The Free Housing for Natives Myth.

One of the most prevalent and enduring myths out there is that aboriginal peoples receive ‘free housing’.  A lot of Canadians hold on to some very strong preconceived notions about aboriginal housing, all of which can be explored in some detail, but for the purpose of this article I’m going to focus specifically on this aspect of the myth.  This article then will not discuss housing conditions on reserve.  I’ll save that topic for later.

So I heard natives get houses for free, how is that fair?

I know you want me to deal with the ‘how is that fair part’ first, but really, I’ve got to break down some numbers for you before I can even get there.

As of the 2006 census there were:

  • 1,172,790 aboriginal people in Canada made up of:
  •  50,485 Inuit
  • 389,785 Métis
  • 698,025 First Nations (Status and non-Status)

Now, I’m hoping that even the most rabid believer in the Free Housing for Natives Myth does not actually claim that over a million people are eligible for government-provided/paid for housing. This myth really involves on-reserve housing, though this distinction is not always clear when it’s brought up.

Okay.  So Inuit and Métis don’t have reserves and as of 2006, 60% of First Nations people were living off-reserve.  We’re talking 418,815 people actually on-reserve.

Yeah but that’s still almost half a million people getting free houses when I have to work my ass off and –

Whoa nelly, hold on!  I was trying to tackle a gross generalisation that gets thrown out there a lot, and clarify that being aboriginal does not mean “thanks for the free house!”

Yeah but you think it should mean that, don’t you!?

Okay imaginary person, you seriously have to ramp down the hostility (and apparently I need to stop reading Globe and Mail comment sections before writing).

I think it’s useful to acknowledge that there are indeed different understandings of whether native housing is a right.

If you take a strictly legal positivist approach which assumes that the only valid perspective is the one that is affirmed by current Canadian law, then that’s fine.  But I want you to recognise that this is what you are doing, and that legal positivism does not lead to objective truth outside of ‘this is what the law says right now’.

I bring this up because part of learning about issues like housing, or education or Treaties or what have you, is in understanding that aboriginal peoples do not necessarily agree with the Canadian state about how things were, are, or should be.  This does not make us wrong and it does not make the Canadian state right.  I am not going to argue one way or the other in this article, because that would be a very long post.  I am just going to summarise the positions.

Housing as an Aboriginal or treaty right

The Royal Commission on Aboriginal Peoples addressed the different perspectives on housing as a right in its final report:

…in a submission to the Standing Committee on Aboriginal Affairs in 1992, the Assembly of First Nations (AFN) asserted that “housing is a federal responsibility which flows from the special relationship with the federal Crown created by section 91(24) of the British North America Act of 1867 and treaty agreements themselves”…

…The Federation of Saskatchewan Indian Nations stated that “[S]helter in the form of housing, renovations, and related infrastructure is a treaty right, and forms part of the federal trust and fiduciary responsibility. [This position derives] from the special Indian-Crown relationship dating back to the Royal Proclamation of 1763, enhanced by section 91(24) of the Constitution Act, 1867 and sections 25 and 35 of the Constitution Act, 1982.”

What ‘housing as an aboriginal or Treaty right’ means to different indigenous peoples and organisations varies greatly.  To some it means 100% paid for, provided at no-cost funding while for others it means guaranteed subsidies to help with construction and operation costs, with Bands collecting rent or offering rent-to-own regimes as they wish.

Housing as social policy

From the same report:

To date, the federal government has not recognized a universal entitlement to government-financed housing as either a treaty right or an Aboriginal right. It has taken the position that assistance for housing is provided as a matter of social policy, and its Aboriginal housing policy has been based on this premise. Thus, assistance has been based on ‘need’.

The Canadian government then, argues that providing housing assistance to those in need (native or not) is a social policy objective for all Canadians.  This is the current official approach to native housing in Canada.

Can you please get to the ‘free housing’ issue now?

Yes, and thank you for being patient.

Contrary to popular belief, no one is handing out free houses on reserve.  When you hear about being on a housing list on the rez, you’re not listening to people tell you that they are waiting until someone hands them the keys to a brand new home that they now own, debt free.

There are two main categories of housing on reserve:

  • market-based housing
  • non-profit social housing

Market-based housing on reserve

Market-based housing refers to households paying the full cost associated with purchasing or renting their housing.  This is not free housing.

