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 Abstract

Excerpted From: Kyle Willmott, Taxes, Taxpayers, and Settler Colonialism: Toward a Critical Fiscal Sociology of Tax as White Property, 56 Law and Society Review 6 (March, 2022) (13 Footnotes/Reference List) (Full Document)

KyleWillmottIn 2017, Canadian Senator Lynn Beyak sparked anger when she suggested that the Truth and Reconciliation Commission's (TRC) findings focused too much on 'the negative’ aspects of residential schools. Residential schools are but one of the methods of genocide inflicted on Indigenous nations by the Canadian state, designed to secure white settlement, and sediment dispossession of Indigenous lands, languages, cultures, and nationhoods. Beyak argued that the 'good deeds' of teachers, administrators and clergy had been overshadowed, saying in part: “well-intentioned men and women and their descendants-- perhaps some of us here in this chamber--whose remarkable works, good deeds and historical tales in the residential schools go unacknowledged for the most part ...” She faced immediate criticism for the comments, especially from Indigenous Parliamentarians such as MP Romeo Saganash and Senators Murray Sinclair and Lillian Dyck. Beyak later explained her comments at a committee meeting:

The speech that caused so much hurt and distress was actually a speech about taxes. My mission here in the Senate is the wise use of tax dollars, and I was questioning why we were renaming buildings all across Canada when a teenage Aboriginal child on a reserve in Canada has never had a glass of clean water ... It seemed like our priorities are skewed ... So I asked for a national audit of all dollars coming in and out of every reserve.

Beyak's inchoate attempt at reconfiguring her defense of genocide into concern over 'tax dollars' requires theorization. The invocation of tax in response to Indigenous life is a familiar rhetorical move, authored by confident taxpayer subjects, illustrated by a further controversy involving the Senator. In 2018, Beyak came under scrutiny for posting racist letters of support she had received to her Senate website. These letters admonished Indigenous people for being “subsidized” and living off of “handouts,” and included sentiments such as “the decision to assimilate first nations [sic] into Canada was and remains the correct one ... I resent having to pay taxes that are used in part to subsidize first nation programs ...”, and “the endless funding pit of reserves has to stop”. The appearance of tax, taxpayers and fiscal relations in contexts such as those described above illuminates an epistemology central to the reproduction of 'settler common sense’ --wherein 'tax talk’ (Martin & Kidder, 2012) actively constructs political subjectivities around ideas about tax: who pays tax, who is imagined as not inhabiting the status of 'taxpayer’, and who costs 'taxpayers'. These 'tax imaginaries' that Makovicky and Smith  define in relation to citizenship practices around tax, the state, and political conflict, are clearly important to understanding the enduring centrality of tax to politics. I argue that the 'taxpayer’ subject fuses fiscal concerns with white possessive racial logics that embody imperatives of both settler colonialism and liberalism. I examine how settlers practice political citizenship in relation to Indigenous peoples through tax, given its longstanding place among the myths and tropes that circulate about Indigenous peoples. The ideas behind these tropes characterize general patterns of racism toward Indigenous people , inform Canada's aggressive fiscal parsimony (Palmater, 2011; Pasternak, 2016; Willmtt, 2020) in relation to First Nations, and structure broader relations of property, posession, disposession, and capital accumulation.

The everyday invocations of tax as a cudgel against Indigenous peoples demonstrate the political and legal contours of the settler colonial present is shaped by the power of tax and fiscal discourses. Many Native people can probably recount experiences of being addressed or hearing complaints by self-identified 'taxpayers' about welfare or subsidies, or seeing taxpayers addressed as constituents of policy and political debate about Indigenous life. I ask how tax and “taxpaying” become elements of political vernacular in relation to Indigenous peoples in settler states, and how settlers come to see themselves as the executors of Indigenous life through the prism of tax, conceptualized as a form of white property. What does it mean when white settlers navigate questions of Indigeneity, Indigenous rights, treaties, and Indigenous nationhood through a 'taxpayer’ lens, and how does this lens become a comprehensible method for people to understand political and legal questions? Of import for law and sociolegal scholars is understanding how these myths become consecrated in spaces of law, bureaucracy, and the state. Thinking through settler colonialism with tax can help shed light as to why and political myths and vernaculars around fiscal relations continue to dominate in settler states, and operate as forms of governmentality.

Contra analysis of the taxpayer as a legal or bureaucratic subject, the theorization offered here positions the taxpayer as an informal political subjectivity equipped with a vernacular of liberal market thrift that trades in ideas about the objectivity of numbers and quantification, and the technical morality attached to budgeting and tax. In settler colonial contexts, taxpayer subjects are constructed through possessiveness, property and ownership, and whiteness in opposition to Indigenous self-determination. I examine the politics around the First Nations Financial Transparency Act (FNFTA) and trace how tax, citizenship, and white possessive narratives coalesced into a moment where 'taxpayers' were incited to act. Specifically, I focus on how one of the institutional forebearers of this form of governmentality, taxpayer groups, sprang into action.

