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Membertou puts First Nation development on national stage
MEMBERTOU — Membertou may be ready as early as next year to join 51 other First Nations that have taken control of reserve lands

Membertou puts First Nation development on national stage

MEMBERTOU — Membertou may be ready as early as next year to join 51 other First Nations that have taken control of reserve lands to chart their own economic future and become less dependent on federal money.

This week, the reserve hosted the annual general meeting of the Lands Advisory Board, a national organization that helps First Nations develop a land code that takes the power to manage lands away from the federal government and places it in the hands of the community.

Membertou has spent four years drafting a land code and had planned to hold a community referendum on it this fall, but that has been delayed until the new year, said Dan Christmas, the band's senior adviser.

“We originally were going to have it in November, but we ran into a couple of legal glitches with Aboriginal Affairs and Northern Development Canada, so we're working through them and hopefully, if we can solve those small issues, we'll ask the council to set another date,” Christmas said Wednesday.

“I'm optimistic it'll happen in 2015.”

Under the federal government's Framework Agreement on First Nation Land Management, bands with a land code can deal directly with developers without having to seek approval from government.

Without a land code, development at Membertou has been relatively rapid, but has moved at a slower pace than is possible, said Christmas.

“It's like swimming upstream,” he said. “The Indian Act is so old and cumbersome. It's very restrictive. For us to do the development that we've done, it's taken an enormous amount of effort.

“I think the land code is almost like switching the direction of the stream here. At least we'll be going with the stream and it's going to be very interesting to see how much quicker we can do business.

“Our goal is to be able to do business at the speed of business.”

Membertou executive director Trevor Bernard said development without a land code has also been more costly than it needed to be.

“Membertou has developed quite nicely, but it has been painful at times,” he said. “We haven't always been able to obtain favourable financing terms. We expect that to be addressed with the land code.

“The ability to attract the range of businesses that want to come to Membertou, those issues will be resolved as well, and we can give those businesses the comfort that they're looking for when locating on reserve.”

Chief Robert Louie of Westbank First Nation in British Columbia, the Lands Advisory Board chairman, said 25 per cent of First Nations either have a land code, are developing one, or are on a waiting list to begin the process.

He said a recent KPMG study found that communities with land codes were far better off financially, and that the federal government is better off because its investment is returned 10 times in economic activity.

“First Nations are becoming far less dependent upon federal funding than they have ever been in the past, so it's a very positive thing and it's probably one of the main reasons the Department of Indian Affairs have demonstrated their ongoing support for this very important initiative.”

Chief Austin Bear of the Muskoday First Nation in Saskatchewan, chairman of the First Nations Land Management Resource Centre, said reserve lands remain under Crown ownership. They simply become assets that can't be sold, but can be turned into revenue.

Because of that, Bear said, the process includes audited financial statements, transparency in governance and accountability to First Nations and the federal government.


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