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Nothing for Free

Cornell Pashe

Indigenous Community Coordinator

Portage Urban Indigenous People’s Coalition

Of all the myths surrounding First Nations people in Canada, none is more pervasive than this one: “Indigenous peoples have everything paid for; they don’t have to pay for their housing, education or medical expenses.”

It is somewhat understandable that non-Indigenous people think this way. After all, the way First Nations are funded in Canada is a complicated process entrenched in the outdated Indian Act since its inception in 1867.

Here are the facts:

  • Registered First Nations peoples have certain services paid for, because these are part of the federal government’s responsibilities as outlined in the Indian Act. It’s important to remember that Indigenous people did not ask for the Indian Act.

  • When a registered First Nations person leaves the community, access to these rights are limited. (As noted in earlier articles, only about 30 per cent of registered First Nations people live on-reserve).

  • Nobody gets a free education in Canada. First Nations schools actually receive far less tax money than schools for non-Indigenous children in Canada. In 2017, the Parliamentary Budget Office estimated the gap between on reserve schools and other schools in Canada is $665 million.

Closely tied to the misconception that everything is paid for is the myth that non-Indigenous Canadian taxpayers are somehow on the hook for the services that are paid for. This is also not the case.

These services are paid for out of the First Nations Trust. You’ve probably never heard of it; although it’s been in place as long as the Indian Act itself, most Canadians are unaware of its existence.

When the treaties were originally negotiated in the 18th and early 19th centuries, promises of cash payment were made. First Nations did not have banks, so the monies owed to them for the sale of land were placed in banks in England. After Confederation these funds were transferred back to Canada and placed in a “trust fund”. The idea was that the principal would be protected, and the interest used to provide revenue to the bands.

Unfortunately, what was promised and what First Nations peoples thought they were offering are two very different things. At the time of treaty negotiations most First Nations people did not speak English, let alone write it. The First Nations thought they were simply agreeing to share the land and environment with the newcomers, as was their tradition. “Selling” land or water was a foreign concept. So they were misled by the settlers and gave up much, much more than they were led to believe. (This is not ancient history – numerous land claims across the country have been or are being negotiated to rectify this exploitation.)

Canadian taxpayers are not funding First Nations; in fact, history has shown it to be the other way around. In the early years the trust was used to run the day-to-day operations of Canada, and was misused in numerous ways. No one knows how much of the trust has been wasted by government mismanagement, and the way the fund continues to be managed by Crown-Indigenous Relations and Northern Affairs is in no way transparent.

And while it is difficult to find out exactly how much the trust is worth today, it is estimated to be in the billions of dollars. So why are First Nations people living in substandard living conditions? Why are reserve schools under-funded? Why are there still boil water advisories on reserves across Canada?

The federal government has admitted, without explanation, that funding has not kept pace with population growth, nor has it kept up with inflation. In 2011, the auditor general reported that “the education gap between First Nations living on reserves and the general Canadian population has widened, the shortage of adequate housing has increased, and comparability of child and family services is not ensured.”

Many hope that the archaic Indian Act will eventually be abolished and the funds within the trust placed where they belong – not with the Government of Canada, but in the hands of Indigenous Peoples.

First Nations people in Canada receive nothing for free. If anything, they are receiving far less than what was promised to them.


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