“Tax exemption is not a privilege or a benefit, but our right. I’m willing to defend that right.”

With those words, Margaret Horn of Kahnawake joined three other First Nations women in launching a court challenge to Ottawa’s new income-tax rules for Native people.

The four women filed claims with the Federal Court of Canada in February calling Ottawa’s new tax on Natives an infringement of their rights.

All four work off-reserve and, like the 400 other employees of the O.I. Group of Companies, a Native-owned employment agency in Toronto, they have refused to pay income tax as demanded by the federal government. Most Native people working off-reserve were told to start paying income tax as of January 1995.

“We have always believed that Native rights are portable,” said Roger Obonsawin, the O.I. Group’s owner.

“Rights are rights and they belong to the person. Treaties did not specify that these rights were conditional on living on reserve.”

The Liberals themselves opposed the same tax when it was first considered by the Mulroney government in 1993. “We believe that Revenue Canada has introduced these changes based on a seriously flawed understanding of the Supreme Court’s ruling in the Williams case,” wrote Liberal leader Jean Chrétien in a 1993 letter.

“Indeed, in the Williams case, the Supreme Court was rendering a decision on the issue of the tax status of unemployment benefits – and in doing so cautioned against the very interpretation offered by Revenue Canada.”

After the Liberals were elected, the government announced plans to slowly get rid of tax-exemptions for Natives.

First Nations organizations have been working hard to fight the new tax, although some have criticized the Assembly of First Nations for not doing enough. AFN employees got a special exemption from the new tax.

Taxation will be the main issue on the agenda at the First Nations International Court of Justice, to be held in April in Ottawa.