Ignorance or Wisdom?

Commentary, Aboriginal Futures, Brian Giesbrecht

Senator Lynn Beyak says in a letter that status Indians should give up their status cards and become true Canadians.

The reaction to the letter has been fast and furious. She has been denounced by a host of worthies. As I write this, I am listening to a CBC radio interview with the Mayor of Winnipeg calling for the senator’s resignation. Both the mayor and the CBC interviewer are aghast that she would say such a thing. They insist that the senator must be so out of touch with reality, and so much in need of an education about Indigenous issues, that if she only took some time to read the Truth and Reconciliation Report, she would see the error of her ways, and repent.

But, I have met the senator. She is a very intelligent lady. And, more to the point, she is very familiar with aboriginal issues. She has spent her life in close proximity to the aboriginal community, and has a close family member who is Indigenous. She also has an abiding belief that the system we have in this country is not working, despite what the flabbergasted mayor and interviewer think of her. She appears to be prepared to bear the weight of personal insult to say so. (It should be borne in mind that the senator has already endured abuse for having the temerity to say what even the TRC Report acknowledged: namely, that the good done by Residential Schools should be recognized, as well as the bad, and that most of the teachers and staff at the schools were decent, well-intentioned people.)

And when the senator says that status Indians are not true Canadian citizens, she is absolutely correct.

The fact is that status Indians living on reserves are legally very different from mainstream Canadians in many important ways. They cannot own private property in their own communities. The Indian Act says that they are to be treated as children, and they must have important decisions made for them by others. Most significantly, they are not treated as individuals, like other Canadians, but as part of a collective.

In fact, the senator is being too polite. Status cards are even worse than what she says in her letter.

They are an abomination.

Status cards are based on the evil, and completely discredited notion of racial purity laws. In order to prove entitlement to a card, one must show that one is racially pure enough to qualify, or one must marry someone who is racially pure.

The concept of racial purity harkens back to darker days. In apartheid South Africa people were required to carry one of three kinds of status cards: white, coloured, or black. Each of these status cards contained its own set of rights. In India, during the caste years, there were even more categories of people, with differing rights. In racial America whites and blacks had separate everything. And darkest of all was Hitler’s Germany, where a yellow star on the sleeve was your status card.

Racial -Purity laws – status cards – have no place in a modern country. They should have been gone long ago.

The only reason we still have the cards is because those who carry them are entitled to special financial benefits not available to others. Although the list of benefits is long, the two most valuable are tax exemptions, and post-secondary education benefits. These benefits can be very valuable indeed. A person earning a six figure income, but paying no income tax, can also have his or her children’s university or college education paid for in full. This can add up to hundreds of thousands of dollars. An increasing number of the status Indian elite are in this category. No wonder that people are fighting so hard to keep these cards.

The unfairness is that mainstream Canadians, who may earn less than a salary like that are required to pay for these entitlements. Plus they are not entitled to the benefits themselves. A double whammy.

The other unfairness is that all of this money spent on these goodies does nothing to address Indigenous poverty. The great numbers of poor Indigenous people living on reserves are either on welfare, or in low-paying jobs. They get no benefit from an income tax exemption. And too few of their children make it to college or university, so the education benefit does nothing for them. The entitlements are for the middle class people, who should be paying their own way.

So, Senator Beyak is right. Status Indians should give up their status cards, and become true Canadians.

But the senator is also advocating fair and generous compensation for the surrendered rights. The government should initiate a process of honourable discussion with those affected, with the ultimate goal of a generous lump sum payment to every status Indian in exchange for the permanent surrender of the financial component of their Treaty rights. Treaties are very important symbolically, and the non-financial parts would live on.

From that point on – as advocated by Senator Beyak – there would be one set of laws for all Canadians.