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Cheque your Privilege Illustration by Maia Boakye.

Cheque your Privilege

Want to give away your money? Stop attaching strings.

Last fall, Ruby Smith Diaz decided to organize a five-day event in Vancouver. She’d recently attended an afrocentric artists’ retreat in New Orleans, and returning home to Vancouver, she realized there was nothing similar in the rainy northwest. She planned to call the event IGNITE. “A lot of us often struggle with feelings of isolation up here,” she says.

Smith Diaz, born in Edmonton to Jamaican and Chilean parents, wanted IGNITE to be as financially accessible as possible, so she decided to charge a sliding scale of $250 to $1,000. When roughly 80 percent of attendees paid near the minimum, she knew it would cost about $10,000 to cover the rest of the travel, accommodation, venue, food and other expenses. But she didn’t bother applying for City of Vancouver arts or community organizing grants—she knew she wouldn’t get them.

Two years earlier, while living in Edmonton, Smith Diaz had helped plan a one-day event with similar aims. Organized by a collective called Brown, Black and Fierce!, the event consisted of a half-day of workshops on art, gentrification, organizing, poetry and more, followed by an evening of music performances.

“We applied for many heritage grants as well as arts grants and we were denied all of them,” she says. Because the collective didn’t have charitable status, it was eligible for only a small amount of funding from the city. So Smith Diaz and the rest of the organizing collective took a grassroots approach. They held fundraisers, made T-shirts and sold donated art. And a lifeline ended up coming from another group of event organizers.

The other group, a mostly white collective called Not Enough Fest, approached Smith Diaz. They’d had an easy time reaching their own fundraising goals, and they told her they wanted to lend their social capital to organizers of colour. They dedicated time at their events to speaking about Brown, Black and Fierce! as well as setting aside some of their own money. The Brown, Black and Fierce! Festival ended up raising roughly $11,000 over the course of six months, including just shy of $3,000 raised by Not Enough Fest in much less time.

Smith Diaz wasn’t surprised that the white collective could raise thousands of dollars relatively quickly. She was, however, impressed by the act of solidarity. She felt it recognized three things: first, that fighting oppression takes money; second, that white people have greater access to that money; and third, that people in a position to give money are not often the best judges of how it should be spent. When Smith Diaz started planning IGNITE, she knew it would only work if she could find people, regular people, who would want to back her up with cash.

White people increasingly talk about wanting to be good allies to people of colour. That’s all well and good, but to actually get there we need to get comfortable with something that makes a lot of us squirm: giving our money to people rather than charities.

I was raised according to the strict middle-class dictum that to talk about money is gauche. How else can you distinguish yourself from the poor, who won’t stop talking about it? How else can you attempt to blend in with the rich, subtly hinting at means that, in reality, you only aspire to?

The only thing worse than talking about money is asking for it. I was forced to confront this taboo head-on two years ago when I left Vancouver for Lillooet, British Columbia, spending several months with a friend from Xwisten territory, which is part of St’át’imc Nation. That friend, Christine Jack, had left a house outside Lillooet where she’d raised her kids to reoccupy her family’s traditional lands on a nearby mountain. The cabin she planned to build wasn’t just a new home—logging company Aspen Planers had just built a road up to a new cut block in the area, and her new cabin would stand right in their path.

Her only income was whatever cash visitors put in her hand. That money put gas in her truck, supplemented the food she grew and hunted, paid to fuel the chainsaw that felled the trees for her cabin and the hardware to put it together. Some people offered a few bills after a short visit, some brought items to trade, and people in Vancouver and Victoria organized house show fundraisers and brought the cash up to the camp. She never asked for money, simply telling us the cabin would be the first dwelling in a new village on the mountain; the people close to her asked what they could do to help.

Witnessing my friend’s generosity made me start thinking about my own money differently. She opened her new home to anyone who came up the road, whether they offered or sought out support, and the money I spent on lumber or coffee beans stopped feeling like an expense, like something I might get back at some point. I had to let go of the idea that some of the cash went to the resistance project and some of it went to people, or that I had a right to distinguish between the two.

