
The federal government has a constitutional responsibility for First Nations people and land reserved for them under section 91 (24) of the British North America Act. This clause, in effect, protects the collective title to the land held by First Nations.
Indian land is not real estate. It is our homeland, and to privatize it would be disastrous. This land is a legacy from our forefathers and we must turn it over to the next generation.
Without the reserve that we hold in common, we would be a rootless diaspora that lacks both a past and a future.