As of 2006, home ownership rates on reserve were at 31%, compared to 69% among off reserve Canadians.  So while the overall home ownership rate is significantly lower on reserve than off, many Canadians are not aware that there is any home ownership on reserve at all.

There are barriers to market-based housing on reserve which you should understand. Land on reserve is held in common, and not split into individual properties owned by individual people.  You can be given permission to possess a piece of land and use it, but this does not mean you own it.

Most people require some sort of loan to purchase a home, and in order to secure that financing you must have collateral (something that can be seized and sold off in order to pay your debt). There are severe Indian Act limitations to seizing property on-reserve, making it extremely difficult to secure financing for anything, whether you intend to buy or build a house, start a business, do renovations or what have you.  To be extremely clear, this is not an endorsement of attempts to unilaterally impose private property regimes on reserve, I’m just explaining things.

There are various programs in place, with new ones being developed on a community by community basis, to address the issue of financing. AANDC administers Ministerial Loan Guarantees which are the most common and provide security for lenders.  However, the First Nation is ultimately on the hook if there is a default and not all communities can cover that cost, so these loan guarantees are not always available.

So far no one approach has been successful enough to work in every situation, and home ownership on reserve varies from ‘a lot’ to ‘almost none’ depending on the community.

Income is also another obvious barrier to accessing market-based housing on reserve, which brings us to the second category.

Non-profit social housing

The Canadian Mortgage and Housing Agency (CMHC) delivers housing programs and services across the country to all Canadians under the National Housing Act:

s.3 “The purpose of this Act, in relation to financing for housing, is to promote housing affordability and choice, to facilitate access to, and competition and efficiency in the provision of, housing finance, to protect the availability of adequate funding for housing at low cost, and generally to contribute to the well-being of the housing sector in the national economy.”

Section 95 of this Act deals with social housing, and programs under this section include subsidies for non-profit rental housing on reserve (and elsewhere throughout Canada).  If I haven’t pounded this fact in enough, let me do it once more: this is not a program that only First Nations people benefit from.  There are tens of thousands of Canadians living in co-op housing built with the help of subsidies under s.95.

The Co-Operative Housing Federation of Canada deals with social housing off reserve, but these FAQ answers apply on reserve as well:

The members do not own equity in their housing. If they move, their home is returned to the co‑op [the Band], to be offered to another individual or family who needs an affordable home.

Some co‑op households pay a reduced monthly rent (housing charge) geared to their income. Government funds cover the difference between this payment and the co‑op’s full charge. Other households pay the full monthly charge based on cost.

Because co‑ops charge their members only enough to cover costs, repairs, and reserves, they can offer housing that is much more affordable than average private sector rental costs.

Non-profit social housing is often called Band Housing on-reserve, and 57% of on-reserve people lived in these units as of 2006. 

AANDC [alone or via the CMHC] does not cover the full cost of housing. In addition to government funding, First Nations and their residents are expected to secure funding from other sources for their housing needs, including shelter charges and private sector loans.

All people in Canada who are eligible for social assistance can be issued shelter allowances.  This is meant to help low income individuals meet their shelter expenses (rent, utilities) and amounts are based on provincial tables.  This AANDC document (PDF) is specific to the BC region, and lays out all the criteria involved in determining income support and shelter allowances for First Nations (beginning on p.143 of the PDF document) based on BC rate tables.

By the way, the CMHC just announced it’s cutting funding for s.95 housing on-reserve by 30%.  Thanks, guys.

But I thought…

You thought wrong.  While home ownership on-reserve lags behind off-reserve ownership, it does exist even despite the considerable obstacles involved in securing financing.  Band housing is built with the help of government subsidies available for similar projects all over Canada and where low income First Nations individuals need help to pay their rent in these social housing units, AANDC provides social assistance similar to that available to all other Canadians.

We can and should delve into housing quality and conditions on and off-reserve and the factors involved in overcrowding and inadequate shelter, but to have that discussion I first needed us to get past the myth of free housing.

If you want to call what I’ve described ‘free housing’, then you need to recognise that this situation is not confined to First Nations.  If the only complaints on s.95 housing and/or shelter allowances are aimed at First Nations, then those arguments are inherently racist.

