Written by: Sofia Watt Sjöström, Lives for Literacy Intern
Yes, the residential schools were bad, but that’s history. “Times have changed. Attitudes have changed. Get over it” (King 277). There’s equality now. In fact, Indigenous people benefit from today’s system. They don’t have to pay taxes. The government gives them stuff – homes, university – for free. Also, I don’t know what you’re talking about when you say “inter-generational trauma”… Like, please, shut up.
Etc, etc. This rhetoric often gets tossed around. Which might make you wonder: is there any truth to it? Well, let me tell you, although most of this is based on some sort of reality, it’s really, really missing the point.
First, there’s many reasons to be wary of the claim that things are better, and there’s equality now. As I’ve mentioned before, the residential schools existed in the past, but their legacy continues today – with negative effects on Indigenous health, welfare, education, etc… Although there is now legal equality – Indigenous individuals are recognized as legal persons, which was not the case before 1951 – true equality does not exist (Joseph 27). This is because social equality, also known as the “level playing field,” is not achieved by behaving as though everyone is identical (Vowel 155-156; 161 / 340). It is achieved – and this is the controversial part – by acknowledging, and accommodating, difference. In the classic example, a short person is given a chair to stand on, so they may see over the same fence as a tall person. In society, we offer similar accommodations all the time – by providing disabled people with ramps, helping kids who miss school for religious holidays, creating subsidized daycares so that mothers can continue to work (Vowel 156/340). And still, there is inequality – not just for Indigenous people. “A host of barriers exists preventing millions of Canadians from accessing the same rights and resources as other Canadians” (Vowel 161/340). To detail all the reasons for this would be exasperating. To deal with them all, next to impossible. Yet that shouldn’t stop us from trying! Simply moving in the direction of equality makes a difference.
But what of Indigenous people not paying taxes? Well. I learnt a thing or two about this thanks to Indigenous Writes, a guide written by Métis lawyer Chelsea Vowel, whose work informs this article. According to section 87 of the Indian Act, the “personal property of an Indian or band situated on a reserve” may be tax exempt (Vowel 166/340). With a few exceptions, this means that property, income, goods, and services will not be federally taxed if they are earned/purchased on-reserve (Vowel 166/340). However, it only applies to status Indians, on-reserve – not Metis, Inuit, non-status Indians or status Indians off-reserve (Vowel 163/340). This means that about 192 005 of-age individuals – 0.5% of Canada’s population – are truly eligible to receive this ‘perk’ (Vowel 163/340). As property/income on reserve is a necessary condition as well, even fewer actually receive it.
According to the courts, this tax exemption is about preventing the erosion of “the use of Indian property on reserves” (Vowel 169/340; “Do First Nations”). In other words, as part of the federal government’s special duty towards Indigenous peoples, they are trying to make sure that living on-reserve is feasible. However, the federal tax exemption also enables First Nations to implement their own tax systems (Vowel 139/340; “Do First Nations”). This is something to keep in mind. Just because an Indigenous person doesn’t pay taxes to the state, doesn’t mean they’re not paying taxes (Vowel 139/340; “Do First Nations”). This stuff is complicated and imperfect; a better system could definitely exist. But, before you say that Indigenous people don’t pay taxes, at least think about what you mean.
What about free housing? Yes, housing is supposed to be a Treaty Right, guaranteed by the federal government (to status Indians living on-reserve) (Vowel 172/340). In practice, however, the government provides Indigenous people with housing in the same way they would to non-Indigenous Canadians – “based on ‘need’” (Vowel 173/340). This is either done through loans, or “nonprofit social housing” (Vowel 174/340). The latter is a service that benefits “tens of thousands of Canadians,” but is used by about 57% of Indigenous people living on reserves (Vowel 175/340). In this case, it is called Band Housing, and is unique in that it is funded federally, rather than provincially (Vowel 177/340). And let’s be clear – federal subsidies generally make housing cheaper, but they’re rarely cost-free! (Vowel 175/340).
Finally, if you’re a status Indian, you could indeed be eligible for low-cost education (Monkman). You’ll probably still have to work to make ends meet, but in theory, tuition might be covered (Monkman). No, not waived. Instead, funded by your community, who receive a budget to cover these things (Monkman). Unfortunately, this budget is limited, and sometimes, less than half the applicants receive funding (Monkman). If you’re an older student, live off-reserve, or want to study part-time, you’re much less likely to make it (Monkman). Then, if you want to keep the funding, you generally need to get good grades, have a plan for your life, and so on (Monkman).
So, to say that university is free for Indigenous students kinda misses the point. The “reality is much more complicated” (Monkman). Especially when you factor in educational outcomes at earlier stages, due to “severe funding gaps” that even the federal government has recognized (Vowel 277/293). Currently, there are marked gaps in educational outcomes for Indigenous children by fourth grade (Vowel 276/293). Only 10% complete university degrees, compared to 26% of non-Indigenous students (Vowel 277/293). That isn’t to say that postsecondary education is the only marker of success. It’s just… Well, let’s say Indigenous students truly did get to go for university for free (this is clearly a vast over-generalization). Even if that were true, it would be pretty obvious that this incentive isn’t doing much good.
So, forget what you’ve been told. Indigenous peoples do not have an inherently easier time than non-Indigenous people in Canada. If they have Indian status and live on reserve (two conditions which many do not fill), they might be eligible for certain benefits. There are plenty of legal and historical reasons for this, but, no, it’s not perfectly fair. I don’t think that anyone believes that this situation is ideal. Not only are these benefits not available to all, but Indigenous communities are also subject to plenty of other injustices. Notably, there are still 34 First Nations communities suffering from long-term drinking water advisories (“Government”). In other words, many Indigenous communities are denied access to their most basic human rights. If you think that Indigenous peoples benefit from extra privileges, you’re probably overlooking a lot.
“Do First Nations Residents Have to Pay Tax in Canada?” Intuit Turbotax, 2020, https://turbotax.intuit.ca/tax-resources/tax-compliance/do-natives-pay-tax-in-canada.jsp.
“Government of Canada Progress Update on Improving Access to Clean Water in First Nations Communities.” Government of Canada, Indigenous Services Canada, 17 May 2021, https://www.canada.ca/en/indigenous-services-canada/news/2021/05/government-of-canada-progress-update-on-improving-access-to-clean-water-in-first-nations-communities.html.
Joseph, Bob. 21 Things You May Not Know About the Indian Act. Indigenous Relations Press, 2018.
King, Thomas. The Inconvenient Indian: A Curious Account of Native People in North America. Doubleday Canada, 2012.
Monkman, Lenard. “Debunking the Myth that All First Nations People Receive Free Post-Secondary Education.” CBC News: Indigenous, Jan 29 2016, https://www.cbc.ca/news/indigenous/debunking-the-myth-that-all-first-nations-people-receive-free-post-secondary-education-1.3414183.
Vowel, Chelsea. Indigenous Writes: A Guide to First Nations, Métis, & Inuit Issues in Canada, Highwater Press, 2016. ProQuest Ebook Central, http://ebookcentral.proquest.com/lib/marianopolis-ebooks/detail.action?docID=4832580.
About the Author:
Sofia is an incoming McGill Law student, passionate about writing and justice. She feels that it would be relevant to state that she herself is non-Indigenous. Although she has done research and interviews to inform this series of articles, she wants to acknowledge the limitations of her point of view. However, she believes that Reconciliation is an issue that concerns all of us, non-Indigenous and Indigenous both.