Whenever the Winnipeg Free Press publishes stories about First Nations — whether it’s flooded-out reserves or remote bands with no running water — readers ask the same three or four questions. Sometimes those questions are posed in good faith, other times in contempt. We’ve asked an expert to answer.
Q: I pay for my house, my water and sewer hookup, my kid’s university tuition. I work for what I have. Why should First Nations get everything for free without paying taxes?
First Nations, like all Canadians, get nothing for free. They’ve agreed to participate in mutually beneficial partnerships called treaties. As set out in these agreements, Canadians were to get access to some of the richest resources in the world while Aboriginal communities continued their lives in bountiful and independent ways.
Also, treaties haven’t ended. In fact, they’re happening right now. They are dynamic, changing and legally binding documents with members who carry responsibilities to ensure that both sides grow and benefit "for as long as the grass grows."
To be more direct: Without treaties, there’d be no houses, no water or sewer hookups, no universities and no Canada. Everything around us is due to them.
Unfortunately, things haven’t quite worked out. Treaty rights are constantly minimized by the federal government and promises have never been fulfilled. While Canada has become one of the richest countries in the world, Aboriginal people have received inadequate housing, tainted water and inappropriate funding caps to education. Today, only one side of the relationship is "working."
As for taxes, what I believe you’re referring to is Section 87 in the Indian Act, which says "personal property of an Indian or a band situated on a reserve" is tax-exempt. This makes sense; Aboriginal communities agreed to an independent relationship with Canada in exchange for land. You can’t tax what’s not yours.
Still,Section 87 applies just to a small number of status Indians doing on-reserve business. All off-reserve Aboriginal business (including all by non-status First Nations, Métis, and Inuit) is fully taxable, with a few rare exceptions (Ontario, for example, exempts status Indians from provincial sales tax at point-of-sale). Read my lips: Aboriginal people pay taxes. Check my pay stub.
Q: Remote reserves have no future. There is no economic base to create jobs and the cost of bringing decent housing, health and education to remote places is astronomical. It’s time for people to admit the experiment has failed and move south.
First, many "remote" reserves do have an economic future. Some have mineral, oil and resource projects. Others have casinos. Reserves are surrounded by money. But most receive little.
There are many issues here. One lies in a long history of exploitation by governments and corporations invested in extracting profit without regard for First Nations.
Another lies in the complex Indian Act, which provides a framework for a relationship between Aboriginal people and the federal government and recognizes a few key rights. The problem is, it’s paternalistic, stifles economic opportunity (credit is nearly impossible, for example) and suffocates reserve governments through control. Looking for an example? Attawapiskat.
It’s true that it’s expensive to transport materials to far-off places. Just like it is to send military to Afghanistan or build a pipeline to the U.S. These are decisions made by the governments we choose.
Speaking of choices, northern reserves are ancestral and cultural homes. Telling someone to move (or worse, forcibly removing them) is condescending and wrong. These are people defined by a treaty relationship, not an experiment. To call treaties failures is to call Canada a failure, too.
Q: On reserves, brand-new houses get wrecked in a matter of months and the communities look like trash dumps. We keep calling reserves "Third World," but people in Africa keep their houses clean. Why throw more money at the problem when people don’t take care of what they have and chiefs make huge salaries? What about personal responsibility?
Homes on reserves aren’t often dirty, trashed or disrespected. They’re substandard, poorly built and overused. Google "Holmes on Reserve Homes."
We also don’t hear much about economically strong reserves. The "Third World" ones get the most attention. Aboriginal communities are chronically underfunded. A lack of funds plus longstanding needs equals thin programs, fragile homes and many problems.
Government corruption also exists everywhere. For every chief who exploits reserve funds, there are ministers using government helicopters for vacations. This behaviour is deplorable — and we know who they are. It’s also systemic: For every leader, there are supporters. In other words, pointing results in three fingers towards the pointer.
That many communities are in horrendous socio-economic conditions reflects on all of us. We all have a responsibility to ask questions, learn and take action. Our path has been enveloped in silence, ignorance and misdirection. There is hope, though. It’s right in front of us — in the treaties, in dialogues like these and in partnership.
Change doesn’t happen overnight, but if you’ve read this far, it’s happening. Miigwech.
Niigaanwewidam James Sinclair is an assistant professor of native studies at the University of Manitoba and the co-editor of Manitowapow: Aboriginal Writings from the Land of Water.