The $80 Indian

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Like many non-Natives in North America, I can point to at least one First Nations ancestor. My great-grandfather, Charles Augustus Fry (pictured here at his wedding with Edna Eaton), emigrated from Oklahoma to Western Canada in the late 1890s. He was the son of a white Pony Express rider and a Native woman, whose specific ancestry is lost in the family lore.

Charles Augustus Fry and Edna Eaton

That fact does not make me a First Nations person. I grew up in mainstream communities, benefited from the superior funding for schools, sports, health and culture that is directed at non-Natives, and was never discriminated against because of the colour of my skin or the way I spoke.

Once in a while, someone in our family would half joke that we should be eligible for certain social supports for Canadians who have Indian Status. Those supports became available only in the last few decades, but in no way compensate for the centuries of dispossession, racism and cultural genocide that First Nations communities in Canada have experienced.

The subtext of that statement, however, is that genetics or belonging to a specific community shouldn’t help one obtain social advantages denied to others. But that view denies the vast wealth that settler populations have appropriated from Canada’s Aboriginal peoples – because they belonged to a specific group.

This issue came to light with the oddball attempt by a Quebec group to claim Indian Status. The so-called Mikinaks say they should also have a right to tax exemptions and to exercise Aboriginal hunting, fishing, trapping, and trade rights.

As self-appointed chief of the Mikinaks, Beauharnois resident Lise Brisebois sells membership in the “tribe” for $80 to anyone who can point to at least one Aboriginal ancestor at some point in the past. More than 400 have already paid up.

I guess I’m eligible. So is almost everyone else in Quebec. Researchers have found that between half and three-quarters of all Quebecers have at least one Aboriginal ancestor. But that doesn’t mean there are four to six million Aboriginals in Quebec.

To my ears, it’s an eerie echo of the “All Lives Matter” controversy. Those who deny that Black people in the United States and Canada face special abuse from police forces will use the phrase to counter the Black Lives Matter movement. It’s a way to drown the legitimate complaints of an oppressed group.

Nonetheless, I think we should be honest about where we came from, and the difficulties or advantages our ancestral past has given us today. When my grandmother was growing up, she learned to hide her Aboriginal heritage because of the prevailing racism.

However, my mother always pointed out to me the abuse that Native people faced where I grew up in Alberta and British Columbia. Her teachings helped inform my work as a journalist and as someone who believes in social justice.

So yes, I am proud to have a little Aboriginal heritage. I also recognize the advantages I had growing up as a non-Native. Here’s another advantage: I just saved myself 80 bucks.

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