Facing racism when using status cards is near-universal experience, UBCIC report finds

A status card is held up at a grocery store checkout in a photo provided by the B.C. Union of Indian Chiefs in November 2022. (Melody Charlie - image credit)
A status card is held up at a grocery store checkout in a photo provided by the B.C. Union of Indian Chiefs in November 2022. (Melody Charlie - image credit)

Discrimination, racism and confusion are near-universal experiences for Indigenous people who use status cards in everyday transactions, according to a new report from the Union of B.C. Indian Chiefs (UBCIC).

A survey released with the report found 99 per cent of respondents had been mistreated when they used the government-issued cards to purchase goods or services, either with subtle micro-aggressions or overt racism.

"This experience is profoundly negative, particularly for those experiencing other compounding and overlapping forms of oppression and shapes people's behaviour for a lifetime," read the 72-page report, published Tuesday.

UBCIC commissioned the independent report as part of its standing in the since-settled human rights complaint filed by Maxwell Johnson, a Heiltsuk man who was wrongfully arrested when he tried using his status card to open a bank account in 2019.

Ben Nelms/CBC
Ben Nelms/CBC

A status card is a piece of government ID for someone who identifies as status Indian, as defined by the federal Indian Act.

The cards, which have been a valid piece of identification in Canada for more than 65 years, can be used for health coverage, dental expenses, to cross the Canadian-American border, to open bank accounts and for specific tax exemptions. 

At certain institutions, like banks, customers need a second piece of ID. In Johnson's case, bank staff phoned police, wrongly believing his status card was fake.

'It will happen eventually,' author says

As part of its report, UBCIC surveyed 1,026 people in June about their experience using status cards for a tax exemption or as ID at five different types of retail and service businesses, like clothing stores or insurance brokers.

All but four respondents said they had faced discrimination.

"It doesn't happen every single time, but it will happen eventually if you use your status card on a repeated basis," said the report's author, Harmony Johnson, or sɛƛakəs.

"That experience of racism and discrimination using status cards is particularly acute for those that are experiencing other forms of overlapping oppression — people who are gender diverse [or] sexually diverse experience this double- whammy of oppression," she said.

How often Indigenous people experienced discrimination when using status cards


Respondents said the racism was often more subtle than bold: nearly three-quarters said clerks acted as though status cards were a "hassle," while another 63 per cent said staff didn't believe or understand the cards to be acceptable ID.

More than 60 per cent said clerks were simply rude after seeing the cards, despite being polite to other customers.

Some respondents elaborated on examples of treatment they'd faced.

"Not just retailers have a problem with our official government status cards. I have had police-station staff refuse to accept my ID as proper identification. I have had storekeepers take away my ID, and I had to call the police to get it back. They thought I stole it or had fake ID made. Hospital staff have also had an issue with me using my status card as ID," one wrote.

Discrimination during transactions with status cards


Nearly 60 per cent of respondents said they don't complain about the treatment because they didn't think it would make a difference. Most said they make an extra effort to be polite or research store policies in advance in hopes of avoiding confrontation — a burden Johnson said isn't theirs to bear.

The study also involved fieldwork and media analysis.

The latter found anti-Indigenous stereotypes have been "frequently reinforced by media coverage of status cards." A disproportionate number of stories about status card fraud between 1980 and 2010 helped in the "delegitimizing" of status cards as a valid form of ID, it said.

Comment sections on news articles about the cards can be filled with racism and harmful misinformation.

"There really seems to be an issue that incites this belief that Indigenous people are unfairly advantaged and that this [topic] seems to be a much more free way in which people share their anti-Indigenous racism," said Johnson, who is from the Tla'amin Nation.

"There is no measure by which Indigenous people are unfairly advantaged, that I can tell, and yet this seems to be a very widespread social belief that is freely shared on media, by commenters on platforms, and that's harmful."

The report said the federal government needs to do more to denounce racism and educate retailers, as the administration of status cards is "entirely a construct" of the government.

"Ignorance is a huge part of this — and I don't mean stupidity. I mean lack of knowledge," said Johnson.

"These are not necessarily ill-intending human beings. This is coming from a place of lack of information, education and awareness."