Settling accounts with Coon Come
- Settling accounts with Coon Come
Speaking in Durban, South Africa yesterday, Matthew Coon Come told a large audience that Canadian Indians are often mistreated by the government. "We have been deprived of our means of subsistence and our lands," the Assembly of First Nations leader told the cheering activists, "and are being denied our right to benefit fully from our natural wealth and resources."
Let's look beyond Mr. Coon Come's inflammatory rhetoric. Is there any truth to his central charge that Canada is a country where aboriginals are "faced with the threat of extinction," and that racism against the native population is "direct and systemic?"
Here are the facts, in the form of tax exemptions, social policies and funding available for natives. Let us ignore, for the moment, the question of whether such items might constitute discrimination against other Canadians, or whether some expenditures and policies might perpetuate poverty instead of ameliorate it. Also, skip over the question of why such racial distinctions are still tolerated, whether they find their source in the Indian Act (which can be easily changed) or in treaty and constitutional provisions (which are difficult to modify). As you read the following, note that native-specific tax exemptions generally apply only to those natives living on reserves (there were 351,671 in 1998); but program funding flows to both on- and off-reserve natives. Of course, Canada's aboriginals are also eligible for the full range of tax credits and social programs that are available to other Canadians.
Provincially, almost anything bought on a reserve or delivered to it is exempt from provincial sales taxes. Think of automobiles, leases or rentals of any sort, alcoholic beverages and household goods, as well as the children's bicycles and the family television. Legal services, as well as fuel, electricity, natural gas, pay television, telephones and property repairs are also exempt. In other words, goods and service are not taxed, period. That includes even hotel taxes, which are not charged to natives if the hotel is located on reserve land. Natives are also not required to pay the environmental levy on batteries and tires in some provinces, such as British Columbia.
Federally and provincially, income earned on a reserve is exempt from income tax. Some Ontario natives have even attempted to "lease" employees to off-reserve employers and still preserve the tax exemption, though the courts recently cut down that attempt. (The native company in question has appealed.)
In terms of racial set-asides and quotas, there is also a fairly extensive list. ("Affirmative action" and "employment equity" are the preferred terms, but the words used make little difference.) For example, hiring quotas exist in Canada's public service both federally and provincially, and any contracted service for mostly aboriginal recipients is reserved by the federal government for majority native-owned businesses.
Special corporate welfare programs target aboriginal companies and provide money for everything from start-up capital to the design of Web pages. Tax dollars are also available to help negotiate with resource companies for any wealth created near native reserves.
In total, the federal government spends $7-billion every year trying to improve the lot of Canada's natives; provincial governments spend about $3-billion. Neither of those figures includes the value of tax credits. Income tax exemptions alone are estimated to exempt $1-billion worth of income from taxation -- a net amount of perhaps $200-million to $300-million in forgone tax revenue.
In addition to these aboriginal-specific tax credits, exemptions and programs, there are a variety of other benefits. Houses on reserves and off-reserve housing repairs qualify for funding, for instance. A registered Indian is eligible for a 33% discount on Via Rail. And in one of the newest transfer programs, the 85% native Nunavut territory will receive $500-million this year from Canada's taxpayers -- about $20,000 per Nunavut-resident man, woman and child.
As to the question of whether spending all this money is the right way to help lift natives out of poverty, or whether bands should be made more accountable for the money they receive, they are open to debate. But it is absurd to argue, as Mr. Coon Come apparently does, that a nation offering such tax exemptions, social policies and funding is engaged in a "direct and systemic" campaign against his people. He should spare Canadians the rhetoric.
Mark Milke is the British Columbia director of the Canadian Taxpayers Federation and author of Barbarians in the Garden City: The B.C. NDP in Power.
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