By Zoey Feder
Along with the Indian Act, which has enormously limited resources and continually confined Aboriginal rights, the residential school system has left in its bloody wake a legacy of intergenerational trauma and systemic poverty.
Last week, the Truth and Reconciliation Commission released a final report summary which sheds light upon disturbing stories of extreme poverty, neglect and abuse in aboriginal residential schools.
While the last residential school closed in 1998, hundreds of thousands of Aboriginal people remain in state custody under the child welfare and corrections systems. The TRC’s final report summary recognizes the overrepresentation of Aboriginal children, youth and adults in state systems persists due in large part to the ongoing poverty among Aboriginal communities.
“We were not meant to be poor in our own homelands,” states Assembly of First Nations Grand Chief Perry Bellegarde. He says reconciliation has to entail closing the poverty gap between Aboriginal people and Canadians. In an interview with CBC news, Bellegarde states that reconciliation can’t proceed while First Nations are mired in the “poverty that plagues our people”.
And Aboriginal persons are experiencing a major poverty gap in this country.
In Canada, one quarter of Aboriginal people now live in poverty. As stated in the TRC’s report, the depths of poverty seen by Aboriginal adults are much greater than their non-Aboriginal counterparts. Aboriginal adults’ average income falls further below the poverty line than that of non-Aboriginal adults.
Despite being the fastest growing segment of the population in Canada, unemployment rates among First Nations Peoples are at least three times higher than the Canadian average. According to the Canadian Centre for Policy Alternatives, the average unemployment rate on reserves is 50%, while some First Nations communities have unemployment rates as high as 90%. The income disparity between Canada’s Aboriginal and non-Aboriginal population is significant, with the median income for Aboriginal people 30% lower than that of non-Aboriginal workers.
Food security continues to be prominent amongst Inuit, First Nations and Metis communities. Nearly half (46%) of poor Aboriginal households are food insecure. In Nunavut, 69% of Inuit adults are food insecure, six times higher than the Canadian national average. Housing conditions in Aboriginal communities continue to be horrific: 73% of on-reserve drinking water treatment systems are at high or medium risk, 50.9% of on-reserves homes are contaminated with mold and mildew and 23.4% of homes are overcrowded.
These living conditions amount to poor health outcomes, which continue to be exacerbated by limited health care. STIs, obesity, infant mortality and suicide rates for Aboriginals population continue to exceed Canadian rates. A recent study in Hamilton found that the rate of diabetes among urban Aboriginal people was three times greater than the overall population. Incidents of tuberculosis among Aboriginal people is 17 times higher than the rest of Canada.
To break the cycle of systemic poverty, policymakers must withdraw fully from tokenist decision-making and speak to the multiplicity of factors that affect Aboriginal people living in poverty. In an interview with APTN news, residential school survivor Marilyn Simon-Ingram calls on the Canadian Government for meaningful action: “I want them to stop ripping the Band-Aids off our wounds”, getting us to tell stories and then slapping another Band-Aid on and sending us on our way.”
It is time for comprehensive and meaningful action to be taken on at the national scale. It is time for the federal government to collaborate with Inuit Land Claim Organizations, First Nations, and Métis governments and create a national anti-poverty plan that can provide adequate Aboriginal access to income security, housing, health care, food security, education and employment.
Canada needs to close the poverty gap for aboriginal persons in Canada. The TRC’s final report compels the Federal government to meet its human rights obligations and work to restore Aboriginal communities with the adequate standard of living that was deprived of so many for so many generations.
Zoey Feder is currently completing her studies in social work at Carleton University. This summer, she joins the CWP team as a field practicum student.
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