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“Historic” housing amendment aims to create new economic opportunity

BY Andre Simoneau Apr 12, 2019

“It’s a historic moment. We’re removing the shackles of the Indian Act, and the colonization that we faced for many centuries.”

Bill Namagoose, CNG Executive Director

The Cree Nation Government voted unanimously March 26 to amend the Cree Nation Governance Agreement in order to remove a 75-year limit on land leases for private citizens – thereby allowing Cree Nation members to build up equity in their homes.

“It’s a historic moment,” said CNG Executive Director Bill Namagoose. “We’re removing the shackles of the Indian Act, and the colonization that we faced for many centuries.”

The 75-year limit on land leases had been inherited from both the Indian Act and the Cree-Naskapi Act, and effectively barred First Nations citizens from benefitting financially from the ownership of their land, Namagoose explained.

“Citizens didn’t have outright ownership of their house because it was at the whim of the chief and council to dispossess them of it by refusing to renew the land lease,” he noted. “Giving Crees a perpetual right to a piece of land is almost the same as ownership of that land. You can sell that right to another Cree, or you can pass it on to your descendants. It’s yours forever.”

The move will make land leases transferable and marketable, and thus allow leaseholders to leverage the value of their home equity toward further investments – such as personal loans, business loans, or further real-estate development.

“It’s the same opportunities that other Canadian citizens have in the south. They can stimulate their economy and create business opportunity just by virtue of owning equity in their homes. And that was denied to Cree individuals, and to First Nation peoples across Canada, because of the status of Indian Act lands,” Namagoose said.

“We’re unlocking that value of Category IA lands.”

The recent resolution marks the first amendment to the Cree Nation Governance Agreement, which was signed in 2017 by former Grand Chief Matthew Coon Come and Minister of Crown-Indigenous Relations and Northern Affairs Carolyn Bennett.

The agreement, along with its companion document, the Cree Constitution, effectively replaced the 1984 Cree-Naskapi (of Quebec) Act, and gave the CNG the power to write its own laws, on a wide variety of local governance issues on Cree Category IA lands, including environmental protection, public order and safety, and land use and planning.

“It will be for us, and us alone, to decide on the laws that govern us,” Coon Come said at the signing ceremony in 2017. “As a mature government, this is a responsibility that we are more than ready to assume.”

This legislative power also means the CNG can make changes to the Cree Constitution and to the Governance Agreementwithout going through the often drawn-out federal legislative process.

“If we were still under the Cree-Naskapi Act, it would probably have taken three to four years to go to Parliament and get three readings, then go to the Senate and get three readings, and then go to the Governor-General to sign it,” Namagoose said. “It was totally cumbersome, and was an obstacle to creating private home ownership in the Cree world.”

The amendment is part of a broader push to stimulate the local economy by creating a local real-estate market for the Cree population. It is also aimed at maintaining population within Cree communities.

Keeping home ownership within Cree communities is a primary concern for those involved in the development of housing legislation

“It will help create a market for private home ownership,” Namagoose said. “We hope the banks will be more open-minded to doing business in the market, like they do in the south, where they don’t need any ministerial or band-council guarantees. It will be strictly a business deal between the Cree homeowner and the bank.”

Namagoose emphasized that the amendment does not affect the official status of Category IA lands.

“The status of the land stays the same,” he said. “If somebody were to default on their house payments, the banks can seize the lease and sell it to another Cree. So it stays in the hands of the Crees all the time.”

Keeping home ownership within Cree communities is a primary concern for those involved in the development of housing legislation.

Statistics from the CNG capital works department show a backlog of 3000 houses in Cree communities existed in 2011. That backlog is projected to grow to more than 4500 by 2021, if current population and construction trends continue.

Statistics also show overcrowding affects almost 20% of households in the Cree Nation, compared to 1.3% for Quebec as a whole.

These numbers are a serious concern for the future of the Cree Nation, said Namagoose.

“We need to assist Cree entrepreneurs. And by unlocking the value of the real estate, that will create more opportunities for Cree entrepreneurs to really take off. It has a domino effect.”

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Andre Simoneau is a writer and filmmaker from the Eastern Townships of Québec. He studied English literature and creative writing at Concordia University. He currently lives in Montréal.