Miche vs Canada: the dangerous quicksand of First Nations rights

This is a story about folks who just want a chance to clean the slate and get on with their lives

Meet my good friend, Miche. Here is his story.

miche

Some years ago, Miche and I belonged to a company called Native Leasing Services, based on my reserve—the Six Nations of the Grand River, near Brantford in Ontario.

The idea of Native Leasing Services is simple: you work for the company, and the company leases you to aboriginal organizations across Canada. NLS provides all the services typical of its industry: payroll, group benefits, HR, and so on. Miche and I worked at the Aboriginal Healing Foundation, in Ottawa. That’s how we got to be good friends.

Because NLS is located on a reserve, our income was income-tax-free. We paid Employment Insurance and other common payroll deductions, including a leasing fee. It was legal and, in the opinion of NLS (which Miche and I share), consistent with long-standing Aboriginal rights in Canada.

Somewhere along the way, the federal government changed the rules concerning native income and taxation. They didn’t like the idea of NLS, so they came up with new rules that made it near-impossible for an Aboriginal person to claim income-tax-free status.

Today, you have to live and work on a reserve, and any product or service that you produce has to be delivered and consumed on a reserve as well. As soon as you or your product steps foot off a reserve, the federal government demands the taxes.

Tomorrow, who knows? The government is always changing its rules.

NLS went to court to fight the changes. The test cases dragged on for years (court cases usually do) and the Canadian courts ruled against us.

Typically in these test cases, the government will issue a Remission Order. The idea is that once you’ve lost in court, the ruling applies and you have to start paying taxes, as per the court’s decision. The Remission Order “forgives” the taxes up to that point, and you start from zero.

So far that hasn’t been the case. Revenue Canada, or CRA, is claiming all the back taxes from the roughly 4,000 former NLS employees. Some of us were with NLS as early the ‘80s and ’90s and face decades of back taxes. The government is pursuing hundreds of thousands of dollars from people who make, maybe, 30 or 40 thousand dollars a year. In some instances, tax bills that started out as $10,000 are now ten times that.

Miche takes home about $24,000 a year, after taxes, or just over $1,000 every two weeks. This month, CRA began to garnish his income. Even before this happened, he was borrowing money to pay the rent. He has a young daughter, and all the usual bills. He’s been struggling to make ends meet.

As a result of CRA’s actions, Miche’s wife has taken a new job a few hours away, on her home reserve in Akwesasne. Their daughter goes back and forth. The family gets to spend a day or two together each week, except when a shift comes up and Miche’s wife gets a last-minute call to come into work, as she did last weekend.

Miche is so stressed he’s been on medical leave. CRA is demanding over $195,000 in back taxes, a number that goes up every single hour of every single day due to compounding interest. Absent a Remission Order, he’ll be under financial stress for the rest of his life—even if he lives 50 more years and dies at 100. (He figures this is unlikely, and that stress is taking years off of his life.)

As crazy as this is, it’s not unusual. Former NLS employees are routinely hounded and threatened. Many, like Miche, work at health and social service agencies, for modest wages. CRA has clawed back the pensions of former NLS employees who are now sick and elderly. They’ve seized bank accounts. They’ve threatened further, unspecified legal actions. All for something that was legal not so long ago.

They have also made it impossible for people to plan and secure their financial future. What’s the point of getting a better job, saving for your child’s education, or putting retirement funds aside (asumming you’re even able to do this—which most NLS employees aren’t) if it’s just going to be suddenly taken away without your even knowing? Imagine looking 30 years down the road and still seeing an uncertain, even desperate, financial picture. Maybe you don’t have to imagine. Maybe that’s you. In any case, it’s the very definition of hopelessness.

Although we applied for the Remission Order 3 years ago, no progress has been made. The Minister of Revenue has to sign the order, and when we ask about progress we get a bureaucratic answer: “we’re looking at it.” And looking, and looking.

Meanwhile over at CRA they’re wreaking havoc with marriages, families, and lives. Here’s the best-worst part: the pocket change they are getting from Miche (about $300 a month) is not even going to pay for the psychological and physical help he needs already. He’s a wreck. He can’t sleep. He can’t focus. He breaks into tears. He worries, understandably, about his wife and daughter. Things were already tough. Now he’s being pushed to the end of his rope.

There are many, many of these stories that I could tell. As we’ve all seen in the recent KPMG affair, if you are a millionaire or billionaire, CRA has bottomless understanding and compassion. Your Remission Order is on the way, even before you ask. But if you live paycheck-to-paycheck, and you owe even $100 dollars, expect to be hunted to the ends of the earth and squeezed for every last dime. CRA has even sent people to banks to get a few bucks from NLS employees.

Let’s be clear: the government is never going to get this money. They will get cents on the dollar, because that’s all that there is to be had. No one has $200,000 sitting in a pile, in the corner of the room. CRA will spend a hundred dollars to get one dollar back, and the cost of getting this dollar won’t just be financial: it will be emotional and psychological.

A lot of good, generous people have written letters to the new federal government asking that the Remission Order be issued for the NLS employees. I’d like to think the Prime Minister and his cabinet will look at this issue and see it for what it is: an impossible situation. For the federal treasury, Miche’s debt is an irrelevance. It’s less money than the rounding error on a new military fighter jet or the federal cabinet’s annual meal budgets. Pocket change.

But for Miche, this debt is a burden that’s slowly grinding him down, and the same is true for many others.

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This is a story about folks who just want a chance to get on with their lives. That’s why Miche and Ramona Dunn (above) have gone public: to resolve an impossible situation. They are not scam artists or criminals. They have jobs and families and hopes for an ordinary decent life, a hope that is slipping away.

Go here to read Ramona Dunn’s petition to have the Remission Order Application moved quickly through the assessment process to bring closure and to allow the individuals affected to get on with their lives.

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