Beach sand is a lot like Christmas tree needles – it stays in your stuff forever.
Grains from the beautiful shores of Brackley Beach are still trickling out of shirt pockets and pantcuffs and my copy of The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo following July’s Four Generations Tour of Prince Edward Island. My mother – from the Alderville Marsden clan – myself, and a daughter and grand-daughter from Timmins holidayed at Canada’s oldest family-owned inn, located barely a stone’s throw from the Atlantic Ocean.
Fresh from Ontario’s HST wars, it was amazing to have shopkeepers in Charlottetown honour my Treaty right exemption from their hefty 10-per-cent provincial sales tax – even though they are not required to do so for out-of-province Indian tourists! Chalk it up to good business practice. With most merchandise in stores marked up by 100%, what difference does it make if you’re giving a 10% discount to employees, senior citizens, frequent flyers, family members, children accompanied by adults, aliens, armed forces personnel, animals with three legs or Status Indians. Show me a merchant who can’t afford a 10% customer discount and I’ll show you somebody who’s going to go out of business.
At last count —the 2006 Census – there were about 1700 aboriginal people living on Prince Edward Island, which these days has a total of some 150,000 residents. We couldn’t manage the trip to Lennox Island – one of five Island reserves – for their annual pow-wow, which would have been a nice break from all the Anne of Green Gables attractions. But we did have some Native content in a fascinating “experiential” lobster-fishing excursion.
I couldn’t help but smile when Mark Jenkins – a fourth-generation lobsterman – told us how a Mi’kmaq fishery is now being accommodated. It was barely 10 years ago that their boats were being burned and traps being sabotaged in the wake of the Marshall Decision that confirmed a treaty right for First Nations fishing.
Even though they accounted for only about 100,000 of the 4,000,000 lobster traps in the Maritime waters, the Mi’kmaq were blamed for “depleting the stock” because they chose not to set their traps in accordance with federal regulations. Headlines across the country screamed that the First Nations were fishing “out-of-season”, just like the anonymous rednecks rant on North Bay websites when First Nations fishers exercise their treaty right to pull pickerel out of Lake Nipissing.
This was also a summer to renew my interest in golf, which – after bingo -- has become a popular pastime in Indian Country. Determined to improve my length off the tee, I invested in a Taylor “Burner” – a driver whose clubhead is the size of a small snapping turtle. According to the packaging information, sparks can be seen when the metal club skims across the surface of the ground. I never witnessed that phenomenon, but did see stars one afternoon after I struck my head on a tree limb while trying to find a ball my Burner hit into the bush.
I was gearing up for my return to work when CTV interrupted the daily cat-fight on The View to announce that His Holiness, Stephen Harper, was shuffling his cabinet. (For some reason, this immediately reminded me of that old joke about the guard in the prisoner-of-war camp telling all the inmates they were going to get a new change of underwear: “So Hans, you change with Fritz, and Dieter --you change with Adolf…” and so-on, and so-on.)
“There are no major portfolios affected in the minor cabinet shuffle,” the crawling screen graphics told viewers, just before noting that John Duncan – a B. C. Parliamentarian who in September, 1995 referred to the Stoney Point protest at Ipperwash as an “illegal occupation” – would be the new federal minister of Indian and Northern Affairs. An announcer credited outgoing INAC portfolio-holder Chuck Strahl with “tackling difficult issues”, which I guess means the same thing as leaving a pile of 800 unsettled land claims on your desk.
My first day back in the office took a dramatic turn.
Thanks largely to a determined campaign by Anishinabek citizens of all ages in all parts of the province, the government of Ontario told retailers that, effective Sept. 1, they were expected to honour the treaty rights to exemption from the 8% provincial sales tax of all First Nation citizens presenting a certificate of Indian Status at the point of sale.
So that morning we recruited a gang of “secret shoppers” to check if stores in the North Bay area were following the letter of the law. I wanted our first stop be the Canadian Tire store where, on National Aboriginal Day – June 21, 2003 – two cops strong-armed me into the parking lot after I refused to leave the premises until someone explained why a clerk denied my tax exemption. To be precise, I can’t accuse the North Bay Police Service of manhandling me – one of the constables was a woman – but I was given pretty rough treatment. To this day I can’t open a jar of Strubs Kosher Dill Pickles with my right hand.
But this time I was going to be prepared. Big Wally was providing FBI-calibre bodyguard service, and back at the office, Blackjack Restoule was applying for a small business loan in the event there was any urgent need for bail money. I was prepared for the worst that Canadian Tire could throw at me.
When gang members huddled after our caper, I told them I was gobsmacked -- the cashier had smiled, politely accepted my status card and rang through my two toilet-bowl brushes, handing me a receipt indicating the deduction of 8% provincial sales tax from the total purchase price.
“But I don’t need these frigging brushes,’ I told Big Wally. “ I thought they were going to refuse to accept my card and I’d just leave the toilet brushes on the counter as a sort of comment on their customer service!”
“So why don’t you return them?” suggested Big Wally, after checking in his dictionary to ensure that being “gobsmacked” was not a contagious condition.
“Bad idea,” I reasoned. “They might call the cops and have us arrested on some trumped-up charge like Nuisance Shopping. And at least I can still open a jar of Strubs pickles with my left hand.”
Besides – we wouldn’t want to run the risk of being called ‘Indian-givers’.
Maurice Switzer is a citizen of the Mississaugas of Alderville First Nation. He serves as director of communications for the Union of Ontario Indians and editor of the Anishinabek News.