Blockade Threat Forces Ontario Government To Make Deal With First Nations

By Frank Larue

On July 1st, a First Nation coalition held a rally on Parliament Hill to protest the Harmonized Sales Tax (HST). Native people living on reserve are exempt from paying taxes, so why is the Ontario government (represented by Premier Dalton McGuinty) so insistent they pay HST? Both sides seemed miles from reaching an agreement, but negotiations were held and eventually the voice of reason prevailed.

First Nations members will be required to pay the tax for July and August but will be refunded the PST portion of the tax. Chief Angus Toulouse (representing First Nations in Ontario) stated, “It became clear that the two month gap in the exemption—while certainly not what we wanted—would be impossible to avoid. First Nations understand this logistical challenge but continue to assert that tax immunity is a treaty right, which we have never ceded, and continue to oppose all taxation of our people by other governments.”

In British Columbia, Chief Stewart Phillip of the Union of BC Indian Chiefs has joined former premier Bill Vander Zalm in an effort to eliminate the HST via petition. “We will avail ourselves to other coalitions of groups,” Phillip said. “It’s one of those issues that has galvanized a broad based wave of opposition. Aboriginal people suffer incredibly debilitating levels of poverty, whether on a reserve or in urban centres. The HST is going to greatly exacerbate that.”

George Abbott, British Columbia’s Minister for Aboriginal Relations and Reconciliation, does not foresee any special agreement for Native people in the province. “The situation is fundamentally different in Ontario where First Nations are aggrieved. In British Columbia, the impact on First Nations will be no greater and no lesser than other British Columbians.” Abbott’s attitude doesn’t leave much room for negotiation. Perhaps the fact that BC Native Chiefs have sided with Bill Vander Zalm has angered the Liberal Party. The fact that Ontario has compromised with Native leaders should have been a reason for Campbell and his cronies to follow their example.

British Columbia Native leaders met with Finance Minister Colin Hansen in June. Chief Phillip said the session was “very intense” and the leaders made it clear they weren’t going to stop protesting. “We believe we can take advantage of this opportunity and revisit the taxation in a manner that would serve to alleviate that poverty,” he said. Chief Phillip also suggested that part of HST revenues could be used to invest in First Nations economic, business, culture, and education initiatives. Hansen has not replied to this suggestion, nor has he responded to media requests for comment.