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Education is your Buffalo

How many of you grew up hearing that First Nations people don’t pay taxes? Or that people on reserves get everything handed to them?

Guy Moffatt and Darryl Taylor have both heard these comments. The two are working together, along with the other members of Portage’s Circle for Reconciliation, to dispel these and other myths around Indigenous Peoples.

Moffatt, who is the Regional Campus Manager for Red River College, was exposed to many of these myths as a youth. “You hear these things and because you’re a kid you believe them,” he says. But his perceptions changed when his mother’s career as a teacher took her to the northern communities of Red Sucker Lake and Oxford House. “I remember going to these communities and being astonished and appalled at the Third World conditions Canadians were living in,” Moffatt says. Having always heard the myth that First Nations people had everything provided for them, what he saw didn’t add up. “Right away it was a bit of an oxymoron, right? If everything’s being provided and life is so wonderful, why are people living below the poverty line?”

Moffatt educated himself, and learned about some of the atrocities First Nations people endured including the pass system, sixties scoop, and residential schools. Later, he read the signed treaties and the Indian Act. “I’m not a lawyer, but it doesn’t seem to me that the Canadian government has upheld their end of the bargain as far as it relates to the treaties.”

Under the Indian Act, the federal government is responsible for providing programs and services that most communities in Canada receive from provincial and municipal levels of government. These include education, health and social services, roads, housing, water and waste management.

However, as Moffatt witnessed in his visits to northern reserves, the ‘programs and services’ First Nations communities receive are substandard at best. “I’ve actually challenged people to go to Long Plain or Dakota Tipi and take a look at the type and amount of housing they have,” he says. “And I’ll say that if you don’t want to pay taxes, how about we set you up in with the other families in one of these homes? If you think it’s so great, let’s make this available to you.”

Most non-Indigenous people have never even visited a reserve. Moffatt recalls, “In my younger years, I would have never thought of going to pow wow – I was under the impression that First Nations people didn’t like white people, and that they wouldn’t want me there,” Moffatt says.

Of course, nothing could be further from the truth – yet those myths stubbornly remain.

It is true that Status Indians living on reserve – who make up just 30 per cent of the Aboriginal population – are tax-exempt, but only for purchases made on-reserve.

And according to Taylor, the Lands Manager on Dakota Tipi First Nation, making purchases on-reserve can be difficult. “We don’t get the benefits of having tax breaks unless we purchased something and it’s delivered on the First Nation,” he explains. However, “And a lot of companies don’t want to deliver to us based on the myths surrounding First Nations.” How’s that for a catch-22?

As for Status Indians living off reserve, non-status Indians, Metis, and Inuit – they all pay taxes.

For Moffatt, the myths surrounding First Nations Peoples has coloured his world view. “Growing up, I was always led to believe that Canada is inclusive…but it’s just a different group of people that we are repressing.”

He’s also had to come to terms with the realization that there has been little change. “With the amount of time and effort and money that’s been invested in reconciliation, I was hoping for more sweeping acceptance and change.”

And yet, there is hope for the future. The trauma of residential schools made First Nations people distrustful of education for a long time, Taylor says, but today, ‘education is our buffalo’. “The buffalo sustained us, it gave us shelter, tools, and food to survive. Education today has that same concept. We have to accept that education is our buffalo today for our people to survive in this life.”

“The younger generation today are a lot more open minded to change as opposed to our older generation,” he adds. “So if we captivate the younger generation in the schools and utilize the blanket exercise (an interactive educational program that teaches the history of indigenous peoples in Canada), we’ll break away from those stereotypes.”

“It’s just about having that level of respect for all walks of life, whether you’re red, white, blue or yellow, that’s imperative as well. Learning to have respect for one another and respecting each other’s religion and culture.”

Can education be your buffalo?

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