Exposing Five Myths About Indigenous Peoples

Métis author unpacks pervasive misconceptions

By Chelsea Vowel

May 25, 2017 •

Chelsea Vowel, '00 BEd, '09 LLB, speaks from the heart when she says myths about Indigenous peoples devalue the very real pain that is the legacy of abuse and oppression. In her book, Indigenous Writes: A Guide to First Nations, Métis and Inuit Issues in Canada, Vowel explores the experience of Indigenous peoples from the time of contact to the present, using her own experiences to tackle themes including culture and identity, myth-busting, state violence, land, law and treaties.

Vowel, a Métis writer, public intellectual and educator, hopes the book will spark conversations in homes, classrooms and communities and will be only the beginning of exploring these topics. Although she acknowledges that the subject matter is difficult and emotions can run high, she believes if non-Indigenous people in Canada engage in sincere and respectful conversations with Indigenous people, making an effort to become better educated about Indigenous issues, we can move together toward a better life.

In her chapter on myth-busting, Vowel unpacks pervasive myths that stand in the way of understanding.

The Myth of Taxation

assumes that Indigenous peoples do not pay taxes. This myth is closely tied to the damaging belief that people who do not pay taxes are lazy, socially parasitic and unworthy of even the most basic human rights.

To debunk this myth, we must: first recognize that the Indian Act tax exemption does not include most Indigenous peoples (only status Indians) and applies only to goods, services, personal property and income located on a reserve. Also, many First Nations have exchanged tax exemption for other benefits in self-governing final agreements or have instituted their own taxation regimes.

The Myth of Free Housing

assumes Indigenous peoples receive free housing.

To debunk this myth, we must: understand that no one is handing out free houses on-reserve. There is market-based housing, where households pay the full cost associated with purchasing or renting; and non-profit social housing, where the cost is covered by a combination of government funding and private-sector loans - a situation not unique to First Nations.

The Myth of the Drunken Indian

assumes that alcohol abuse is a cultural trait and Indigenous peoples cannot metabolize alcohol and are all drunks.

To debunk this myth, we must: learn that research shows First Nations peoples react to alcohol much like other peoples and there is nothing inherent in the culture or genes that makes First Nations peoples more likely to become alcoholics. In fact, more Indigenous people abstain from alcohol than in the general Canadian population. Heavy drinking is, however, more common among Indigenous drinkers than non-Indigenous because of residential school trauma, repercussions of the Indian Act, child welfare issues, geographic isolation, racism and intergenerational trauma.

The Myth of the Level Playing Field

assumes that while Indigenous peoples have legitimate grievances stemming from awful things that were done in the past, the advent of a modern democracy means we are now all equal and have equal access to the same rights.

To debunk this myth, we must: realize there is no break between the past and present and that equality does not mean "the same." Have honest discussions and see there is no level playing field upon which Indigenous peoples can benefit equally.

The Myth of Progress

assumes that, as time passes, things are inevitably getting better. Yes, bad things did happen, but they are in the past and equality has been achieved.

To debunk this myth, we must: Talk. Listen. Learn. Use school and the media to tell true stories of what happened, and continues to happen, and share our histories while learning the histories of others.

This text has been paraphrased and condensed from the book with the author's permission.

Chelsea Vowel is Métis from manitow-sâkahikan (Lac Ste. Anne, Alta.,) and is working on her master's degree at the U of A. Her work intersects language, gender, Métis self-determination and resurgence. She blogs at apihtawikosisan.com and makes legendary bannock.

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