The root causes of first nations’ poverty are probably, in the end, indeterminate. But that does not stop people from sharing opinions about these (often negatively, thoughtlessly, or hatefully). Here, we want to put some thought into discussing many different factors that affect first nations’ people’s ability to create sustainable income and wealth.
This is intended as a survey of causes, with links throughout leading to more detailed discussion. If you have thoughtful insight into any of those below, email your comment, which may be added to the curated discussion below. Here is a look at all the causes of aboriginal poverty:
Social consequences of the Residential School System
From the late 1800’s through the 1960’s, the Residential School System “scooped” kids away from parents. This system literally tore apart families, destroying the fundamental building block of first nations’ societies. At residential schools, small children were treated with vile disdain and abuse by white predators. Many children died in these residential schools, their deaths witnessed by other children who were told to keep quiet. Survivors of the residential school system grew up to become the adult native population of Canada, today.
Much has been written about this system, both online and in print. Testimony documents the sudden, traumatic separation of young children from parents, and the complete disregard of the trauma faced by these children. In the schools, children dealt with emotional, physical and sexual abuse. These experiences were unbelievably horrible. For example, in St. Anne’s, nuns tortured kids in an electric chair, among other horrors. Across many of these schools, kids were manslaughtered or murdered, most of which was undocumented and unprosecuted.
Much more could be said, but suffice it to note that deep-seated intergenerational trauma rooted in this abuse lingers in all first nations’ reserves. It remains a persistent cause and perpetuator of poverty among first nations’s peoples. You can read fuller accounts of the Residential School System at these links:
- “The Residential School System” from indigenousfoundation.arts.ubc.ca
- “A History of Residential Schools in Canada” from CBC archives
- “An Overview of the IRS System” from anishnabek.ca
First nations are limited in their ability to own land. Real estate is a primary driver of wealth in the Western world, but this is largely unavailable to first nations people. The Indian Act dictates that an individual may finance his or her own home on reserve, but not own the land. Land is allotted by Council then approved by the Ministry of Indigenous Affairs, who issues a Certificate of Possession of the Land. On-reserve natives occupy social housing units. These units are technically owned by the First Nation, but not really, because reserve land is held in trust by the Federal government. Home ownership on reserve is simply not a practical option for residents (Thatcher, quoted in Sider)
The Indian Act of 1867 effectively forced segregation of Canada’s first nation, assigning them to live in areas undesired by mainstream, white culture in Canada. This is especially true in the case of remote northern peoples (Chansonneuve, 7). It’s telling that this act was studied closely by the architects of apartheid in South Africa (since abandoned in that country). True, the largest, most populous reserve in Canada is close to the heart of the most populated part of Canada. And while poverty is less prevalent here than in more remote reserves, it also remains segregated, for better or worse.
The loneliness of the north
During the depths of winter, there are about seven to eight hours of daylight in northern communities. Temperatures outside dip as low as -45C and seldom rise above -10C for the months of December to halfway through April. When the sun returns for the eight or ten weeks of summer, some people try to live off the land. The remoteness of many Indigenous communities make it difficult to provide food, water, houses, education and jobs.
Dependency on Social Assistance
This is rooted in the fact that many aboriginal peoples grew up on social assistance. Families live in a seemingly perpetual cycle of regularly receiving money from the government. Many experts, including first nations’ leaders, agree that cyclical welfare begets cyclical poverty. To end this cycle would require reform of social assistance overall. This would benefit all Canadians, but only if done so at a pace planned in consultation with Elders.
The effects of culture clash
In interactions with different western cultures, Indigenous people’s attempts to adapt white ways of life hasn’t worked. This has a long history, from interactions with the French early on, predominantly English-Canadian since the early 1800’s, throught to the mainstream liberal Canadian and consumerist North American since the 1970’s. The “clash” is not even felt on the side of dominant mainstream culture, of course, but for first nations’ people it’s ever-present.
Limited opportunities for employment
Teamed with factors above, this perpetuates poverty among first nations.
Disinterest in wealth
Not all root causes of poverty are unhealthy. First nations have traditionally lived off the land and thus have a deep, personal respect for Mother Earth. Few have any interest in excess or draining riches from the earth (be it coal, gold, chromite, whatever). Capitalist excess is never glorified in first nations’ culture, as it is so consistently in mainstream Western media. Many revered thinkers and leaders among first nations people, today and throughout history, have decried western culture’s heedless pursuit of wealth. Harmon quotes several traditional sources that, in fact, foretell disaster to first people who “adopt European attitudes toward wealth” (263). As an aside, living as a minority in a dominating culture that esteems wealth systematizes first nations people’s low esteem of their own culture.