However, I think the real issue is, most people honestly don’t understand housing on-reserve, and because the issue is complicated, people rely on word of mouth.  I’m hoping this article helps clear up some of the confusion.

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44 Responses to The Free Housing for Natives Myth.

  1. Grace Atkinson says:

    Very concise – thank you and I hope this goes a long way to dispelling yet another myth that creates the racist stereotypes so treasured by many Canadians.

  2. Ray says:

    Metis in provinces other than Alberta do not have Metis-specific landbases. But Metis in Alberta do have landbases, and as such, have housing programs specific to their communities (or Metis Settlements, as they are known). The Inuit in Nunavut also have their own housing programs, though it is through their residency in Nunavut, not by virtue of their Inuitness (did I make up a word? I think I did.)

    It’s a tricky issue. Even clarifications need clarifications.

    • Absolutely. One could also go into the community by community specific programs to help with home ownership and renovations…but again these are targeted programs which are not ‘free housing’ but rather are intended to help with costs (some more than others). There are also many housing programs that focus on non-native housing in various parts of the country. I often say that these ‘primers’ I write are the most general introductions to issues that could literally take a lifetime to study.

      And I like the term “Inuitness” 😀

      • Ray says:

        Well it was a good start. The only other comment I’ll make is the fact that most commentators single out ANAC for criticism. While much of that criticism is undoubtedly earned, the fact is there are multiple federal departments that have responsibilities to FNs on-reserve. In this instance, CMHC has the primary duties for housing (not ANAC).

        So although Duncan took a great deal of heat for not being aware of the housing crisis in Attawapiskat, this is an area where the primary responsibility was on the Minister for CMHC (Hon. Diane Finley). It’s equivalent to criticizing the Minister for Industry for something in the portfolio of the Minister of Justice. Our critiques have to be a lot more accurate if they are going to have any impact.

        • “Our critiques have to be a lot more accurate if they are going to have any impact.”

          Exactly. I get annoyed when my articles get used to promote an anti-Harper anti-Conservatives stance when I haven’t so lost my memory that I suddenly adore the Liberals, and so many of these problems we face have been ignored or made worse by successive Liberal and Conservative governments over the years.

          The various Auditor General reports on housing are an excellent place to go to understand why housing on reserve is so inadequate both in numbers of units and in terms of construction/maintenance. Getting into the gritty details of that is much more complex than simply laying the blame on one set of shoulders. The entire system is a hodgepodge, so much of which was intended to be temporary while more intelligent solutions were sought…but not yet found. Then again, that pretty much describes all systems of government in Canada, because no one sat down and planned it all out in advance, it just sort of grew.

          Clearing up some of the weird things people believe is for me a starting point for a more intelligent and informed conversation that actually goes somewhere. I have felt so many times that such conversations were impossible because clearing up misconceptions saps so much energy and attention. We keep having to battle the same stereotypes. For me, these articles help me push that aside for a bit or at least provide me with an easy source to give to people so they can do some of the work themselves…and hopefully soon more people will be able to become more accurate and more able to address the tangible obstacles to improving the living conditions of native peoples in this country.

          Anyway 😀

      • Daniel Nikpayuk says:

        I’m weighing in here because I’m Inuit:

        Regarding “Inuitness” as a word, I think a precedent has already been established at the following link:

  3. Dave MacKay says:

    Thank you……!

    Canadians, in general, are misinformed about many matters, this article clarifies greatly.

  4. Brian Fisher says:

    And now I hear that our federal government wants to turn the peoples on reserves into individual property holders with the ability to sell land to anyone either native or non native. All this to help fix the housing problem, so they say.

    Article in the Globe & Mail:

    • Michael Smith says:

      In the US we called that idea “Allotment”. It was a disaster for the Native American communities and a great windfall for all sorts of frauds, speculators and other such vermin. Why does Canada suddenly want to repeat our failures?

      • frank shawnoo says:

        The First Nations are fighting this bill. What happened in the States is exactly what the Harper Govt wants and is counting on if this bill passes.

  5. Jadey says:

    apparently I need to stop reading Globe and Mail comment sections before writing

    My motto in life is, “Never read the Globe and Mail comments EVER.” Too depressing.

    Thanks for this excellent and clear post. Now if only the G&M commenters would come and (quietly) read it too!

