No Bugles

The indigenous People Problem - Part 2

Imagine yourself living in a community 500km from the nearest town or city. You are isolated by wilderness. There are no roads in or out. All travel is by plane or boat. Your community consists of about 500 people. Most are children under 16 years of age.
Your community has no industry. No commerce. No banks or even bank machines. A few grocery stores might exist. There are schools but finding qualified teachers is difficult. Finding qualified professional of any kind - doctors, engineers, mechanics - is impossible.
There are lots of kids running around the village but it’s mid-week. And it’s not recess. Which means the kids are actually not in school. Many kids miss over 100 days of school each year.
So what kind of community are we talking about here? It’s not a resort with people flying in and out for a short holiday. It’s not an oil company work camp.
This is a typical Indian reserve you can find across Canada (and the US) numbering in the thousands. About 1.4 million people live in communities such as this in Canada alone. Isolated and in trouble. The trouble actually started a long time ago. It’s just getting worse.
Now ask yourself. Could you live in a community like this, day in, day out, year after year. Few people can or want to. Yet these reserves are a reality.
Because of the sheer isolation of such reserves (there are a few exceptions) it’s easy to see the problems that face the people living here. The cost of living is high. Food has to be imported by plane or ship or ice road transport in winter. No matter how you bring it in, it’s going to cost dearly, which it does.
The isolation also means job opportunities are limited. Globalization means that most countries rely heavily on international trade. Connections between cities and states and provinces are vital for a strong and vibrant and productive economy to take hold and maintain a standard of living for everyone. Reserves, by design, do not participate in this vital inter-city trade. Reserves simply have nothing connecting them to the economy at large.
Businesses do not set up on reserves for a couple of reasons. The isolation is one and very important. Businesses need infrastructure to get products and services to market. Being located 500 km from the nearest town or city completely disconnects the reserve from any possibility of economic participation in the greater national economy.
The second reasons businesses will not set up on reserves is that there are no property rights on reserves. Thanks to laws passed a 150 years ago, reserves are crown land and the occupants cannot own any land within the reserve. Lands can be leased but Canadian law does not apply on reserves. This puts businesses at risk that they are not protected by statutes that protect the rest of Canadians. Things like the right to security on your own property. There is no such thing as a registry office on a reserve. There is no such thing as land titles where your property is registered proving ownership by individuals or corporations. Land ownership and protection under Canadian law (and the majority of countries around the world enjoy the same kind of protection on land ownership). Property rights is a basic human right put in place hundreds of years ago and is the basis of modern civilization and economic performance.
That lack of property rights and lack of protection under Canadian law on reserves makes doing non-cash business on reserves risky. Few businesses venture to do business on reserves and most have policies to not do business on reserves because of the lack of protections under normal Canadian law. Unless it’s by cash in full up front, you have no legal recourse to collect money for services or products rendered.
The few reserves that are close to major urban centres (Kelowna and Calgary area reserves for two) still have major difficulties creating jobs on the reserve. Any Indian who wants to work on a reserve will find it in federal government offices, the usual casino and maybe a gas station located near the edge of the reserve selling tax free gas and cigarettes to off-reserve motorists. The rest have to rely on off-reserve employment. Most reserves contain thousands of undeveloped lands, all owned by the federal government that even the most determined Indian individual with entrepreneurship running through his or her veins cannot overcome as a major impediment to setting up a viable business.
A business minded Indian setting up shop, say a store or gas station, has to pay in cash for all supplies to outside vendors. There is no banking facilities to allow debit or credit card transactions, the most basic form of economic activity in place today. Without that, you cannot operate a business.
Any Indian who does manage to set up a business, say a small shop making furniture, has to deal with the burden of difficult cash management. But another important aspect is that he or she will never own the property outright. So let’s say our entrepreneur wants to build a small 20 unit townhouse complex in the middle of the reserve to house young Indian families. This is impossible. Because the land itself is not owned by anyone but the federal government and there is no title available to purchase anything, financing the project becomes impossible. Banks will not lend money for projects on leased land.
Even if our entrepreneur and determined Indian managed to put together the cash to build the apartment building he or she can rest will never be able to sell the property on the open market. Therefore it has no real value as a property or business. It cannot be sold for its true developed value and it cannot be passed down as the crown owns it.
Add to the fact that few reserves have infrastructure such as sewers, water mains, electrical service of high enough capacity and you can see that the idea of development on a reserve stands today at a very primitive level equivalent to our earliest settlers arrive in wagons to virgin land. Except the settlers knew that with enough elbow grease within a few generations they will achieve building a community complete with all the services you would expect. The entire province and country are committed as a whole to develop and provide such services and everyone stands to gain a better standard of living. And this by design, completely excludes reserves from participating in that national dream and goal.
Next time we’ll talk about the hopelessness for young people on reserves and why they are committing suicide at the tender age of 12 and 13.

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