X is for Xmas Gifts and the Wealth Gap

I remember reading an article about the racial wealth gap in the States. It said that the average Black family would need 228 years to build the wealth of a White family today (Collins, Asante-Muhammed, Hoxie, & Nieves, 2016). That’s an amazing statistic. I know it’s an American study and it is wealth relative to Black people who have a unique and troubling history in the States. However, this statistic made me wonder about the wealth gap in Canada, in particular, between White and Indigenous people. On the UN human development index, which measures living conditions, Canada as a whole ranks 8th while Indigenous peoples in Canada rank 63rd (Mackrael, 2015). This gives us a fairly good indication of a similar wealth disparity in Canada.

In Tim Wise’s (2015) lecture on White people’s 400 year head start, he argued that wealth disparity has nothing to do with “merit, talent, intelligence, hard work or investment strategies” (0:14). Rather, he argued that it has everything to do with White folks being given a significant head start. This head start began in the form of free land and this head start has not gone away despite the passing of equal rights-based legislation. In Canada, this head start began with free land grants to White families. In 1872, the Dominion Lands Act gave White families 160 acres of farmland for a $10 registration fee (for more details see chapter, U is for Unsettling). For a further $10, this land grant could be doubled.

Chinese Head Tax Receipt Image: Vancouver Public Library Historical Photographs

During this same time period (from 1885 to 1923), Chinese immigrants were subjected to a head tax, which began at $50 and was increased to $500 by 1904. When the Head Tax was repealed in 1923, Chinese immigrants were banned altogether from immigrating to Canada until 1947. Meanwhile, my White ancestors were welcomed with open arms and given vast tracts of land for a small administration fee.

One branch of my ancestors came to Canada in 1929 and made use of the provisions in the Dominion Lands Act, including the doubling provision, to start a family farm. That is where my own personal economic head start began.

It was my paternal grandmother’s family who came from England and homesteaded in Saskatchewan. I can trace my own wealth through this family line fairly clearly, in part because my grandmother made a point of giving me money. For birthdays, Christmases and graduations, I would get both cheques and savings bonds. These were all saved away for university. I remember all the thank you letters I wrote: “Dear Grandma, Thank you for the money. I put it in my savings account to save for university.” This added up to a significant sum of money over the years.

I did not touch the money until the third year of my Bachelor of Arts degree when I decided to take it out to do an exchange semester at a university in Paris, France. Having done this exchange and therefore taken classes at a French university, this allowed me to later enroll in a French Immersion teacher qualification program after getting my teaching degree. While my peers struggled for years to get continuous teaching contracts, I was hired almost immediately as a French Immersion teacher. Furthermore, having this salaried position allowed my husband and I to quickly buy a second house thereby beginning our rental business.

It is pretty easy to trace this accumulation of wealth. It began with free land, that then translated into money from my grandma which I then spent on an expensive exchange program, which got me a French Immersion teaching job and now translates into more property. That free land in 1929, has had a significant impact on my life today.

And by this, I am not saying that my grandma didn’t work hard or that I didn’t work hard, because we did. But it’s not only about hard work. There is a larger historical context at play. Some liken this context to a tailwind, making my hard work go further.

But if I’m getting a tailwind, someone else is facing a headwind. We must remember that land is a zero-sum game: if I’ve got it, that means someone else doesn’t have it. The land my ancestors built their farm on, was the land of the Cree. All the hard work the Cree put in as stewards of that land, the trail systems and berry patches, the healthy animal populations, was erased when my family cleared it. Now, close to a century later, the Cree continue to be impoverished by a diminished land base.

Budd Hall speaking at the Public Engagement and the politics of Evidence Symposium

Budd Hall (2015) shared a similar family land story in a symposium I attended a few years ago:

“I am literally standing here as a … direct result of my grandparents obtaining 200 acres of Halalt First Nation’s traditional territory on Vancouver Island through illegal means in the last quarter of the 20th century. Prior to the acquisition of this rich and productive land, my settler ancestors were landless and poor… Those 200 acres of Halalt traditional territory transformed my family into middle class citizens and the taking of that land created poverty among the generations on the First Nations side” (1:35).

Stories like these ones show us the genesis of our current wealth disparity in Canada.

It is crucial to be open about these stories. Owning up to the unfair ways that White families have been given a financial head start challenges our myth of meritocracy, the idea that people in our society are successful based on merit alone. We frequently talk about wealth as if it were entirely an “individually driven reality” (Utt, 2014) but we know this is not true. There is much more to wealth accumulation than the hard work of individuals, as my family history illustrates.

As a teacher, challenging this meritocracy myth in my classroom is imperative. The psychological implications of being told that things are fair, when students can feel and see that they are not fair is dangerous. “Students who are told that things are fair implode pretty quickly in middle school as self-doubt hits them and they begin to blame themselves for problems they can’t control” (Barrett as cited in Anderson, 2017). Erin Godfrey, Carlos Santos and Esther Burson (2017) have found that marginalized youth who grew up believing in the American dream, that hard work and perseverance leads to success in equal measure for everyone, show a decline in self-esteem and an increase in risky behaviours during middle-school.

In classrooms, students are frequently told that they can be whatever they want to be. Over time, many marginalized students realize that despite their best efforts, they simply can’t. Logically, they then begin to question whether it is not they themselves that are deficient. They fail to see the deficiencies in our system.

Because we don’t show them.

By hiding the ways that wealth disparities in Canada are created and maintained, we bolster false myths of meritocracy and we muddy the waters of our students’ understanding of the world. If we want our students to be successful, we have to be clear about how things work. It is the very least we can do.


Anderson, M. D. (2017, July 27). Why the Myth of Meritocracy Hurts Kids of Color. The Atlantic. Retrieved from: https://www.theatlantic.com/education/archive/2017/07/internalizing-the-myth-of-meritocracy/535035/

Asante-Muhammed, D., Collins, C., Hoxie, J., & Nieves, E. (2016). The Ever-Growing Gap: Without Change, African-American and Latino Families Won’t Match White Wealth For Centuries. Washington DC: CFED & Institute for Policy Studies. Retrieved from: http://www.ips-dc.org/wp-content/uploads/2016/08/The-Ever-Growing-Gap-CFED_IPS-Final-2.pdf

Godfrey, E. B., Santos, C. E., Burson, E. (2017). For Better or Worse? System-Justifying Beliefs in Sixth-Grade Predict Trajectories of Self-Esteem and Behavior Across Early Adolescence. Child Development. Retrieved from: http://onlinelibrary.wiley.com/wol1/doi/10.1111/cdev.12854/full

Hall, B. [posted by Marc Spooner] (2015, August 12). Budd Hall Beyond Epistemicide: Knowledge Democracy and Higher Education. [Video file]. Retrieved from: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=1yfi6_1ysN4

Mackrael, K. (2015, May 13). Close the gap between Canada and its aboriginal people: AFN chief. The Globe and Mail. Retrieved from: https://www.theglobeandmail.com/news/politics/close-the-gap-between-canada-and-its-aboriginal-people-afn-chief/article24430620/

Utt, J. (2014, May 26). Income vs. Wealth: How Privilege is Passed Down from Generation to Generation. Everyday Feminist. Retrieved from: http://everydayfeminism.com/2014/05/income-vs-wealth/

Wise, T. [posted by NehemiYAH] (2005, January 22). 400 Years Head Start and Advantages. [Video file]. Retrieved from: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=6JErESW-CQI



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