'It just makes sense': Manitoba First Nation could be latest to take control of reserve lands

'It just makes sense': Manitoba First Nation could be latest to take control of reserve lands

A Cree community in northern Manitoba will soon decide whether to adopt its own land code, a move that would give the First Nation control over its land and resources.

The Misipawistik Cree Nation, on around 1,800 hectares about 400 kilometres north of Winnipeg, has just over 2,000 members.

If the members ratify the land code, they would sign on to the the federal government's First Nations Land Management Regime — freeing the community from 32 sections of the Indian Act relating to land administration.

"We'll develop our own environmental laws, the chief and council will develop their own process with the membership to decide on land-use planning, zoning, rates for leasing," said Coun. Heidi Cook, Misipawistik's lands officer.

"It just makes sense. Why do we need the minister of Indigenous affairs to tell us where a business can locate on our reserve?"

'Cumbersome' Indian Act

The Indian Act, which recently turned 140, is a much-maligned piece of legislation used by the federal government to administer everything from laws to membership and elections in First Nation communities. It's still in force in the majority of First Nation communities across the country.

Under the First Nations Land Management Regime, introduced in 1999, the administration of reserve land is transferred to First Nations once their land codes come into effect. Those First Nations then have the authority to create their own laws and regulations that relate to land and resources.

"It's so cumbersome to try and do any economic development under the Indian Act," Cook said.

Misipawistik has been trying to establish an economic zone along Manitoba Highway 6, a major thoroughfare that crosses through the First Nation and an ideal location for a gas station and other businesses, Cook said.

Under the Indian Act, setting the land aside as a business zone has taken two community votes, market appraisals and environmental studies — all before the application was finally sent to the Indigenous affairs minister to be approved.

"It still hasn't been signed off and it's been 10 years," Cook said. "And we still don't have a designation."

'Waste of time'

"That's just ridiculous. It's a waste of time," said Gord Bluesky, lands & resources manager for the Brokenhead Ojibway Nation, about 65 kilometres north of Winnipeg. 

Brokenhead signed onto the regime and ratified their own land code in 2014. Within months of the ratification, the community had broken ground on a new grocery store, pharmacy and medical clinic, Bluesky said.

"We have the ability for the first time in our history to have some direct input on the laws, policies and regulations that directly govern the administration of our lands," Bluesky said.

"Never once has that ever been afforded to us. All we ever got was impositions."

Before the First Nation developed its own land code, it could take hours of paperwork and sometimes months of waiting to do something as simple as request permits from Canada to install phone lines on the reserve, Bluesky said.

"Why is it that I have to go and ask the Queen to put a phone line into one of my houses?"

Protections

Although First Nations that develop their own land codes become the administrators of their reserve lands, many protections in place under the Indian Act normally apply or are replicated.

Misipawistik's draft code says reserve land cannot be sold or subject to seizure, nor will there be any property tax. Land can be exchanged but only with the consent of the First Nation's citizens.

If Misipawistik's citizens ratify their land code this coming April, chief and council will establish a permanent land office that will be responsible for managing the territory.

"We are confident in our ability to govern our own lands," Cook said. "We'll set up our laws and policies and as long as we follow it, we'll be okay."

'Long overdue'

Indigenous Affairs' website says 95 First Nations across the country have developed land codes though the regime or have land codes in development.

Bluesky said other communities have started looking at Brokenhead Ojibway Nation's example with interest.

"I get called all the time," he said, adding that he recently travelled to Alberta to explain his community's process to First Nations in that province.

"For me, it's been long overdue for there to be an option that allows our communities to function as we should."

Cook said Misipawistik Cree Nation will vote on their land code April 6-10 and for the first time, will allow off-reserve members to vote online.

If the community votes to adopt the code, Cook said, the community will begin the process of creating other laws as well — free from the bureaucracy of Indigenous Affairs.