The Canadian Taxpayers Federation (CTF) has helped to popularize long-standing tropes about taxes and Indigenous peoples that have resulted from both legal and political distinctions between Canadians and Indigenous peoples, but also legal attempts by the Canadian state to assimilate Indigenous nations into Canada. Founded in 1990, as an amalgam of Alberta and Saskatchewan taxpayer groups, the CTF has argued that it stands for 'accountability’, 'transparency’, and against government 'waste’. Their brand of 'populist’ watchdog politics places them among right wing and/or neoliberal market-oriented political advocacy organizations that have long attempted to construct market-oriented political imaginaries and subjects to consume those market-oriented imaginaries. Despite the group's political mission, the CTF is often quoted in the mainstream press as an independent representative of 'taxpayers', without reference to the group's ideological disposition. Because they are often focused on more 'mundane’ issues, such as funding for public transport, deficits, 'wasteful’ state projects or inefficient bureaucracies, their mundane 'fiscal conservatism'--or neoliberalism--helps to fill 'cookie cutter’ stories about the abuse of 'taxpayer money’ that are a staple of news media. However, this also provides significant space for the CTF to push more reactionary policy advocacy, often under the guise of their 'folksy’ populist image. Their anti-Indigenous policy advocacy is a prime example, with their advocacy for individual property rights on reserve land  one example of their assimilationist politics . What makes taxpayer groups distinct is how they work to maintain and build the taxpayer as a political subject, that, while not reducibls a subject of their creation, functions in relation to a state that has long relied on constructing tax as a form of nation building. To understand how tax and ideas about tax come to act on people as forms of colonial subjectification, the paper focuses on how the taxpayer subject emerges by examining a tightly related series of editorial texts produced between 2010 and 2014 by the Canadian Taxpayers Federation during debate over the First Nations Financial Transparency Act.

Tax researchers across disciplines have been asking 'who are the taxpayers?’ for several years now, and while race and racism has been present in the analysis of tax, Indigeneity and settler colonialism have been somewhat absent. The interaction of race and economic ideas must include how tax acts to animate legal and economic concepts that come to constitute race and settler colonialism. The theoretical intervention made here specifically lies in the realm of recent social studies of tax found across fiscal sociology, anthropology of tax, tax history, and sociolegal studies of tax. Taxation as a legal process comes to bear on the subjectivities of those obligated to pay it--or those who imagine themselves as paying it. How do sentiments about Indigenous people 'on welfare’ transform from racist critique, to a critique authored by a merely concerned taxpayer? The move toward the 'fiscal’ is not a move away from racism, or toward 'progress' (Seamster & Ray, 2018), but instead demonstrates how putatively fiscal concerns are enmeshed in a conceptual network that involves property, colonialism, money, and racialization, in a form that could be best described as fiscalized racism. In other words, racism comes to be constituted through fiscal discourses. Tax, in this sense, serves to both mystify racism by cloaking itself in the fiscal, articulated through populist political vernaculars and familiar stories told about Indigenous peoples. Fiscalized racism serves as an example of what Moreton-Robinson calls 'legitimized racism’ against Native people, and forms part of the repertoire of what Pasternak calls 'fiscal warfare'--the specific ways that settler states use accounting, budgeting, and fiscal processes to subvert and undermine the sovereignty and nationhood of Indigenous Nations.

State strategies to undermine Indigenous sovereignty has long been a concern in Indigenous studies, and law and sociolegal studies. This study combines the analysis of formal legal and policy strategies, but focuses on the informal mechanisms by which Indigenous sovereignty is attacked, and how Indigeneity itself comes to be governed by tax tropes and 'taxpayer governmentality’. Taxpayer politics in relation to Indigenous peoples is complex for two reasons. First, because Indigenous nations are nations, there are long histories of Indigenous legal and political resistance to assimilative tax and property regimes of settler states that have interacted with different laws and policy regimes. Second, settlers often do not understand that Indigenous nations are nations with governance and legal systems/knowledges, not simply Indigenous 'individuals' who live 'in’ Canada . This presents problems when comparing differential tax policies around First Nations that settlers might interpret as unfair and unequal, rather than understanding how Indigenous nations may be resistant to paying tax to the settler state occupying respective Indigenous territories.

