By Lane Wade
Ruth Koleszar-Green, a second-year Social Work student of Aboriginal descent, understands that her people have an uphill battle to climb when it comes to education.
She remembers when it was shocking for an aboriginal to finish high school, let alone university. Currently, she receives an allowance from her band to cover tuition and $800 for monthly living expenses.
In 2006, Koleszar-Green will be forced to pay tax on the money she receives and it will be a tax that will follow her for the next several years. “I know I’ll definitely be getting my master’s, and my doctorate. I’m an A student and in the top 10 per cent of my class [but] it’s still incredibly tight, and nobody seems to know how much this tax is going to be.”
The Canada Revenue Agency has not provided students with the tax numbers, but spokesperson Dawna Labonte said that status Indian students would be paying 16 per cent on income of more than $16,000 dollars. Labonte went on to clarify that recently, education allowances have been declared outside treaty agreements.
“Revenue Canada had mistakenly assumed that the amount of money provided to students was provided under a treaty obligation?-last year we found that this was not the case meaning this money is taxable and always has been.”
This, despite the fact that in 1978, in the case of Deanna J. Greyeyes vs. Her Majesty the Queen, the courts upheld that scholarship money provided by the Government of Canada was a treaty right and therefore, not subject to tax.
So why has Revenue Canada shifted its position? The answer lies in this subtle distinction which has been slowly refined through the courts: Education is no longer a treaty right, but a matter of social policy, and thus subject to tax.
Roger Obonsawin, chair of the Aboriginal Council of Toronto and specialist in treaty rights, sees this as a process of disintegration yet feels his hands are tied. “The government is trying to say that without changing the law they are changing the policy,” said Obonsawin. “But the only thing we can fight is the law. We can’t fight the policy and the government determines the policy so we are caught in a catch-22.”
Treaties and Taxation
Treaty rights like education have received much more scrutiny since 2003, when a Federal Court of Appeal judge ruled that another treaty right exemption from taxation, no longer applies. The ruling (Benoit vs. Canada) affects about 30,000 Aboriginal People of Treaty Number 8, an agreement signed in 1899 that surrendered vast tracts of land in Saskatchewan, Alberta, British Columbia and the Northwest Territories to the Crown.
Justice Marc Nadon decided that the people of Treaty Number 8 are not exempt from taxation despite the evidence contained in the only surviving document from the treaty-making process (The Commissioners’ Report) which states: “We assured [the aboriginal signatories] that the treaty would not lead to any forced interference with their mode of life, that it did not open the way to the imposition of any tax, and there was no fear of enforced military service.”
Aboriginals appealed this decision to the Supreme Court, but it refused to hear the case in May 2004. “The government probably put a lot of money into researching that decision,” says Saskatchewan lawyer Melvin Gerspacher, a specialist in Aboriginal law and taxation.
“There is a lot of controversy as to what Indian treaties promised to First Nations Persons…[Benoit] is a major decision that will have far-reaching consequences.”
Re-writing the White Paper
The deterioration of treaty responsibilities is symbolic of a much larger struggle against policies of assimilation. In 1969, then-Indian Affairs minister Jean Chretien issued a proposal for the complete assimilation of Aboriginal People into Canadian society called The White Paper on Indian Policy.
Although at the time officials say the policy was shelved, there are some who believe that the policies of the White Paper have just gone underground. “I know this because I was there,” said Walter Rudnicki, who was involved with the Privy Council in 1969. “Chretien wrote the PM saying that the White Paper was a very good policy but the strategy was too much, too fast.
Chretien said that we had to adopt a policy of gradualism, to work band by band, divide and conquer…That policy went to cabinet and the principles of the 1969 White Paper will remain forever.” Rudnicki sees a stark future for Aboriginals: “It’s leading to First Nations as being defined as white men in the eyes of Canadian law.
They will be assimilated and on the same playing field as everyone else,” said Rudnicki. “But First Nations chiefs and peoples say that they have a nation-to-nation relationship with the government, that they are distinct, that they don’t want to be absorbed and that they want their own place in Canada’s federal system, to be recognized as a historically defined nation who have been here since time immemorial…but that’s not on the books.”
Angrily Looking Forward
Back at Ryerson, Koleszar-Green reflects on how happy she is to be in the Social Work program here, which is one of the best in Ontario.
She knows that she has an opportunity that her mother and grandmother didn’t have, but there’s an undertone of exasperation in her voice when she considers the added burden she’ll shoulder in 2006 if the tax goes through.
“If there is a population in Canada that is so far behind the rest, isn’t it important to educate their youth?” she asks.
“No one’s plight is larger than the rest, new immigrants and single mothers need assistance. But don’t impose this insulting tax on us.”