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Why Do Natives Receive Special Privileges?

I am a Canadian. I was born in Prince George in 1975. I have lived in British Columbia almost all of my life. I myself have several native friends. However I find myself curious that they have many advantages that I do not. I have a couple of examples here. I go to school and have to pay for my education. My native friends go to school and get paid to go. My native friends also get preference in any government job. I feel that this strains my friendship with them. While it's good that they get these benefits, I cannot help but wonder what makes them special. They were born here in Canada, as was I. We all went to the same schools. We all participated in the same sports, community events, and leisure activities. Why do they get such preference?

Leon

Response

Hi Leon,

Thanks for your note. The whole issue about the status of natives in Canada is a complex one, and it sounds as if you're going about it the right way. I think that the best approach to dealing with these issues is from the ground up: the more people understand the day-to-day life of native people, including the implications of living on reserves and under the Indian Act, the easier it is to find common ground and understanding about the big issues, like treaties or constitutional changes.

The question of special privileges being accorded to natives gets discussed a lot, which, quite frankly, often surprises me. Considering that, as a group, natives are generally the most impoverished in our country, the most likely to be living in third world conditions and suffering from third world illnesses--it's ironic that at the same time most people seem to regard them as being the most "privileged" people in Canada.

You mention that your friends have their school paid for them and that they get preference for government jobs. I'm not aware that the BC government has any affirmative action programs for natives applying for government jobs. They may encourage natives to apply for jobs, but as far as I know, they do not give native applicants special treatment in the selection process.

First Nations people do not get their schooling paid for them - they have to pay like anyone else. That said, there are various programs to provide natives with bursaries and grants, but of course, there are many similar programs for non-natives as well. The BC government has a program that provides student bursaries as well as loans to small business, and there are numerous programs set up by private organizations. Individual bands may also set up their own funds for schooling, perhaps individual colleges and universities have programs as well, I'm not sure. I know that some schools, such as UVic law school, sets aside places in their first year class for natives, seniors, and other groups that have historically been excluded from such professions.

So yes, natives do have some privileges that non-natives don't have. But then, we all have our privileges of one kind or another, whether we acknowledge them or not (I of course don't know your situation), and non-natives tend to have a disproportionate share. I mentioned before that it's ironic that many people regard natives as having special privileges when in fact, as a whole, they are the least privileged group in society. I think that's because, as non-natives, we tend to take our privileges for granted. I don't know the exact statistic, but something like 80% of the wealth in our country is owned by 5% of the population. There are just 20 families that control most of the major corporations in Canada. Now that's a privileged group. If you are born into one of those families, it goes without saying that you get your schooling paid for you, and that you can get a job on the board of a major corporation. It has nothing to do with merit: it is a kind of affirmative action program for the wealthy. This class of society, it seems, is rarely criticized for their privileges--on the contrary, they are greatly admired and respected for it.

In my case, I like to think that I paid for my schooling, but in fact a large chunk of it was paid by a scholarship that I won from the company my father worked for. This scholarship was available to me because my father was a part of a company that was for years comprised almost entirely of white males. After I graduated, I was offered a job there, and it was made clear to me by my managers that a major factor in hiring me was the fact that my father had worked there: therefore I understood "the culture" of the company and would fit in well. So that's another kind of affirmative action; preferential treatment that I received because of the family and the culture of understanding I was born into.

So, our world is not totally equal, not by any stretch of the imagination. It's full of privileges that exist for some and not for others. Suppose you're studying to be a mechanic or something right now: you have to pay to go to school and your native friend has a bursary and doesn't have to pay. But maybe after you graduate, you'll get a job working for your uncle, who hires you because he knows you're a good worker and intelligent--he probably wouldn't check to make sure that you had the absolute best marks in school. Maybe when he retires, he turns the business over to you at a cheap price. On the other hand, maybe your native friend, after graduating, won't be able to get a job because so many people assume natives are lazy and alcoholics. Maybe he'll have to content himself with buying old cars, working on them in his yard, and re-selling him. Probably all of his neighbours will call him lazy and assume he's on welfare.

Again, I think we tend to be blind to our own privileges. If you read the history of natives in BC, they have had all sorts of special treatment under the law, all of it to their disadvantage. Not only was their traditional land taken away, they were specifically excluded from homesteading. That was an exclusive privilege of European settlers. They were excluded from voting. It was illegal for them to hire a lawyer to complain about it--to do so was punishable by prison. All sorts of horrendous abuses were heaped on their communities. These are important considerations as well. I don't think that you can, as a reflex, invoke historical injustices for every problem that every native person has, but at the same time, our shared history provides an important context to the problems that you're addressing, and it needs to be understood and not conveniently forgotten.

To me, BC's history with natives is like a big game of Monopoly, where one of the kids playing takes all the properties, houses and hotels for himself, and then solemnly declares: "Now we're all equal and have to play by the rules." And when the parent comes by and tells him he has to share - maybe they tell the older son to give the "Mediterranean" property to one of the other kids - he self-righteously declares, "Why should they get special treatment? I worked hard to get those properties!"

So, I've rambled on for quite awhile here - I don't know in the end whether I answered your questions satisfactorily or not. I appreciate your note very much, and it gave me a lot to think about. Please let me know if you have other questions or if you want more details about specific affirmative action policies. If I can't answer them in my general way, I can probably refer you to someone or some agency that can.

You might want to check out the following page on our web site:

Frequently Asked Questions (FAQ)

It has a section on "special treatment" that gives more of a historical context.

Martin
ARC Victoria