    (Also, I super-duper hope that you are able to write a post on this debacle as well –> “attempts to unilaterally impose private property regimes on reserve”.)

  6. Brian Egan says:

    Thanks for this excellent post and for helping to bust another persistent myth about Aboriginal peoples in Canada. Very helpful!

  7. Thanks for these extremely informative posts. I’m one of those white folks just trying to figure it all out and doing what I can to educate myself and then those around me.

  8. Lau says:

    I’m with Christopher, just trying to figure out what’s going on. I find it incredibly suspicious that there is a huge lack of media coverage on aboriginal issues and so I’m trying to educate myself. The problem I’m having is that there are so many issues and it seems to have become so complicated that I don’t see solutions. I haven’t seen suggestions for what we as people who share this country can do to resolve these issues. What can the Canadian government do? What can aboriginals do? And also very importantly, what can I do? I feel that people are being wronged and I want to raise my voice in protest but I don’t know what to say. So far the best step that I can see would be a series of publicized discussions in parliament on select key issues with government leaders and aboriginal leaders and just flood the media with coverage of it so that it can’t be ignored. That’s just the opinion of a fairly uninformed observer though and I have no idea of how it would be accomplished. Am I alone in my hopeless confusion?

  9. My mother lives on-reserve; treaty to the reserve since she married my dad in 1985 (she was treaty from another before that); and has worked at the band office for 20+ years (never a council position). She does not receive housing from the band what so ever. So this really is just a myth. Another stereotype. DEATH TO STEREOTYPES. Wish people would educate themselves before ever coming to a conclusion they know so little about. And to the ones who take time to understand before judging – we need more of you!

  10. sherri fowers says:

    What really stands out for me over the years, is one of our main problems as CANADIANS is that the government is too influenced by corporations wants. We have slowly over the last 3 decades gone from a balanced system to a corporate state. It is clear to me that all the policies that are being pushed through this government are a replica of the Bush years. What concerns me the most is that we need to understand that the First Nations all (Aboriginals) concerns are our concerns.

    Trappling over the rights of First Nations Treaties is trappling the rights of all Canadians. All governments get stuck in an ideology and we are just by standers that are affected by their policies.
    I am for one humbled by the determination and patience you have exercised.

    Our thirst for economic prosperity at any and all costs is short sighted and in the end destructive.
    My hope for my children is that somehow we as a society wake up before it is too late.

    For change to happen we must educate ourselves thank you for doing that.

  11. Charolette Webb says:

    Thank you for the clarification on subjects like these. I too believe the first barrier to change is education and beyond that love and patience for each other. I can not speak for others but as a non aboriginal person myself I must admit my only sources of education have mostly been written in books and sadly I have found it uncomfortable to ask these questions without being deemed racist by both aboriginal and non aboriginal people which isn’t fair nor does it solve anything. Thank you again for the clarity of information as well as the opportunity join you in changing these injustices for everyone’s future.

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  13. Nishka Silverfox says:

    As a Native Elder that has been through the Foster Care and passed for white child when ever I was bad, loud, dirty and just a little girl I was told that was the Indian. coming out in me when ever I asked what that meant I was told it was the part of me that I didn’t want to know as that was the part of me that was evil did I know everyone thought that Native people were drunks, drug users and always unfit dirty people I was lucky I could pass foe white. I was adopted a white family was 11 It took me a long time to find my people and home reserve I was adopted in Ontario and all the files were sealed, when and when law was changed I was in my late sixties found out who I really was.
    It important to understand the Canadian government does not care how much information is out there about our people and how correct it is all false information plays right into their game. They do not work from the communities they come from but they represent themselves.
    G. Silverfox

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  15. France Duguay says:

    Very informative. I’m a non-native wishing to understand better the issues facing Native/Métis and Inuit people in Canada. This article contributed to explain a bit about all the challenges your peoples are against. Myths about First Nations, Métis and Inuit are so entrenched in non-native people in Canada, it is a real shame. As an Acadian, my people should know better. For it is the help of Native, who helped us when we settled on “their” land, and in some cases saved a lot of us during Deportation, we should thank and support.