In the end, there was no distinction. The money people contributed supported my friend through the first winter. And because she stayed, the logging company has yet to log the cut block above her cabin.

There is one loophole to the don’t-talk-about-money rule, as illustrated by the Not Enough Fest example: you’re allowed, if you’re white, to ask for money on behalf of someone else. This is the basis upon which charity functions. People ask for money, and get it—often to the tune of millions of dollars—if they’re good at selling someone else’s need and have access to capital. If you provide said capital, you’ll be rewarded with a tax break.

In a 2013 op-ed in the New York Times, Peter Buffett (son of famed billionaire Warren) called it Philanthropic Colonialism—the tendency of those with money to believe that they somehow know better what to do with that money than the people they’re supposedly helping. “What we have is a crisis of imagination,” Buffet writes. “Albert Einstein said that you cannot solve a problem with the same mindset that created it.”

Grassroots groups, well aware of this system’s failings, often stay away from it. Getting and maintaining charitable status allows a group to issue tax receipts, a huge incentive for donors, but it also strictly limits the activities the donated money can support, prohibiting anything that could be viewed as partisan politics and anything illegal, including civil disobedience. A small amount of “political activity” is allowed, but it has been tough recently to figure out what exactly qualifies, with groups doing environmental and anti-poverty work (especially lobbying against pipelines or for higher minimum wage) facing extra scrutiny in tax audits. In 2012, then-Prime Minister Stephen Harper implemented political activity audits, which especially affected small groups like Canada Without Poverty and Environmental Defence. But it also affected David Suzuki, one of Canada’s most prominent environmentalists. Concerned that his political views would put his own foundation’s charitable status at risk, Suzuki stepped away from its board, posting a public statement saying that powerful groups were “working hard to silence us.” Though Trudeau’s Liberals have moved to suspend the political activity audits, restrictions about political involvement remain.

Groups whose primary goal is to fight institutionalized racism or assert Indigenous sovereignty are particularly wary of these restrictions. Asserting Indigenous sovereignty over so-called private or Crown property, for example, frequently involves civil disobedience. And, while charitable groups need to show “discernible benefit to the public,” these Indigenous groups question the very foundation on which Canada is built.

Even when it comes to the most basic operational questions, we’ve all seen the exposés over the years about how well the charity system works, or doesn’t. Some charities do well redistributing donations: Moneysense magazine reported in 2016, for example, that Habitat for Humanity spent the majority of its revenue—81 percent—on programs. But U2 singer Bono’s high-profile anti-poverty charity ONE has frequently come under fire for directing only roughly 2 percent of its revenue to the people it purports to help. Charities are businesses, and perhaps this explains why they don’t truly create equality. Instead, they further entrench structural oppression. So why do we fund these organizations instead of giving directly to people from the communities they’re meant to help?

Sacheen Seitcham is an Indigenous mother, midwife and medicine-maker from Coast Salish territory on the southern coast of BC. Seitcham, who recently returned to Vancouver after several years of living on Ahousaht territory (on a small island near Tofino), has dedicated her life to fighting for Indigenous sovereignty. In practice, that means she sells medicine, gives workshops on decolonization—often for non-Indigenous attendees—and travels to the front lines of the fight for native land across North America, including Standing Rock in North Dakota and Unist’ot’en Camp, an Indigenous land protection project on Wet’suwet’en territory in northern BC.

None of this work is PR-friendly, and none of it is supported by nonprofits. But it’s important nonetheless, and it doesn’t come for free.

“You kind of have to find tricksy little ways of making money for whatever your endeavour is,” Seitcham says. “It’s difficult.” Cash gifts come with a legion of complicated feelings for everyone involved. There is shame in asking for money as an Indigenous person, Seitcham says, adding that she has seen almost as much shame from white people who give her money. “It’s really inherently racist and colonial, an attitude that natives are welfare bums, natives don’t have money, don’t deserve jobs, and I think it has been instilled, literally fed into white people in this country, even if it’s not overtly said,” she says.

