Image: Jenn Jackson July 2012, installed at The Crying Room, Vancouver
This past December, the Conservatives forced through legislative changes to nearly every aspect of First Nations life in Canada. The reforms of omnibus Bill C-45 have sparked the Idle No More movement, and while First Nations have been far from idle in recent years, Canada is experiencing an upsurge of Indigenous activism not felt since the late 1980s and early ‘90s. One focus of the opposition to Bill C-45 is the First Nations Property Ownership Act (FNPOA), a law to convert First Nations reserve land into private property for sale on Canada’s housing market.
Urban housing crisis
To understand the implications of Bill C-45 it is necessary to interpret the current state of the Canadian housing market. The housing crisis engulfing Canada today affects First Nations worse than any other group. In Vancouver, 32 percent of homeless people are aboriginal, despite making up only two percent of the city’s population. In Calgary the rate is 35 percentand in Toronto it is almost 20 percent. The people whose land forms the basis of the colonial nation are the most likely to be left without a home. If they do have an apartment in one of Canada’s largest cities, First Nations are in turn the most likely to be evicted and dispossessed by Canada’s aggressive housing market and colonial tenancy laws.
Yet, as Canada enters an affordability crisis unprecedented since the 1940s, policy-makers are seeking to extend the reach of the private housing market beyond the class-divided cities and onto the reserves.
With the coming expiry of public housing funding, First Nations renters will be the first to be affected by austerity. A majorstudy found that the Urban Native housing projects in East Vancouver are among those least likely to survive after expiry. The disappearance of social housing and the precarity of the Canadian housing market uphold a painful social crisis. Canadian household debt has reached above 160 percent, higher than at any time prior to the US subprime crisis. Renters everywhere have been called upon to work harder and longer to cover the widening balance sheets of the private banks.
Amidst gentrification, thousands have already been evicted and replaced by the next round of ‘mortgage helpers.’ Others scrape by from rent cheque to rent cheque, searching the labour market for jobs that don’t exist. Whether a financial crisis isimminent or more remote, the contours of the housing crisis — homelessness, overcrowding, displacement, evictions — continue to deepen the colonial class divide.
On-reserve housing crisis
The urban crisis is matched by a crisis of on-reserve housing. Until the recent crisis at Attawapiskat, the rural housing shortage has received little coverage. Dramatic underfunding and consecutive federal austerity budgets have created the conditions for a massive on-reserve housing shortage, overcrowding, and unsafe living conditions. As early as 2003, the Auditor General’s yearly report stated that nothing was being done to address the molding, decay and disrepair of on-reserve housing. The report stated straightforwardly that current levels of funding were inadequate to meet basic housing needs: “the current level of investment by all parties is insufficient for many First Nations to sustain improvements and keep pace with the demand over the long term. As a result, the high levels of substandard housing and overcrowding are expected to continue.”
Since then, the Kelowna Agreements have collapsed, a Conservative government has been elected, and funding levels have descended below the status quo, despite inflation, cost increases, and ever-growing demand for basic housing. To make the crisis more severe, the federal department responsible for half of all funding to on-reserve housing will be receiving a $165 million budget cut over the next three years. The austerity is roughly the same amount that the department, Aboriginal Affairs and Northern Development, spends on First Nations housing each year, at $146 million.
First Nations Property Ownership Act
Despite the funding crisis, the government has attempted to place the blame for the housing shortage on flaws inherent within the Indian Act. According to the long-time position of the Conservatives, the fundamental problem with the Indian Act is that it contains provisions which “limit seizure of property on-reserve to a First Nations community or its members.” This protection of reserve land is seen as a “problem,” for the simple reason that it diminishes the security of the Canadian Banks when seeking to extend loans to First Nations mortgage holders. If a homeowner goes into default, there is nothing for the bank to repossess because First Nations land is legally protected.
The First Nations Property Ownership Act was first proposed in Tom Flanagan’s Beyond the Indian Act: Restoring Aboriginal Property Rights (2010). The book coincided with the First Nations Property Ownership Initiative (FNPOI), a legislative campaign chaired by Manny Jules, chief commissioner of the federal government’s First Nation Tax Commission. According to the theory, property ownership will solve on-reserve poverty and is “the single most useful reform of the aboriginal condition.” First Nations individuals can become “wealthy landlords” if only the federal government is able to make the “bold decision” to lift restrictions on the free sale of First Nations land. This analysis ignores the reality that it will be precisely Canada’s existing wealthy landlords and investors who will be able to leverage their wealth to grab reserve lands, further pushing First Nations off their land.
Mortgaging the Future
In the years leading up to the FNPOA, the federal government sought to extend the principle of home-ownership to First Nations communities with a preliminary program called the First Nations Market Housing Fund (FNMHF). The FNMHF stipulated that housing loans must be guaranteed by the same Bands in possession of the purchased land. As a result, various First Nations communities have been forced to take on the mortgages of individual members, covering their own debt with existing funds in a zero-sum game that has exacerbated debt and poverty. Rather than becoming a source of “economic development,” the FNMHF has proven to be bottomless scheme in which First Nations buy their own property from themselves with the money they do not have. Now the same failed formula is being proposed under a new name: the First Nations Property Ownership Act.
For federal statesman Manny Jules, “the purpose of the legislation is to be able to move at the speed of business, to put our First Nations people in a position where they could get a mortgage like any other Canadian.” But the fundamental question is, which “other Canadian” is Jules speaking of? We get a hint at an answer when we realize that Jules himself makes $200,000 per year; it is clear that Jules is addressing those who own property. Unfortunately for the theory, the obstacle to obtaining mortgages for First Nations communities is not the law in its abstraction, but rather real, concrete inequality. The market charges an average of $250,000 for a new home on a reserve, yet the median annual income on reserves is $11,300 (average income is $16,160). Private mortgages are, for obvious reasons, well out of reach for most on-reserve First Nations.
Trevor Greyeyes of the Peguis First Nation writes, “Granting property rights to an impoverished population will only erode a land base that is already too inadequate to sustain the current population.” If the federal government wanted to give First Nations access to the wealth of their land, they would pass a law allowing precisely that. Instead they are forcing through the First Nations Property Act, a Bill C-45 law that will give resource extraction firms — and now real-estate bankers — yet more access to the meagre resources of First Nations communities.
This is the first part of a two-part essay. Nathan Crompton is an organizer with the Vancouver Renters’ Union and co-editor of The Mainlander.