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A teenage boy throws rocks in the northern Ontario First Nations reserve in Attawapiskat in April 2016. Poverty has a profound impact on First Nations, and Canada needs to take bold wealth- and income-creation measures for the Indigenous. THE CANADIAN PRESS/Nathan Denette

Charting an economic path forward for First Nations

After reading the final report of the National Inquiry into Missing and Murdered Women and Girls, I had two reactions.

First, a deep sadness at how Canada, and I mean all of us, have failed these women and their families. The layer upon layer of pain from the detailed testimony is numbing and sobering.

But then I felt frustration. After three major inquiries , the Aboriginal Justice Inquiry, the Truth and Reconciliation Commission and now MMIWG, progress toward restitution and resolution is glacially slow.

Structural poverty is a common denominator for many of the problems highlighted in the various reports. Policies to improve the economic circumstances of Indigenous people in Canada should be a priority. Yet as an economist, it’s puzzling to me that none of these three important inquiries offer much useful advice on how Indigenous communities and persons can gain wealth and income.

The MMIWG report offers 231 “calls for justice” that would appear to form the basis for concrete action. But aside from recommendations on policing, many of them are anodyne and offer little specific direction.

Much of the report also frames any resolution as replacing the structures of colonialism with “Indigenous values, philosophies, and knowledge systems.”

The use of colonial structures

But many of Canada’s most successful First Nations are adopting and adapting to colonial structures to raise incomes, increase wealth and forge economic ties with the rest of Canada and the world.

For example, according to the 2016 census, Fort McKay in Alberta is one of the wealthiest First Nations communities in Canada with an annual average income of $78,916, well above the provincial average of $62,778.

An aerial view of Fort McKay, Alta. THE CANADIAN PRESS/Jeff McIntosh

What is important is that 84 per cent of the community’s income derives from employment in nation-owned and private business. It has also forged joint ventures with Suncor and other energy players.

Similarly, Tsawwassen First Nation near Vancouver has successfully managed land development, attracting Ivanhoe Capital Corp. to create a large fashion mall and GWL Realty to develop an Amazon warehouse, as well as creating several leasehold condominiums.

Modelled after the Nisga’a Treaty Agreement, Tsawwassen First Nation has evolved from communal land ownership to allowing band members to hold land privately and creating opportunities for non-band members to gain an interest in its lands through purchasing leasehold condominiums. By adopting and adapting colonial land law, many First Nations will create opportunities for wealth creation and enhanced incomes for their members.

At the other end of the economic development scale are Birdtail Sioux and Roseau River First Nation in Manitoba, with 2016 annual average incomes of $8,802 and $11,135 respectively. Members of these communities derive much as much 45 per cent of their annual incomes from government transfers, with the other half from employment in non-Indigenous businesses off reserve.

Fleeing poverty?

An important issue is whether missing and murdered women and girls are predominantly from such poorer communities. Did these women flee poverty-induced dysfunction in their communities to seek a better life, only to become isolated in the city without kin or institutions that offer Indigenous values, philosophies and knowledge systems?

Unfortunately MMIWG did not complete such an analysis, which was certainly possible within its $92 million budget. Such empirical evidence would have buttressed the case for a set of robust policies for raising the economic well-being of Indigenous peoples in Canada.

Here are three specific policies that governments should consider:

1) Create all of Canada as treaty land. Much of British Columbia, Yukon, Northwest Territories and Ontario, as well as all of Québec, Nunavut and much of the Atlantic, are unceded territories, meaning land not covered by any treaty.

Although treaty violations by Canadian governments and non-Indigenous persons have been all too common, an opportunity exists to reset the clock to the era prior to the War of 1812, when the intent of treaties was to create mutually beneficial and respectful relationship between all Indigenous peoples and settlers. Such an initiative would create an important amendment to Canada’s constitutional framework.

2) Update the treaty annuity to create a basic income for all registered “Indian” people. (The term Indian refers solely to registered Indigenous people as defined by the Indian Act.)

Set at $5 a person 150 years ago and based on land values in Ontario at the time, such an annuity today could be worth in excess of $5,000 annually.

Paid to the approximately 800,000 registered Indigenous people in Canada, this would represent a $4 billion annual expenditure, or about 25 per cent of the total $12.9 billion spent on Indigenous and Northern Affairs and Indigenous Services.

If this were administered as the Canada Child Benefit, it would be progressively clawed back from higher-income recipients. Sharing the clawback with First Nations taxation authorities for registered Indigenous people living on reserve would create additional financial resources to support self-determination for the communities.

3) Accelerate the additions-to-reserve program, especially the creation of urban reserves. Between 1969 and 2017, the federal government approved 1,689 additions to reserves and of these, 119 were urban reserves, mostly in smaller communities or on the periphery of larger cities, and less commonly inside a major metropolis.

A four-year-old boy on Roseau River First Nation in Manitoba plays as his family waits to be evacuated after flooding in 2011. THE CANADIAN PRESS/John Woods

Roseau River First Nation, Canada’s second-poorest reserve as measured by the 2016 Census, is one of seven First Nations that have formed a consortium to acquire Kapyong Barracks, 110 acres in the heart of Winnipeg.

Many of Canada’s most successful First Nations, Tsawwassen, Tk'emlups te Secwepemc, Musqueam and Tsuut'ina, lie entirely within or immediately adjacent to an urban area. Many of the remote and impoverished First Nations communities have few economic prospects to support their growing populations.

Creating an economic stake in urban Canada represents an important wealth- and income-creation strategy for Indigenous peoples.

Challenges remain

These policies all pose challenges. Does transforming all of Canada into treaty land mean including Inuit as well as Métis? It also means that non-Indigenous Canadians must understand they too are bound by the treaties, something that few living within the existing treaties fully comprehend.

Guests listen as Prime Minister Justin Trudeau delivers an official apology to Inuit for the federal government’s management of tuberculosis in the Arctic from the 1940s to the 1960s during an event in Iqaluit, Nunavut in March 2019. THE CANADIAN PRESS/Sean Kilpatrick

Updating the treaty annuity puts serious money on the table. Should just registered Indigenous people receive it, or should it extend to non-registered Indigenous, Inuit and Métis? How does one define a registered Indigenous person as well as determine and enforce eligibility for the payments?

Many will complain that this is a race-based policy, but then racism has been the reality for Indigenous Canadians for two centuries or more. Perhaps we need race-based policies to reverse the harms of the past.

Finally, urban reserves must operate in close co-operation with city governments. Municipal development and agreements must be comprehensive and allow both the urban reserve and rest of the city to flourish. Certainly, municipal governments must be involved in the creation of urban reserves at the outset, and not consulted after the negations have substantially concluded.

The MMIWG report specified no policies to address the poverty that has had such a devastating effect on the lives of the Indigenous in Canada. Creating more opportunities for active participation by Indigenous peoples in the Canadian economy offers a win-win for everyone, with an incalculably high return on investment. There is no time to lose.

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