Study finds ‘devastatingly high child poverty’ rates among Canada’s indigenous communities

Eight-year-old Shakira Koostachin plays on a swing in the northern Ontario First Nations reserve in Attawapiskat, Ont. File April 19, 2016. (Nathan Denette/The Canadian Press via AP)

Indigenous children in Canada are more than twice as likely to live in poverty than their non-aboriginal counterparts, according to new findings released Tuesday by the Canadian Centre for Policy Alternatives (CCPA).

The study, which delves into poverty rates on reserves and in the territories as measured by income, also says that for children living on reserves, the average rate of child poverty rises to 60 percent – more than three times that of their non-indigenous counterparts.

“The shameful reality in Canada is that devastatingly high child poverty on reserves is getting worse, not better,” said David Macdonald, senior economist with the CCPA, in a statement accompanying the report. “Despite recent attempts at reconciliation concerning abuse in residential schools, we are risking a new lost generation of indigenous youth who are growing up in unconscionable poverty.”

According to the report, the poverty rate for indigenous children living on reserves is highest in Manitoba (76 percent) and Saskatchewan (69 percent). Quebec has the lowest on-reserve rate of child poverty, at 37 percent, but still fares pitifully compared to the national poverty rate for non-indigenous children, at 17 percent.

The appalling rate of poverty is not a new development for Canada’s indigenous; rather, it simply hasn’t really been recorded before. According to the report’s co-authors, rates of poverty on reserves have previously gone uncalculated by the federal government – and, consequently, ‘out out sight, out of mind’ – despite anecdotal evidence that has indicated economic and social problems on reserves.

“Because this data is excluded, official poverty rates in Canada are lower than they would be if these populations were counted,” according to the report. “Poverty rates for indigenous people, especially status First Nations and Inuit, are reported to be much lower than a full count would indicate is truly the case.”

The study’s co-author Daniel Wilson added that, in measuring and reporting on the problem, the study will hopefully help bring an end to “policymaking in a void of information.”

The report comes amid renewed attention on a suicide epidemic plaguing indigenous communities, as well as a January ruling by the Canadian Human Rights Tribunal that said the federal government discriminates against First Nation children on reserves by failing to provide adequate child welfare services.

In line with recent criticism over the Canadian government’s neglect of First Nations children, the study cites underfunded schools and child welfare services as barriers that prevent Canada’s indigenous children from achieving their full potential.

The study offered some of its own solutions, including more thorough reports of poverty on reserves and in the territories and direct income support for families in need. The researchers also suggested improving employment prospects among indigenous populations and investing more in education.

Prime Minister Justin Trudeau’s administration has already taken steps to alleviate indigenous poverty, allocating $8.4 billion in new spending over the next five years for aboriginal issues, including education, water on reserves and child and family services. Whether the funding will prove sufficient remains to be seen, but Trudeau’s critics say the funding won’t be enough, and human rights activists argue that the money won’t address the underlying social and political barriers faced by indigenous people nationwide.

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Lisa Nikolau

Lisa Nikolau is a Madrid-based reporter for Humanosphere, covering gender equality, indigenous rights and poverty in Latin America and worldwide. Find her on Twitter at @lisanikolau, email lisa.nikolau@humanosphere.org or see her latest work at www.lisanikolau.com