‘It impacts our dignity’: Abenaki man discriminated against by insurance company

Alexis Wawanoloath says it’s only a ‘partial’ victory


Quebec’s human rights commission, Commission des droits de la personne et des droits de la jeunesse (CDPDJ), has found Alexis Wawanoloath was subject to ethnicity-based discrimination when he was denied auto insurance for having an on-reserve postal code.

Wawanoloath, a lawyer and first-ever Indigenous member of Quebec’s National Assembly,  was denied insurance coverage by Industrial Alliance (IA) because he lived on an Abenaki First Nation in Odanak, 90 minutes northeast of Montreal.

Wawanoloath said people living on reserve are expected to pay “much, much, much, more” for the same service as people living off reserve.

“[In 2018] I called the number of Industrial Alliance, and the moment I gave them my postal code, which is on reserve, the lady says, ‘Oh, that’s on-reserve, we can’t insure you,’” he told APTN News in 2020.

“They told me it was the business policy, and that’s how it was.”

“RESIN”

IA’s system flagged his service request with the code “RESIN” — short for “Reserve Indian” — indicating IA did not serve that territory, according to the CDPDJ.

While insurance companies are allowed to increase premiums — or refuse services altogether — for certain groups based on actuarial calculations, IA failed to provide any calculations to the CDPDJ supporting their decision to automatically decline insurance to people living on-reserve, the decision concluded.

Wawanaloath complained to the CDPDJ in 2018. Four years later, with the help of his law degree, community and Montreal’s Center for Research-Action on Race Relations (CRARR), the CDPDJ ruled in his favour.

IA was ordered to pay him $20,000, remove its “RESIN” code, and change its policies to better serve Indigenous peoples.

For Wawanoloath it’s only a partial victory.

First time

“Fo [Niemi, the executive director of CRARR,] said to me it’s the first time la Commission recognized some discrimination in the insurance industry for a Native person in Quebec, but it’s just my case, and we don’t have any news about the systemic aspect,” he said.

In its ruling, the CDPDJ said five other First Nations in Quebec were also affected by IA discrimination, but did not name them.

The finding prompted La Pressea Montreal-based news publication, to conduct a month-long investigation of its own in December 2020.

Its team found numerous cases of First Nations members having trouble accessing insurance services.

Journalists called insurance companies saying they lived on-reserve, and then called back saying they lived in nearby towns, often less than a few kms away. On reserve, they received 17 refusals and 29 approvals.

Neighbouring towns

From neighbouring towns, they received four refusals and 47 approvals for service.

While the experiment was not scientific, it was enough for the CDPDJ to commit to conducting an investigation into systemic discrimination in Quebec’s insurance industry.

But nothing has been released since the announcement and the presence of systemic issues went unmentioned in the ruling.

“This is institutionalized racism, this is institutionalized colonialism, and this is what I think Alexis is trying to fight, it’s more than just about himself,” said Niemi.

Wawanaloath said he knows of others living on-reserve in Quebec that are having the same issue, and not just with car insurance.

Insurance services

He said other insurance services have been automatically declined — or required higher premiums — compared to those requested by customers with off-reserve postal codes.

“It impacts our dignity when you’re refused something like that,” Wawanaloath said, “and you say to yourself, what’s my place?”

Wawanoloath and Niemi said the practice of denying services to those living on reserve is an example of “redlining” — a term used in the United States when institutions refuse to provide mortgage loans in neighbourhoods classified as “hazardous” investment environments that are predominantly home to people of colour.

Niemi said he hopes Wawanoloath’s case will prompt more Indigenous peoples to share their own experiences of being denied services.

“The decision is very important because it has a collective impact beyond the case of Mr. Wawanoloath,” he said. “I think, because of his action and because of his speaking out, hopefully it will encourage other Indigenous individuals living in communities across Quebec to come forward.”

Take his claim

Wawanoloath said he is prepared to take his claim to the Canadian Human Rights Tribunal if the systemic aspect of his case continues to be neglected.

IA repeated its apology to Wawanoloath in an email to APTN, and indicated it was working on improving its services to Indigenous peoples.