  16. Spencer says:

    I will probably come off as offensive but that is not my intent. Why do you need my $600 a year to maintain a life style that is a shell of what it once was and now riddled with alcoholism and drugs. The current amount of first nation life style and culture in a reserve (that i’ve visited) can easily be replicated in a city. I feel that first nation reserves are able to accept Canadian food culture etc but do not feel obliged to contribute back is a slap in the face. There is a room with free food and beverages at SIAST only for people with a treaty number that is payed for by my tax dollars. Public schools cannot say the our father but have first nation prayers over the intercom. Everyone who made the treaties is dead charity for a decaying culture should not be forced upon me. Your ancestors land was traded out of generosity and pity after the wars in the US wiped out entire first nations. As for the residential schools argument do Jewish people as a whole in Germany reap benefits for being unfairly treated? The answer is no. When I was applying for university at least 3/4 of the scholarships were for first nation or metis people only. My friend is first nations and he had his schooling completely paid for. What are the scholarships for if schooling is free. I feel like a second class citizen being a white male in Saskatoon.

    I would like my mind changed but those are my current opinions.

    • Yup. A lot of this is pretty offensive, intended or not.

      Where do I begin? Perhaps with this…the death of our cultures has been greatly exaggerated. Just because you, personally, have not been privy to our ceremonies, or are not aware of our socio-political orders, does not mean they have been successfully wiped out. If they had, we would indeed already be assimilated. There would be nothing truly holding us to the land.

      Yes. Grinding poverty is a terrible disease in many of our communities, and like any people experiencing the cycle of poverty, this leads to a host of other ills: addictions, suicide, domestic violence, helplessness, hopelessness. We are indeed afflicted, and many of our people are stuck in a deep rut that can seem almost impossible to get out of.

      Nonetheless, many of them DO get out of that rut, and what has consistently been a factor in that healing is a return to our cultures. In case you believe that our cultures can only exist as they did in the 18th century, I’d like you to read another article I wrote about how traditions are not technology dependent, but are rather a set of principles one applies to life:

      We haven’t lost as much as you seem to be assuming. Then again, how would you judge that, being unfamiliar with what our cultures actually are? This is a question you should be asking yourself as you look in, from the outside.

      You cannot shame a people out of poverty. Heaping abuse on their heads is not going to solve any problems, and doing so ignores the root causes of that poverty: namely, the destruction of entire economic bases some time after Contact, and later, the failure to honour the Treaties which were negotiated not by foolish and easily tricked illiterates, but rather were negotiated by leaders with long histories of creating complicated and binding relationships with other peoples. The numbered Treaties were negotiated with a mind to the future, as can be seen by their focus on farming as a way of supplanting the by-then destroyed buffalo. And for some time, our peoples were successful farmers. So successful in fact, that they became competition for their settler neighbours. You can, and should, learn more about this here:

      Despite the hurdles put in our way, our peoples have managed again and again to do great things with very little resources. Yet when we have, even those gains have been stripped from us…by policies such as those explained in the last linked article, which forced native farmers into a bizarre system of inefficient ‘walk before you can run’ peasant farming despite the fact that we were already doing quite fine with modern machinery, thanks.

      A third of the reserve lands originally allotted to First Nations remain. A third. The other two thirds have been slowly eroded through expropriation, ‘leases’ that never ended, and sales by corrupt Indian agents. Many of these issues have still not been dealt with by claims processes. Imagine having your land expropriated, and asking for justice, only to have your great grandchildren still waiting in line to have the issue heard?

      We don’t contribute? Really? Our lands and resources are the reason that Canadian is among the richest nations of the world. You paint a strange picture, and I wonder if you are aware there are over a million indigenous people in this country? There are over 600 First Nations communities, there are Metis and Inuit peoples as well. Do you honestly think that over a million of people are doing nothing but sitting at home all day, ‘contributing nothing’?

      I have paid taxes my entire adult working life. Please read about how narrow tax exemptions actually are here:

      I haven’t had a chance to write an article on higher education funding yet…but let me give you the short version…of those actually eligible for the funding (much less than you imagine), most don’t qualify because high school graduation rates are so low. First Nations students receive up to $2000 less per student, per year, than students in the regular public system. Chronic underfunding and a host of other issues often linked to federal jurisdiction mean that the number of First Nations post-secondary graduates is shockingly low.