Legal Geographer Nicholas Blomley has pointed out that “dispossession, like settlement, is never complete, but remains dependent on continued enactments” . The point being that dispossession has not ended, but rather, that it endures as a structure partly by reinforcing its own legality and legitimacy through the constant undermining of Indigenous sovereignty. Definitionally, settler colonialism  refers broadly to the idea that entire colonial states currently exist that are ideologically constituted by a 'logic of elimination’, and where the legal and political apparatuses of the state are actively engaged in genocides of Indigenous nations and people. This definition underlines the importance of a decolonizing lens on law. To think with a decolonizing lens in relation to sociolegal matters like tax, requires that scholars grapple with Indigenous sovereignties to understand how fiscal relations have created legal and political dispossession, and how regimes of property have fueled this relationship. Tax, and its informal political life, has been undertheorized as part of the building the political and legal legitimacy of settlement and property; this history and present require theoretical intervention into the sociolegal and policy spaces where tax and colonialism interact. As Indigenous scholars have emphasized, decolonizing approaches are not simply about explaining colonialism, or performing 'reconciliation'--decolonizing approaches to law require that Indigenous sovereignties be respected, and be grounded in an analytical ethic that opposes ongoing colonial rule; further to this point, this approach emphasizes ongoing processes in which colonial polities like Canada are presently involved in settler colonial state building projects that continually attack Indigenous nations through law and other means.

The paper pursues three arguments at different levels of theoretical abstraction. First, the paper argues most broadly, that there is a relationship between taxation, fiscal relations, and settler colonialism that should be empirically examined and theorized in sociological, sociolegal, and Indigenous studies literatures. This encompasses taxation and settler colonialism as a formal legal and economic mechanisms, as well as the approach pursued here, which focuses on informal 'tax imaginaries' and settler colonial common sense. Second, and more concretely, the paper argues that there is a specific link between informal tax imaginaries and white possessiveness as they are constituted in settler colonial contexts. Taxation as imagined by taxpayers is not simply about the fiscal, but as it relates to Indigeneity, tax becomes about the entitlement to know, the entitlement to judge, and the possessive logic of the question of who gets to decide--how tax becomes a form of property. The paper traces how it is that the fiscal becomes tied up with the white possessive logics that Harris , Moreton-Robinson and Reardon and TallBear have identified as a central feature of settler colonialism in the west. Third, the FNFTA is used as a case to disentangle the arrangement between settler colonialism, whiteness, Indigeneity, and tax. The FNFTA was pursued by the Canadian federal government as political remedy to the 'problem’ of 'opacity’ in First Nations governments, and generated the subject that it proposes as its constituent--the taxpayer. I argue that the law initiated a surgically precise method for settlers to critique First Nations and Indigenous peoples--as taxpayers, and show how a political organization of 'taxpayers'-- the CTF sought to initiate this kind of analysis. Through the analysis of a series of editorials authored by the CTF, I identify three building blocks of taxpayer subjectivity: bifurcation of Indigenous peoples from the category of taxpayer, the subsumption of Indigenous sovereignty, and the constitution of tax as white property. This section shows editorials authored by CTF staff helped to create calculating taxpayer subjects as part of the ongoing material and affective colonial structures that sediment property relations, undermine Indigenous sovereignty, and act as everyday structures of white settler political domination.

[. . .]

I have not endeavored to write a singular, all-encompassing analysis of the taxpayer. The work of scholars like Walsh, Carrill, Williamson , Björklund Larsen, and Shield Johansson, and the analysis of this paper demonstrate that the taxpayer and its imperatives are multiple across different legal regimes and political contexts. This paper works toward a critical fiscal sociology that attends to Indigeneity, tax imaginaries, and the relationship between property and whiteness. I show how fiscal warfare, as a political and legal strategy against Indigenous nations, is taken up at the level of everyday political vernacular by taxpayer subjects. Theorizing the taxpayer as subject of settlement, possession, and property, sedimented through white racial entitlements, and tax imaginaries, this subject position has shaped Indigenous-settler relations for some time. The contemporary forms of fiscalized racism reflects the historical structure of tax policy, but more specifically how fiscal anxieties around these policies, and the citizen imaginaries that are formed around them are shaped by race, settlement, and property. Indigenous-settler relations in Canada are mediated by formal bureaucratic and legal structures, but also by the informal: everyday interactions, speech acts, and commentaries from notable people like Lynn Beyak, but also as political vernacular--simply part of the way that many settlers figure their relationship with Indigenous people. Thinking through the political-legal-bureaucratic concept of 'taxpayer’, the analysis pursued here shows that the social life of the taxpayer is much more complex than it first appears, and elicits both the desire for control over Indigenous peoples through tax, and the assimilation of Indigenous nations, by tax. The concerns offered by or through taxpayers about dealing with Indigenous poverty, land rights, or just existing in social space must be read through the logics of possession, property, whiteness, and ultimately the contours of the ongoing settler-colonialism.


Kyle Willmott is Assistant Professor of Sociology at Simon Fraser University.


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