Busting Indigenous Stereotypes
By Qwastånayå (L. Maynard Harry)
Canada’s Indian Act had a catastrophic effect on our Indigenous peoples, hampering their ability to participate in our economy. It also created a rift between Indigenous and non-Indigenous people, with Indigenous communities suffering rampant racism. We are all aware of the stereotyping Indigenous people experience that still affect them and can hinder efforts at true reconciliation.
This is one of the reasons why we host ABM Uncensored at the beginning of each ABM Indigenous event, so that our delegates can learn about each other’s experiences and challenges in a frank and honest discussion about what it means to be an Indigenous person in Canada today.
As former Chief of the Tla’amin Nation and a CCAB-certified Cultural Awareness Trainer, I’ve heard my fair share of misconceptions and myths. I’ve compiled a list of the most commonly asked assumptions people make about Indigenous people. These are actual questions and statements I have encountered. I hope this sheds some light on who we are and inspires you to ask more questions when we see you at ABM Uncensored.
Why do First Nation peoples refer to themselves as First Nations?
In the past, Canada has gone on record stating that the English and French were Canada’s two founding nations. Many First Nation leaders found this statement offensive and issued a correction stating, ‘we are the First Nations of this country.’
What Does the Word Indigenous Mean?
‘Aboriginal’, ‘Native’ and ‘Indigenous’ have been used as general terms to collectively describe the three distinct cultural groups in Canada known as the ‘Inuit’, the ‘Métis’ and ‘First Nations.’ The term ‘Native’ has fallen into disuse in Canada. The word used to identify First Nations in Canada in the Indian Act is ‘Indian.’ The word ‘Indian’ in this context is a colonial term and a historical mistake. The Indian Act does not apply to Métis or Inuit peoples. Many First Nations find this term inappropriate, but some First Nations continue to use this term to identify themselves or their organizations. For simplicity’s sake, ‘Indigenous’ is used to collectively identify First Nations, Inuit and Métis people. In the statements below, please note that the word ‘Indian’ is referenced as used by non-Indigenous Canadians.
‘Indians were war hungry savages.’
Not true. Many were peaceful people.
‘Indians are drunks.’
It should be noted that alcohol is believed to have been introduced to First Nation peoples with the specific intention of creating impairment, so they’d be vulnerable to attack. First Nation peoples have faced many significant challenges (racism, Indian Residential Schools System, segregation to Indian Reserves) and many are traumatized. Helping people overcome addiction issues has become a priority for Indigenous communities, with leadership focusing on construction of health facilities providing services to individuals in need. Alcohol and substance abuse are significant social problems in Indigenous communities, but addiction issues are prevalent in other cultures as well.
‘White people are not allowed unto Indian Reserves.’
This myth comes from previous policy. Until the mid-1950’s, non-Indigenous peoples were prevented from entering onto Indian Reserve lands. The only way to get onto Indian Reserve lands was to obtain a Pass from the Indian Agent. This Pass System was ostensibly used to protect Indian Bands from unscrupulous non-Indian businessmen.
‘Indians do not work.’
Not true. In fact, more than 250,000 individual small businesses owned by Indigenous peoples have been started in Canada, one of the fastest growing economic sectors in Canada.
‘Indians are responsible for the creation and writing of the Indian Act and its ‘benefits.’
Historically, Indian policy and legislation was developed and written largely without Indian consent or participation.
‘Indians do not pay taxes.’
First Nation peoples do pay taxes. Section 89 of the Indian Act does provide tax exemptions in the following areas: income earned on-reserve; gasoline, tobacco, food and alcohol bought on- reserve. Status Indians living and working off-reserve must pay income tax. First Nation owned corporations located on-reserve do not qualify for section 89 tax exemptions. Please note that First Nation communities are significant economic drivers in regions they are located and contribute hundreds of millions of dollars to local and regional economies.
‘Indians feel the government owed them a living, damages for the past.’
Yes, a lot of damage has been inflicted on Indigenous peoples and their territories by the federal government and corporate third-party interests. Much damage has been inflicted in the past and damage continues to be inflicted today. For example, in BC, the land question, which should be answered through treaty negotiations, has not been answered, yet natural resource extraction continues. Many of the benefits of numbered treaties negotiated east of the Rockies have not been lived up to.
‘Indians have special rights.’
No, Indigenous people do not possess special rights. However, they do possess additional rights (i.e. Aboriginal rights and title, etc.) that are protected by the Canadian Constitution.
‘Indians have the same property rights as other Canadians.’
No. Indigenous people do not have the same property rights as the average Canadian. Indian Reserve lands in Canada are collectively owned by entire First Nations communities. Status Indians cannot purchase Indian Reserve land. The average Canadian citizen may take for granted ownership rights which have been denied to First Nation peoples since contact. Lands that individual First Nation families have lived on for generations are not owned in fee-simple and cannot be used when applying for bank loans.
‘Indians own a lot of land.’
Indigenous Canadians do not own any Indian Reserve lands. Indian Reserves are held in trust by the federal government. Most Indian Reserves east of the Rocky Mountains were created as part of treaty negotiations. Much of these Indian Reserve allocations were between 80 and 640 acres per family. Many First Nations have started to buy or negotiate fee simple land ownership of lands located off-reserve.
‘The front yards of properties located on-reserve are always unkempt.’
This is likely simply due to differences in property perception. Most non-Indigenous Canadians have been brought up learning about the value of fee simple property and it being a key to future wealth. First Nation peoples know more about the importance of sustainable traditional territory management than individual fee simple land maintenance. First Nation peoples would recognize the value of maintenance and upkeep if potential for ownership were realized.
‘Not all Indian Residential Schools were bad.’
Maybe so but it is likely most were. One bad school Indian Residential School is too many. One Indian Residential School student abused is one too many. What happened in Indian Residential Schools would not be tolerated in any school system today and should not have been tolerated in the 20, 30 or 160 years ago. The Canadian federal government and provincial education school systems failed and continue to fail Indigenous peoples of Canada.
‘Does Reconciliation mean free money?’
Money does not solve all the problems. Money given to Indian Residential School Survivors does not result in reconciliation. It may be one of the avenues to reconciliation. Money given to many unhealthy survivors has created more problems than it solves.
‘Why can’t Indigenous people just move on? The past is the past and our generation did not hurt them.’
One of the worst things we can say to an Indigenous person is that that they should ‘just get over it.’ Generational trauma is passed down from father to son, mother to daughter, and it takes time to process and heal from. Jeffrey J Schiffer has written an article addressing inter-generational trauma, and he has some fascinating insights – read it here.
We hope to see you at ABM Uncensored next time you attend an ABM event. We provide a safe, welcoming environment for everyone to express their feelings and challenges and we welcome your feedback and participation.
Qwastånayå (L. Maynard Harry) is a producing partner of ABM, the founder and owner of Indigenous Insight and former Chief of the Tla’amin Nation. He is also a certified Canadian Council for Aboriginal Business Certified Cultural Awareness Trainer.
Photo: Participants at ABM Uncensored during ABM Indigenous: East, August 2019 in Toronto