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B.C. study reveals near-universal discrimination for Indian status card users

The study was commissioned by the Union of B.C. Indian Chiefs following BMO arrests
An image from the study "They Sigh or Give you the Look: Discrimination and Status Card Usage."

A new study reveals that Indian status card holders face stigma and discrimination on a daily basis when presenting them at stores or to officials.

The study was commissioned by the Union of B.C. Indian Chiefs and is called “They Sigh or Give you the Look: Discrimination and Status Card Usage.”

The National Collaborating Centre for Indigenous Health at the University of Northern British Columbia (UNBC) also provided critical research to assist in the preparation of the report.

The findings show discrimination is a near-universal experience among status First Nations individuals who have used their status card.

The study also explores how this experience is traumatic, particularly for those experiencing other compounding and overlapping forms of oppression, and shapes people’s behaviour for a lifetime.

“Status cards have long been the prime catalyst for the public expression of ongoing racism and stereotyping of Indigenous peoples. The media and schools have failed to educate people on the history of status cards and why First Nations peoples have them,” said UBCIC Grand Chief Stewart Philip, in a news release.

The decision to commission the study stemmed from the unlawful arrest and detention, of Maxwell Johnson and his granddaughter when they presented their federal status cards to open a bank account at a BMO location in Vancouver on Dec. 20, 2019.

They were arrested on suspicion their status cards were fake IDs. Johnson and his granddaughter were eventually released after officers contacted the Heiltsuk Nation to confirm their membership.

“These results will help us to begin educating Canada so that no grandfather and no granddaughter need ever suffer violence when lawfully going about their business,” added Phillip.

Johnson says he will never forget being handcuffed and seeing his granddaughter standing on the street crying and being handcuffed.

“She was 12 years old, and we were just trying to open a bank account for her.  We both have to live with this trauma and the fears caused by it including what could happen the next time we show our Indian status cards,” said Johnson.

“UBCIC’s report is an important step forward to revealing the discrimination Indigenous peoples experience every day.  I want to see governments and businesses step up to learn, educate, and eliminate this kind of discrimination.”

In order to gather this data, the study undertook a literature review, a media scan, an online survey and fieldwork which involved a “secret shopper” scenario conducted in towns and cities across B.C.

Field work assessors were trained and hired to complete and record assessments of their interactions with staff at store and service locations after presenting their status cards as identification or for the purposes of tax exemption.

“Using a literature review, media analysis, online survey, and behavioural fieldwork, the study uncovered a near-universal experience of discrimination amongst status First Nations who have used a status card,” said Harmony Johnson, the report’s author.

“Although this is an issue we all know about, there were no existing studies available. That excuse no longer exists.”

Among the 1,026 respondents to the online survey, discrimination related to the use of status cards was an ubiquitous experience.

Then in the five and half-week-field work the assessors reported discrimination in 17 per cent of the 103 transactions undertaken and possible discrimination in a further 21 per cent.

The report also found that racism appears most acutely in the use of status cards for tax exemption purposes where the mention of status cards can trigger racist comments rooted in stereotypes that First Nations people get “handouts” or “stuff for free”.

“The burden of educating people on status cards is unjustly on First Nations people when the government has been negligent in providing the proper and relevant resources to educate public service workers and the public about the legality and legitimacy of status cards as government-issued identification,” stated Chief Marilyn Slett, Heiltsuk Nation.

“The end result is unacceptable and traumatizing incidents like those of Mr. Johnson and Tori-Anne who merely wanted to do some banking.”

Ultimately, the study found a common theme was that many status First Nations often choose not to use their status cards in order to avoid potentially negative treatment and the associated emotional consequences.

You can read the report in its entirety online.

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