By Maurice Switzer
My grandfather, Moses Marsden, left Alderville Indian Reserve #37 in 1920 because he saw no future there for himself or his growing family.
He would have preferred to make a life with partner Nellie Orma Franklin in the community where they met on the scenic south shore of Rice Lake, and where he had served several terms as Chief. But his family was expanding – there would eventually be 13 children who survived childbirth – and he didn’t buy into the government fantasy that Indians should emulate sensible English peasants and become farmers
In Alderville, like most reserve communities, there were no schools, no work, no jobs.
So he had to make the tough decision to be enfranchised – accept a meagre cash buyout for surrendering his Indian status and any benefits attached to it, including a plot of land – and move further from his birthplace to build a future.
They moved to a farm on the outskirts of the little village of Lakefield, about ten miles north of Peterborough. The house was well off the beaten path of even such a tiny hamlet; the Marsden children had to walk past a cemetery every day on their two-mile trek to school.
Moses Marsden became a self-taught master carpenter, responsible for building over 50 structures – log cabins, houses, and barns — over the next four decades, including a handsome summer retreat on Main Duck Island in eastern Lake Ontario for then U.S. Secretary of State John Foster Dulles.
Moses and Nellie Marsden were never wealthy, but always self-sufficient.
Most of the Marsden children including my mother Ruby, the youngest, were raised in a little home just down the street from the public school in Lakefield. My grandparents lived in that home – without the luxuries of running water, central heating, or indoor plumbing – for the remainder of their 64 married years.
They died without ever regaining the official recognition by the government of Canada of being Status Indians, or any attendant benefits such as health care or education for themselves or their children.
A century later, First Nations people are still paying a price for trying to succeed in mainstream society.
Last fall, a lovely woman of my acquaintance left the employ of one of the 28 Friendship Centres that are located in just about every urban centre in Ontario.
For a dozen years she was a highly-valued worker who was simply not being adequately compensated by the modest pay scales imposed on urban Indigenous organizations dependant on the stingy largesse of provincial and federal government funders.
She was quickly hired after applying for a vacant position at a nearby Indigenous Representative Organization, one of about 50 across Canada that serve as political advocates for 633 First Nations.
Overnight, her take-home pay almost doubled.
That’s because employees of those Chiefs’ organizations enjoy a benefit denied most of the million Status Indians living off-reserve in this country – their income is tax-exempt, just as it would be if they worked in their own First Nations.
The 1300 Status Indians working at Ontario’s 28 Friendship Centres – even though the work they do in health, education, child care, justice, youth programming, and other portfolios is often identical to that done by staff at Indigenous Representative Organizations like the Assembly of First Nations or Union of Ontario Indians – are required to pay tax on their incomes because they decided to leave their reserves to increase employment and education opportunities for themselves and their families.
Just like my Grandfather Moses did 100 years ago.
Many of us who either never lived in our home First Nations or decided to leave them then to pursue more opportunities have been increasingly looking to our elected leaders to represent our issues. After all, our organizations like the AFN always say they “represent the interests of First Nations citizens, regardless of place of residence.” Our treaty rights are portable, they tell us.
Sometimes that’s difficult for us to believe. After all, those of us who live off-reserve weren’t even allowed to vote for our chiefs and councils until the May, 1999 Corbiere decision of the Supreme Court of Canada forced an amendment to the Indian Act.
But I don’t recall that issue resulting from a major political push by First Nations chiefs, so much as the persistence of a single First Nations woman, not unlike those stubborn First Nations women whose activism led to the 1986 Indian Act amendment to end Status guidelines that discriminated against women.
But now we’re not talking about philosophical rights-based matters; we’re talking about bread-and-butter issues like take-home pay. Why aren’t First Nations Chiefs fighting for income-tax exemption for their citizens – not just who work for their political organizations – but who are employed by Friendship Centres and agencies advocating for First Nations health, education, justice, and child welfare issues?
Or for that matter, why aren’t they fighting for tax exemption for ALL First Nations citizens, regardless of where they live?
If I choose to live in North Bay, I have an obligation to pay municipal taxes to support programs and services in that community.
But why should I pay a hefty portion of my income on taxes to provincial and federal governments who have broken all their treaty promises, who have never adequately compensated First Nations for the lands they occupy or the resources they have extracted from them, or provide us the same levels of health care, child welfare, education, or other services available to others who live in Canada on our lands? The House of Commons in Canada’s capital city sits on unceded Algonquin territory.
Perhaps the day will come when urban Indians can direct “taxes” from income earned off-reserve to be channelled to support activities in our own First Nations. When land claims have been resolved and First Nations have the capacity to develop their own economies, even on-reserve citizens should expect to pay for the services they receive.
This is all part of self-government, the move away from dependency on foreign governments, Sovereignty is the ability to feed your own people, not just the right to feed them.
There is some urgency for First Nations leaders to get working on this issue. The majority of their citizens do not live on reserves. In Ontario, an astounding 84 per cent of Indigenous peoples – most of them Status Indians – live in urban settings. Many of them are among the estimated 4,000 First Nations citizens who are being harassed by Canada Revenue for back-payment of taxes not remitted by employees involved with Roger Obonsawin’s ill-fated O.I. Leasing scheme.
Urban Indians are an attractive target for political opportunists. The Congress of Aboriginal Peoples has replaced such looney front-men as Patrick Brazeau with National Chief Robert Bertrand, who served as a Liberal MP in Quebec from 1993 to 2004.
CAP, one of five national Indigenous Representative Organizations recognized and funded by the federal government, claims to represent “Aboriginal peoples who live off reserves, in either urban or rural centres.” The organization gained a lot of attention with the April, 2016 Daniels decision, in which the Supreme Court ruled that the federal government has constitutional responsibility for Metis and non-status Indians.
“We’re starting maybe back from the rest of the pack,” says leader Bertrand. “It will take time, but I think CAP will find its rightful place in the Aboriginal movement.”
It would be a real shame to see First Nations organizations start to lose legitimacy simply because they have allowed those who felt they had to move away from home endure differential treatment.
The Anishinabek Nation demonstrated leadership on the fight to retain point-of-sale PST exemption for its citizens when the Harper government threatened to harmonize it out of existence.
Here is another taxation issue on which their citizens would like to see them draw a line in the sand.
Maurice Switzer is a citizen of the Mississaugas of Alderville First Nation. He lives in North Bay, where he operates Nimkii Communications, a public education practice with a focus on the treaty relationship and Reconciliation.