A northwestern B.C. First Nation has approved a revolutionary land reform deal, making it the first in Canada to approve private property rights.

After years of discussion and debate, the Nisga'a Lisims government has quietly passed the Nisga'a Landholding Transition Act. The move means that next year Nisga'a citizens will have the chance to own their own homes on what used to be collectively owned native land in B.C.'s Nass River Valley, north of Terrace.

They will also be able to mortgage their property or transfer, bequeath, lease, or sell it to anyone they choose, aboriginal or non-aboriginal. The system will be voluntary and all private land will remain subject to Nisga'a laws.

The bill passed third reading in the Wilp Si'ayuukhl Nisga'a, the legislative body of Nisga'a Lisims government, at its October 2009 sitting. But there are still some amendments to be made to the Nisga'a legislation and a land title administration system has to be set up before the changes come into effect.

Unprecedented and historic move

Kevin McKay, the chair of the Nisga'a Lisims government, called the move historic.

"What we're doing is unprecedented in Canada … because we are blazing a new trail here," he said. "It's a very proud moment for the Nisga'a nation.… It's something we've always aspired … to re-empower ourselves to do exactly what we're doing right now.

"It is a very positive step forward for us. In our journey so far, we've come to realize what we're doing is unprecedented in Canada."

McKay also believes the changes will spur economic development in the area. 

The Nisga'a were the first B.C. band to sign a modern treaty with the provincial and Canadian governments in 1998. The controversial deal gave the Nisga'a 1,930 square kilometres of land in the lower Nass Valley, self-government powers akin to municipal governments and $190 million in cash.

In 2008, the Nisga'a started to pay GST and PST, as well as taxes on fuel and tobacco as part of the historic treaty. The Nisga'a were exempt from paying sales tax for a transitional period of eight years after the treaty's signing.