      You can look at what you see, and wonder how it came to be that way, and you can even jump to conclusions or construct theories….but the fact is, these issues have been studied in extreme depth. It is a shame not to look into that research in order to become more informed, if you honestly want to understand it. I suggest starting with the Royal Commission on Aboriginal Peoples:

      It will help you sweep away a lot of the misinformation and misconceptions leading you to ask the kinds of questions you have here.

      • Ainslie says:

        Wonderful reply. I hope the commentor this intended for actually reads it and the links provided. This was a great piece and I look forward to when you have an opportunity to address the nonsense of “free post-secondary education” I know firsthand any number of people who have been unable to get post-secondary training. I hope you get to address the fact that often children wishing to complete highschool have to leave reserves and attend school in larger centres. I know I got to stay at home and complete highschool surrounded by family and friends for support.

      • Spencer says:

        First off thanks for replying to a seemingly bigot comment with an intellectual factual comment. I am not racist one of my good friends is first nation and he is the hardest worker I have ever worked with. Most first nations contribute to Canada but facts are facts and First Nations people having a much greater welfare rate than non-status people.

        I do not think that the culture aspects as a whole are dying but the need for completely segregated reserves is. My friend said that the only real way for him to get off of the reserve was to join the military. His reserve friends were uncomfortable with moving away from their family and lacked the resources to do so. They wanted to work as he did but found it impossible to get a job on a reserve.
        The income median for non reserve people is nearly double first nations people that live on a reserve. Causing reserves to nearly always have negative tax flow.

        The reserve system has been proven flawed in Canada and other countries such as Australia. What do you think can be done to fix this broken system(in my eyes still)?

        Is it offensive to call first nations people Indians?

        Do you believe that preferential hiring and race quotas are just?

        Do you think that treaty rights cause status-Indians to have a much higher crime, welfare rate, and accidental death rates?

        Why is complete integration(treaty rights abolished) with the same system as the french have Quebec(a new province in the highest % first nation(sask)) wrong?

        Thank you for your time

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  18. Dan says:

    So back to the main topic at hand

    Let me get this straight…

    – 69% of those living on reserves are acutally renting?
    – they (the 69% as of 2006) all live in some form of co-op housing or band housing?
    – new units or repairs/upkeep is paid by the reserve which gets it’s funding from the federal government just as any other “housing project”?

    I’m trying to get the gist of your article and educate myself since this type of information is NEVER on the nightly news.
    If what I’ve taken from your article is correct, I think I might finally understand why many Canadians think First Nations People get free housing.

    Canadians hear or read about how X amount of dollars were ‘given’ to this reserve or that one in order to build X number of homes. When in fact, the federal funding for these housing units would be the same anywhere in Canada if the ‘need’ has been identified. In that sense, the housing is ‘free’.

    Add to this the belief that the money being used to pay the rent (wether we are talking about geared to income rates or not) often comes from a welfare cheque since employment opportunities on or near reserves are often limited and there you have it. Free housing!

    Please recognize that there is some truth to that statement. Based on your numbers, we are talking about potentially 70,000 houses or units accross Canada IF every one of the 69% of the 418,815 living on reservations actually has a “government subsidized roof” and there are on average 4 people under each roof.
    Don’t get me wrong. If you live in Canada and you don’t have a job for whatever reason, you are entitled (on or off reserve, aboriginal or not) to a mediocre level of assistance. You are also ‘entitled’ to be judged and meet roadblocks in order to get that meager cheque.

    Any thoughts?


    • My thoughts on that were summed up in the article. If someone objects to this kind of housing and they are ONLY vocal when it comes to First Nations housing, then the argument is inherently racist. If the objection is to all social housing, then that is a different issue.

  19. John Birch says:

    Excellent read, âpihtawikosisân. I linked it to a response of mine on the Globe and Mail comments section.

    Oh….the irony.

  20. One Law for All says:

    What a racist and bigoted website.

  21. Sylvain Giroux says:

    I have a question: who pays for the original construction of the homes?

  22. Sarah says:

    Can a person on the Rez in non profit housing charge rent to someone? Doesn’t seem right…

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  24. Jc says:

    Thanks for making that make sense . I learnt something and that’s what is important.
    It does highlight how messed up the whole system is for both the government and (especially) Native American community and I do hope it can be made better and soon.

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