People often wield the same racist remarks and stereotypes in response to Indigenous needs-based stories or at Indigenous people.
When communities need support you’ll often hear, “Isn’t living tax-free enough?” “Jobs are available everywhere,” “I’m tired of ‘natives need this, natives need that,’” “I worked hard and bought my house without taxpayer handouts, so should everyone else,” or, “You seem to think working people are just your disposable cash cows.”
There are also classic misconceptions, like: Indigenous people don’t pay taxes and get free education, most Indigenous people live on reserve and in community, they’ve done this to themselves, etc.
As these racist remarks and stereotypes abound, there’s context and general knowledge that non-Indigenous people seem to be missing.
‘They did it to themselves’
“Indigenous people did not do this to themselves; the government, the state and the churches (did),” said settler-historian and Douglas College professor Carling Beninger. “Canada was set up from the beginning to enforce assimilation and genocidal policies.”
Beninger outlined how settler colonialism and many government policies attempted to dispossess and assimilate Indigenous people.
“The state wanted Indigenous people to cease to exist and a way that they did that is they set up the residential school system,” she said.
“They wanted to assimilate Indigenous (people) by destroying Indigenous culture, traditions and language through cultural genocide.”
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Beninger said that while the residential school system was a big part of what Canada was trying to achieve, there were also other measures.
“There was forced relocations of Indigenous populations, outlawing Indigenous spiritual practices, the pass system that restricted movement of Indigenous people and forcing government structures as outlined in the Indian Act and failing to live up to treaty obligations.”
While the government wasn’t successful, said Beninger, the trauma from Canada’s attempts has left lasting impacts.
“It’s really important to understand intergenerational trauma. So even if a person didn’t go to residential school, but their parents did, or their family or community did, that trauma can be brought back to the community and impact everyone,” said Beninger.
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‘I wouldn’t complain if I didn’t have to pay taxes’
“It’s not true, that’s a myth,” said Kyle Willmott, an assistant professor of sociology at Simon Fraser University and Tyendinaga Mohawk. “Section 87 of the Indian Act ‘tax exemptions’ cover a limited amount of monies that would be taxed.”
Willmott said tax exemptions cover income earned on reserve and a limited amount of sales taxes.
“This idea that every Indigenous person has access to those legal rights is part of the myth. Because you have non-status people, you have Métis and Inuit who don’t have access to those things. It’s only people with status.”
Willmott’s research looks at the foundations of why people think there’s a big, blanket tax exemption.
“Settlers hear these myths constantly, they come to see themselves, Indigenous people through the lens of their alleged fiscal relationship,” said Willmott.
“So you hear, ‘Indigenous people don’t pay tax,’ ‘They’re all on welfare,’ all of these pernicious myths but it really comes down to this kind of possessive desire. And, ‘My tax dollars are supporting you, therefore, I get to I get to control how it is that you should be living.‘”
Willmott said that even if it were the truth, it shouldn’t be a problem.
“This is the result of the colonial relationship that Canada has foisted upon on First Nations.”
‘Free post-secondary education must be nice’
“Post-secondary education is not free, it really is a case-by-case basis, depending on the community and if they’ve been able to allocate funds,” said Elliott Young, Indigenous engagement director and Nêhiyaw from Ermineskin Cree Nation.
“For my community, they were able to use money from oil royalties back in the ’70s and ’80s and put it into a trust fund that is now called the Ermineskin Education Trust Fund,” he continued. “They use the interest and the dividends from that trust fund to help pay for post-secondary students or education for community members. But it’s very limited.
“They have a tiered system to ensure that they’re funding students that are most in need.”
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And it really is case by case — some communities aren’t able to fund their students to attend post-secondary at all, while others are limited to who they can support, or there are rules, like you can’t stop studying if you want funding to continue.
Young says stereotypes like these perpetuate toxic rhetoric.
“There’s this concept that the relationship between Indigenous people and the federal government has led to some type of ‘benefits’ that Indigenous people have and that somehow these ‘benefits’ outweigh the impacts of colonization and assimilation and cultural genocide of residential schools,” said Young.
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‘All Indigenous people are the same’
“The simplest answer is no,” said Young.
In Canada, there are more than 630 First Nation communities, which represent more than 50 Nations and 50 Indigenous languages. There are also Métis settlements and more than 50 Inuit communities.
“There are so many different cultures and languages. There’s so much diversity and amazing culture, language, experiences, stories, teachings and narratives that these communities hold,” said Young. “There’s just so much to learn.”
Beninger regularly tells her students that Indigenous people aren’t homogenous.
“That whole ‘Indigenous people are the same’ really came from settler colonialism,” she said. “They homogenized First Nations, Métis and Inuit people because their policy was set up that way.“
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Impact of stereotypes
“Encountering stereotypes has negative impacts on Indigenous people,” said Iloradanon Efimoff, an incoming psychology faculty member at Toronto Metropolitan University and Haida-European researcher. “Research shows that hearing stereotypes about Indigenous people can make (them) feel angry, annoyed, degraded, demeaned, helpless, hopeless, insulted, irritated, judged and unsafe.”
While not knowing the single best way of dealing with these stereotypes, Efimoff’s research shows that Indigenous people endorse education and relationships as an effective way to challenge racism.
“It can be easier to correct someone’s stereotypes about Indigenous people through education if you have a relationship with that person,” said Efimoff.
Beninger agrees that education is the right path, but taking that on can often be a lot and it shouldn’t always be left up to Indigenous people to do the work.
“It’s exhausting for people that have to deal with it, and I know there’s been a movement to call on people like me, settler historians, to help take up that space,” said Beninger.
“There’s a need to take some of that work away from Indigenous people if they don’t want to do it.”
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