First Nations Poverty in Canada
Poverty is a severe social problem among many First Nations. According to the 2001 Census, the average individual income of the total population was $29,769, but only $19,132 for an individual of Aboriginal ancestry, and a staggering $14,616 for an Aboriginal living on reserve (Mendelson, 2006). The poverty of First Nations has been the result of being stripped of their lands, their traditional livelihoods, and cultures, and having been placed on less valuable lands as reserves, as well as serious lack of educational opportunities (Neu & Therrien, 2003).The resulting poverty, unemployment, low rates of education lead to food and water insecurity, lack of housing or severe over-crowding, lack of infrastructure for sanitation or power, higher rates of preventable diseases like heart attack, stroke, asthma, diabetes and TB which leads to hopelessness, despair and the corresponding higher rates of violence, depression and suicide (RCAP, 1996). Colonial laws and policies with regards to First Nations have changed little since pre-confederation and as such the original policy objectives of eliminating the “Indian problem” still under-lie current federal policies (Palmater 2012, Neu & Therrien, 2003).These federal laws and policies have not only placed Indigenous peoples in their current state of extreme poverty, but also keep them in this state primarily due to the chronic underfunding of essential services which even Canada’s own officials have called discriminatory (Auditor General for Canada, 2001-2011; Office of the Correctional Investigator of Canada, 2001-2011). Canada’s jurisdiction with relation to “Indians and lands reserved for the Indians” pursuant to section 91(24) of the Constitution Act, 1867 has led to the creation of the Indian Act and the corresponding federal policies and funding mechanisms which control every aspect of First Nations’ lives and governance (RCAP, 1996; Cannon, 2011). Yet corresponding policies have failed to live up to the constitutional responsibilities that the Crown has to Indigenous peoples (Palmater, 2011, Magnet, 2003). The failure of federal policies to improve the conditions of First Nation communities has recently been highlighted by the media coverage of the crisis in Attawapiskat (Lux, 2011), and previously by Pikangikum and Kashechewan (Galloway, 2011). This led to the Crown-First Nation gathering on January 24, 2012, but failed to deliver a plan to tackle poverty in First Nations communities, and instead focused on legislative amendments to the Indian Act on program areas (Palmater, 2012). The extreme level of poverty and its disastrous social outcomes has stumped policy-makers for years despite the fact that every major financial report has indicated that small investments now would have huge social and financial dividends later (Palmater, 2012). For example, for every $1 spent on Indigenous children now, it will save $7 in social programs in the future (FNCFCS, 2011).
This research is critical to informing future policy debates, analyses and effective social changes in the future.