A new tax on Natives that took effect Jan. 1 has First Nations groups across the country up in arms.

A group of 27 mostly Native protesters has occupied part of a Revenue Canada building in downtown Toronto for a month against the new income tax. Natives in communities across the country have blockaded roads and bridges in support of the sit-in.

More than 50 Native, anti-poverty, labour and religious organizations are officially supporting the action, including the National Association of Friendship Centres, which is also acting as an unofficial mediator between Revenue Minister David Anderson and the sit-in group.

“We are very encouraged by the endless flow of faxes and phone calls coming in support of this action,” said Roger Obonsawin, a spokesman for the protesters.

The Assembly of First Nations, while not in agreement with the occupation, says Natives shouldn’t pay the tax and promises to fight the tax in court.

The Grand Council of the Crees is still debating how to respond to the tax, but seems geared up to fight. “A court action is not out of the question,” said Grand Council federal relations director Brian Craik.

The tax changes mean Natives who live or conduct most of their work off-reserve are no longer eligible for income-tax exemptions. This applies even if they work for a company registered on a reserve.

Crees working down south for the school board, GCCQ and health board are exempt from the tax because the head offices of those entities are on reserves. But staff at the CreeCo. entities might not be so lucky, since most of their offices are outside reserves. It remains unclear if their Cree staff will be taxed when the Board of Compensation, which is CreeCo.’s parent company, moves its head office to Ouje-Bougoumou.

Curiously, AFN staff received January 20, 1995 an exemption from the income tax. This raised a few eyebrows especially when AFN National Chief Ovide Mercredi said publicly in late December that he does not support the sit-in and called it “premature.”

“It didn’t come as any surprise,” protest spokeswoman Barbra Nahwegahbow said of Chief Mercredi’s remark. “The Aboriginal leadership are really short-sighted and aren’t accountable to their constituents.”

Nahwegabow spoke with The Nation outside the Revenue Canada building, where a permanent camp has been set up since the beginning. One of the many rallies and drum ceremonies that have been organized at the camp was underway. “Today they tax status Indians off-reserve,” she said. “Tomorrow, on-reserve.”

Revenue Canada spokesman Michel Cleroux wouldn’t say how much more money the new tax will bring in. “It’s not a matter of bringing in more revenue. It’s a response to a need to have a consistent and meaningful application of the Indian Act.”

Oddly, 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,” says Liberal leader Jean Chretien in a letter he wrote in June 1993. “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.”

Chretien then criticized the Tory government’s lack of consultation with Natives. “We consider such a unilateral action to be irresponsible,” he writes. “You can be assured that a Liberal government would act in a far different manner.”