First Nations people are used to being treated differently or out right turned away when they try to use their status cards in B.C., a first-of-its-kind report has confirmed.
Commissioned by the Union of B.C. Indian Chiefs following the racial profiling and wrongful arrest of Heiltsuk man Maxwell Johnson and his granddaughter, the 84-page report found racism and discrimination is “a near-universal experience” for status card holders in B.C.
Johnson and his then-12-year-old granddaughter Tori-Anne Tweedie were trying to open her an account at a Bank of Montreal branch in Vancouver in 2019 when employees called the police out of a false belief that their status cards were fraudulent. Their experience, while escalated further than most, is one most status card holders in B.C. can relate to.
More than 99 per cent of respondents report discrimination
Released on Tuesday (Nov. 15), They Sigh or Give You the Look: Discrimination and Status Card Usage used an online survey, in-person experiments, a literature review and a media analysis to draw its concerning conclusions.
As of the latest census in 2016, there are about 125,635 status First Nations living in B.C. Status cards have existed in Canada since 1956 and are issued to people registered under the Indian Act, a piece of legislation with a long history of racism and assimilation itself. Plenty of Indigenous people don’t have status cards (in B.C., more than half as of 2016), but for those who do, they can use it as an official piece of government I.D. and to receive certain tax exemptions.
In Tuesday’s report, 1,026 such B.C. status card holders were surveyed. All but four of them said they have experienced discrimination while using their status card, with frequency ranging from “rarely” to “all the time.”
The most common instances of discrimination reported included respondents being told they didn’t look Indigenous, clerks asking for unnecessary personal information, clerks suggesting status cards provide an unfair advantage, and clerks refusing to give respondents a sales tax exemption. Clerks also treated respondents more rudely than non-Indigenous customers and acted like processing a status card was a hassle or unacceptable, according to survey results.
Instances were reported to be most frequent in government or public offices, like police stations and border crossings, and in healthcare settings.
One respondent said the discrimination doesn’t just come from staff either.
“More frequently than not, I’m not only being talked down to by the staff person but also have other shoppers behind me huffing and puffing while the paperwork is being filled out.”
“They think you’re trying to take advantage of the system.”
These experiences were also reflected in a field study the report authors conducted. Assessors sent out over a five-and-a-half week span reported discrimination in 17 per cent of the 103 transactions they took part in, and possible discrimination in another 21 per cent.
Assessors reported being told a store’s return and exchange policy would be reduced for status card holders, that they couldn’t collect store points if they used their status card, that they had to go to a separate customer service line to use it, and that a laminated card couldn’t be accepted.
The report determined the source of the discrimination is multi-fold, but that it’s been exacerbated by past and current media coverage that perpetuates stereotypes and government inaction on educating the general public and businesses on status cards.
“Many of the challenges that I face are that small businesses are not knowledgeable about the rules of tax exemption, and enforce the rules incorrectly, which creates another miscommunication and conflict because they think you’re trying to take advantage of the system,” one survey respondent said.
Experiences “colour future interactions”, “reverberate harm.”
The resulting impact on status First Nations is significant.
“It takes only one experience to create lifelong memories that colour future interactions and reverberate harm into the future and within families, communities, friends, and colleagues as those experiences are discussed and shared,” reads the report.
Respondents to the survey said they often experience anxiety before using their status cards and sometimes avoid using them altogether to prevent a potentially-negative interaction. Other times, respondents said they will bring someone else along for support, or find themselves acting particularly courteous to staff.
Assessors who experienced discrimination during their fieldwork said they walked away feeling uncomfortable, stressed and angry, among other emotions.
Following their wrongful arrest, Johnson and Tweedie said they suffered from anxiety, depression and panic.
“One of the things I keep seeing is my granddaughter standing on that street crying while she’s being handcuffed. I’ll never, ever get that image out of my head,” Johnson told reporters in September.
Tuesday’s full report can be read here.