Ties to the land
Many aboriginal cultures foster respect of their natural environment, believing that it does not belong to them, nor can it belong to anyone other than the Creator. As assumed by dominant world cultures, from the United States to the far reaches of Asia, land can be owned and used for whatever purpose the owner imagines. Like aboriginal people of Australia, many of our native Canadian cultures believe that “the land belongs to no one but itself.”
It’s important to bear in mind that native attitudes toward poverty are different from — and may be wiser than — western assumptions about wealth, acquisition and consumption. Western attitudes have led to our current climate emergency, unabated peak garbage, and an array of attendant crises we’re on the brink of such as the Sixth Extinction, to name only one of many.
We’re all impoverished, just in different ways.
Prejudice and discrimination
This in itself causes low self esteem, further perpetuating poverty among aboriginals. More “causes” like this are, in part, effects of previous problems, and become cyclical.
Deterioration of traditional culture
You can find examples of this from across first nations’ people, but let’s take the Anishnabe of Sioux Lookout. Here, people have lost their identity, their language and their ability to feel in their own language (see Sider). Among other reprehensible goals of the Residential School System, it sought to eliminate all traces of aboriginal culture in the children that were scooped.
High Rates of Mental Illness
“The Shelter House in Thunder Bay, Ontario, reports that up to 75% of its residents have serious mental illness” (quoted in Sider)1. Mental illness can lead to an inability to work, lost income, and risk of becoming homeless. This is, in fact, the experience of 1 in 15 first nations’ people. Due to abuse (some of that from within their own families or communities) and other stresses within the community, the risk of mental illness increases. Thatcher reports findings from a community health survey in First Nations reserves in Saskatchewan, demonstrating “an extremely high number of incidences of life stressors, anxiety, depression, extreme anger, bouts of mental idiosyncrasy and self-destructive and suicidal thoughts” (quoted in Sider, 43)2. Each of these stressors is a factor of mental illness and thus increases the risk of poverty and homelessness.
Tendency to self abuse. Related to the above, the “harvest of psychiatric disorders that arise from childhood abuse” (see Teicher), leads to a tendency to self abuse. This harm is through alcohol and drugs, as well as an “alarmingly high rate of self harm” among first nations’ youth. As with so many other secondary and tertiary effects of other problems above, this also becomes a new root cause of poverty, now and in the future (cyclical poverty).
High rates of addiction. 62% of aboriginals “aged fifteen and over perceive alcohol abuse as a problem in their community.” (Sider, 27)
Cyclical despair Many impoverished are homeless and have “no will to live.” (Sider, 3)
Another summary of the root causes of poverty among Canada’s first nations or “native” population, is an Ontario Federation of Indian Friendship Centres (OFIFC) report. As cited by Sider, the report roots poverty “in multi-generational experiences of residential schools, wardship through the child welfare system, and economic and social marginalization from mainstream Canadian society.” Further, “for reasons none other than [being first nations], Aboriginal people have, for generations, grown up poor” (OFIFC, 2000, p. 21). Poverty begets poverty. Impoverished conditions place Aboriginals at high risk of homelessness. (Sider, 26) Still other contributing factors include domestic violence, cyclical yes, but rooted in the uprooting of native people’s from their own land. And transient lifestyle.
No situation is hopeless but it will take a lot of work and time to remove, then create temporal distance from some of the root causes above, notably abuse and attendant intergenerational trauma. Other causes cited, including those systematized by policies and government acts will need to be reviewed and altered (or revoked) in order to open up equal opportunities for first nations’ people.
Breaking the cycle of poverty
Giving now helps us deal with the immediate problem faced by young families, children who have immediate needs. Impressing compassion on these young minds may have a long term positive impact.
Time will heal some of the effects of the residential school system abuse.
See through racial discrimination. If you have nothing good to say, say nothing.
Listen to their stories.
Educate yourself, reach out, expand your compassion.
Sources and further reading“Addictive Behaviours Among Aboriginal People in Canada.” Chansonneuve, Deborah. 2007.
“A Sociological Analysis of Root Causes of Aboriginal Homelessness in Sioux Lookout, Ontario.” By Deb Sider, M.A. The Canadian Race Relations Foundation. 2005.
Harmon, Alexandra. Rich Indians: Native People and the Problem of Wealth in American History.
Teicher, Martin. “Wounds that Time Won’t Heal: The Neurobiology of Child Abuse.” Dana.org.
- Sider quotes from the Thunder Bay Community Planning Group. As with many northern communities, the majority of people in the community shelter are first nations.
- As quoted in Sider, Thatcher “refers to the Law of Less Eligibility, formalized in the Elizabethan Poor Laws of 1834. These were based on the principle that legalized charity will always be less than the wages earned by the poorest worker (Thatcher, 2002, p. 26). “That means that long-term dependency on social assistance is to effectively assume a lifestyle of ‘guaranteed annual poverty’” (Thatcher, 2002, p. 25), limiting any potential to accumulate assets and break cycles of intergenerational poverty. ” (Sider 33)