Seitcham often gets attitude from so-called allies for buying a new cellphone, for not “working” more, for refusing to change the sometimes-militant tone of Ancestral Pride, the organization she runs. She makes no bones about the fact that money donated to her goes to cover basic expenses like rent, food and travel; she believes that much of the pushback comes from a failure to recognize what she does as work. Individuals and nonprofits, she says, often ask for her time at rallies and events and offer nothing in return.

“They want you to bring your regalia and drum and sing and stand there for eight hours and, you know, maybe get a couple minutes of microphone time if you’re lucky,” she says. “Yet they wouldn’t even give you bus fare to get to the rally.”

These dynamics play out even when the money is payment for more easily recognizable skills and services. “[You give] workshops to the community on a sliding scale,” she says. “You get a lot of white people attending who don’t give money because they feel really entitled and privileged and are severely affronted when you actually make a point of asking.”

These kinds of interactions dismantle the comfort that charities provide. Charities distance people who give from those who receive. They moralize that relationship, allowing donors both to preserve middle-class sensibilities and to fulfill a need to control what happens with our money once it leaves our hands. Without that, we’d be forced to recognize systemic inequalities instead of individual ones, to admit that we’re only on the giving side of the equation because of circumstances beyond our control (race, class, sexuality, ability) and not because of personal merit. We’d then be forced to accept that by redistributing our wealth, we’re undermining the very system that allowed us to get it in the first place.

“Investing in Aboriginal people means investing in the death of capitalism and your country, really,” Seitcham says. “It’s a dangerous chance that people are taking… because they’re basically the architect of their own demise, of their own comfort, of their own society. And so I think somewhere instinctively they feel that.”

I’ve often caught myself feeling that cash placed in another person’s hand, maybe handed soon after to the grocery store cashier or the gas station, is untethered, floating in the ether and disconnected from all those other dollars that, together, could make “real” change.

But real change happens because of those who work and live in ways that are not CRA-approved. Last year Seitcham and a small group of allies kicked Cermaq, a fish farm in BC that has made headlines for contaminating wild salmon stocks, out of Ahousaht waters. Seitcham also grew much-needed food for her community, delivered babies and attended Indigenous midwifery gatherings to preserve and teach traditional birthing knowledge, while raising her own children. She funds all this work through medicine sales and donations.

There are signs the tide is starting to change. In the way that setting aside money for charity has long been a tradition for middle-class settlers, others are working to normalize the idea of giving money directly to people who need it. Facebook groups cropping up in cities across Canada, for example, bring together Indigenous people and settlers, facilitating direct requests for support, framed as reparations.

Claire Gendron is one of two settlers who recently bought land on Mayne Island and committed to matching their property tax with an annual cash donation to Indigenous projects on the island. Gendron says that making real reparations means being willing to connect with people directly. “Something that I’m finding extremely valuable… is that we have the opportunity to form relationships,” she says. “This can lead to learning about other ways of supporting and caring for each other.” We all live on Indigenous land, and the rent is well past due.

Back in Vancouver, IGNITE was a success. Smith Diaz succeeded in raising just shy of her $10,000-dollar goal through $10 to $150 donations and silent auctions of art, jewellery and services contributed by community members. Supporters also cut costs by offering free airport rides and food.

Her supporters may not have gotten a tax receipt, but Smith Diaz says their efforts were useful immediately and in the most meaningful way. Thirteen people from New Orleans, Seattle, Edmonton, Toronto and Vancouver converged to share experiences. They walked through Hogan’s Alley and talked about the racism and displacement endured by residents of Vancouver’s historically Black neighbourhood, but also told stories of Black strength and resistance. They learned Afro-Brazilian dance steps and discussed the implications of Blackness in ideas about wealth and money management. But mostly, Smith Diaz says, they spent time together, connecting. “A lot of beauty came out of that informal space,” she says.