Addressing Stereotypes and Misconceptions of First Nations Peoples
There are many stereotypes and misconceptions about the First Nations people of Canada and the same thing can be said about our American counterparts. A few examples include:
Indians are all alike
Native people do not pay taxes
Native people get free houses
Native people get free post secondary education
Native people are lazy, don't work, cry about things long over and everything that happens to them is their own fault.1
This column will attempt to address some of these stereotypes and realities of the First Nations people of Canada. In the words of author Devon Mihesuah who wrote the book American Indians: Stereotypes and Realities, "No other ethnic group in the United States has endured greater and more varied distortions of its cultural identity than American Indians."2 and this can be said about Canadian First Nations peoples too.
Author Linda Gray (First Nations 101)also states First Nations people are over-represented in most negative statistics. "We have high rates of diabetes, suicide, non- completion of high school and homelessness. While this is not who we are, we are often looked at as statistics, which causes some people to expect those outcomes of us. This only exacerbates the problem as those who expect less of others tend to put forth less effort to help them rise above these expectations."3
Stereotypes and misconceptions are harmful to whomever they are directed at, and can exacerbate racism and oppression that a group of people can experience when someone does not understand another group's culture, identity and way of life. Most of the current issues for First Nations people stem from the colonization process.
For over 500 years, ongoing assimilation acts, policies, and laws have had negative impacts upon First Nations peoples and their communities. It was the Canadian Constitution and the Indian Act that were utilized to separate us from our land, and place us on reserves; our governance structures were dismantled, our women have been devalued by the imposition of patriarchal laws, cultural and spiritual ceremonies have been prohibited.
When it comes to stereotypes and misconceptions, the hairs on my back literally stand up when I hear the "prevailing myth that Canada's more than 600 First Nations and native communities live off of money subsidies from the Canadian government." In the essay "What If Natives Stop Subsidizing Canada," written by Dru Oja Jay in the book The Winter We Danced: "This myth, though it is loudly proclaimed and widely believed, is remarkable for its boldness; widely accessible, verifiable facts show that the opposite is true." 4
Indigenous people have been subsidizing Canada for a very long time. "It is true that Canada's federal government controls large portions of the cash flow that First Nations depend on. Much of the money used by First Nations to provide services does come from the federal budget. But the accuracy of the myth ends there."5
On the whole, the money that First Nations receive is a small fraction of the value of the resources, and the government revenue, that comes out of their territories. A few examples include the Algonquins of Barriere Lake, Attawapiskat and the Lubicon Cree.
"The Algonquins of Barriere Lake have a traditional territory that spans 10,000 square kilometers. For thousands of years, they have made continuous use of the land. They have never signed a treaty giving up their rights to the land." However an estimated $100 million per year in revenues are extracted every year from their territory in the form of logging, hydro-electric dams, and recreational hunting and fishing. And yet this community lives in third world conditions. A diesel generator provides power, few jobs are available and families live in dilapidated bungalows. Barriere Lake subsidizes the logging industry, Canada and Quebec.
Attawapiskat is another example of a poverty stricken community with an ongoing housing issue that has been in the news since 2011. This community is near James Bay, in Ontario's far north. De Beers is constructing a $1 billion mine on the traditional territory of this community. "Anticipated revenues will top $6.7 billion, but the Conservative government is subjecting the budget of this community to extensive scrutiny. The total amount transferred to the First Nation since 2006 -- $90 million -- is a little more than one percent of the anticipated mine revenues."6
Royalties from the mine do not go to the First Nations community, but straight to the provincial government. The community has received some temporary jobs in the mine, but future generations will have to deal with the consequences of a giant open pit mine in their backyard. Attawapiskat is subsidizing De Beers, Canada and Ontario.
Lastly, the Lubicon Cree, who never signed a treaty or gave up their Aboriginal title, have waged a decades-long campaign for land rights. During this time, over $14 billion in oil and gas has been removed from their traditional territory. During the same period, the community has gone without running water, endured divisive attacks from the government and has suffered the environmental consequences of unchecked extraction. The Lubicon Cree are subsidizing the oil and gas sector, Alberta and Canada.
Canadians need to stop believing in some of the stereotypes and misconceptions about First Nations people, and realize that:
1. Native people do pay taxes.
"Actually, most of the over one million Aboriginal people in this country do pay taxes. The tax exemption people apparently know so little about applies to only about 250,000 people in the whole country and is extremely narrow."
2. Native people don't get free housing.
"There are social housing units available on some reserves, but this is under a program that is also available to other low income populations throughout Canada, and the number of people actually accessing these social housing units is vastly overrated in the minds of most Canadians."
3. Only some Native people get assistance with post secondary education.
"Only some Status Indians actually living on reserves are eligible for any sort of federal funding for post secondary studies. Inuit only receive federal funding if they live outside Nunavut or the Northwest Territories for a full year. Non-status Indians and Metis are not eligible and a great many Status Indians living on reserve who apply for this funding are turned down. As of 2006, only three percent of registered Status Indians had a post-secondary degree compared to 18 percent among the general population.
"Indigenous issues affect all Canadians. The relationship between Canada and Indigenous peoples is unlike Canada's relationship with any other group of people, and needs to be better understood, and respected."7
To end this column, I bring you to a stereotype that is prevalent everywhere. The one that says "Indians are all alike," when in reality there are many cultural differences among the First Nations of Canada and our American counterparts. According to Devon Mihesuah, author of American Indians: Stereotypes and Realities, "Despite the cultural differences among tribes, many non-Indians believe that all Indians are alike. Lumping Indians together into one group presumed to have the same cultural and physiological characteristics is the same as assuming that all Europeans are alike, that they speak the same language, have the same heritage, and share the same values."8
We are not all the same, nor are we a vanishing race. We are very much alive, and thrive in the unique way we express our culture, through songs, dance, art, kinship and hierarchy.
Reading to Consider:
First Nations 101: tons of stuff you need to know about First Nations people of Canada, written by Lynda Gray
The Winter We Danced: Voices from the Past, the Future and the Idle No More Movement, edited by the Kino-nda-niimi Collective
American Indians: Stereotypes and Realities, written by Devon A Mihesuah.
1. Kino-nda-niimi Collective. The Winter We Danced: Voices from the Past, the Future and the Idle No More Movement. p. 129. (2014)
2. Mihesuah Devon, American Indians: Stereotypes and Realities, p.13. (1996)
3. Lynda Gray, First Nations 101, p. 15 (2011)
4. Kino-nda-niimi Collective. The Winter We Danced: Voices from the Past, the Future and the Idle No More Movement, p. 108. (2014)
6. Ibid, p. 110
7. Ibid, pp. 131-132
8. Mihesuah Devon, American Indians: Stereotypes and Realities, p.1 (1996)