Indigenous Poverty in CanadaIndigenous poverty in Canada is a generational problem that has lowered living standards and created wide gaps in financial security and literacy. Indigenous populations still experience disproportionately high rates of poverty, despite multiple initiatives and legislation designed to reduce such gaps. In the Canadian Constitution, three distinct groups of Indigenous peoples are officially recognized: First Nations, Inuit and Métis. The poorest Canadians are those of Indigenous descent. In Canada, one in four Indigenous people and four in 10 Indigenous children face poverty.

Intergenerational Trauma within Indigenous Communities

Indigenous communities in Canada have long been victims of colonial policies that suppress their cultural identity and assimilate Indigenous children into Euro-Western culture through the residential school system. The accumulation of profound intergenerational distress and trauma has persisted and compounded over time, transmitting across successive generations within kinship groups and becoming entrenched within Indigenous families across Canada. Intergenerational trauma faced by the Indigenous population in Canada has resulted in the manifestation of various symptoms, including anxiety, depression and substance abuse. Addressing these challenges has proven to be a challenging task for mental health professionals in Canada. At the community level, there is a need to recognize the impact of colonization, allocate resources to community-based initiatives in Indigenous reserves and continue promoting reconciliation with Indigenous communities.

The Remoteness of Indigenous Communities

The responsibility over Indigenous reserves lies with the federal government of Canada. Indigenous reserves are mostly in isolated northern Canadian provinces and territories. Due to their distance, these communities have difficulties acquiring basic resources, including food, shelter and education, which are more expensive than in southern communities. In some communities, employment opportunities are few.

Indigenous Services Canada (ISC) works to enhance First Nations, Inuit and Métis services. The mission of the ISC is to facilitate the self-sufficiency of Indigenous communities in delivering essential services and addressing socio-economic circumstances within their respective communities. At present, the federal government endeavors to formulate measures aimed at promoting the provision of clean water on reserves. It also established helplines for mental health services and implements non-insured health benefits.

Systemic Discrimination and Institutional Racism

Institutional racism and prejudice increase Indigenous poverty in Canada. Justice, health care and job discrimination restrict resources and opportunities. The 2017 to 2018 Annual Report of the Office of the Correctional Investigator revealed a concerning surge in Indigenous imprisonment. The proportion of Indigenous federal prisoners rose from 20% in 2008 to 2009 to 28% in 2017 to 2018. Despite experiencing higher victimization rates, Indigenous individuals are not inherently more prone to committing crimes compared to their non-Indigenous counterparts. The 2019 GSS reported that Indigenous people faced 33% higher discrimination than non-Indigenous and non-visible minority individuals.

The government initiative Budget 2021 allocated $126.7 million over 3 years to combat anti-Indigenous racism in Canada’s health systems. Among the initiatives is the Federation of Sovereign Indigenous Nations First Nations Health Ombudsperson Office. Advocates from this agency work with patients and families to address systemic concerns with federal and provincial health institutions. They also assist in identifying solutions to address conflicts and concerns, ultimately leading to improvements in the overall system.

Educational Barriers

Indigenous peoples suffer lifelong educational hurdles. Colonialism, marginalization, poor education in reserves and limited finance create these impediments. Indigenous peoples struggle with regard to education due to little educational financing, especially in rural locations with few schools and programs. Nearly half of Indigenous reserve residents in Ontario lack a high school diploma. Indigenous and Northern Affairs Canada currently conducts youth employment, job experience and skills development programs. These initiatives finance First Nations and Inuit post-secondary students. These programs try to overcome educational inequities and improve employability for Indigenous students, yet weak educational systems in Indigenous communities perpetuate economic instability and poverty.

The Long-Term Consequences of Residential Schools

From the 17th century through the late 1990s, Canada ran Indigenous residential schools. These Christian-run institutions aimed to eradicate Indigenous culture and incorporate children into Euro-Western civilization. Survivors and their descendants continue to suffer from emotional trauma and loss of language, culture and mental well-being after the closure of residential schools. The Canadian government has often apologized to Indigenous people for residential school abuse and Pope Benedict apologized to the Assembly of First Nations’ National Chief in 2009 for Indigenous people’s suffering in residential schools. Additionally, many Indigenous people suffer from substance abuse to deal with mental health issues caused by the residential school system. The 2006 Indian Residential Schools Settlement Agreement created the Indian Residential Schools Resolution Health Support Program to assist Indigenous communities in coping with emotional trauma. Former students of residential schools may seek cultural and emotional assistance through the program’s crisis hotlines fostering a positive outlet.

Looking Ahead

Indigenous poverty in Canada persists due to a variety of circumstances, including residential institutions, educational challenges, isolation on Indigenous reservations, racial conflicts and the long-term repercussions of intergenerational trauma. Nonetheless, there are positive indicators (due to ongoing effort) of improvement in these communities in terms of reconciliation, empowerment and inclusion.

– Valentina Ornelas
Photo: Flickr

Effect of Residential Schools

For over 150 years, Indigenous children across Canada were forced out of their homes and into Indian Residential Schools. These schools stripped them of their culture, language, and community to assimilate them to Canadian culture. These schools aimed to “kill the Indian, save the man,” as Richard H. Pratt put it.

Despite the terrible conditions and the rampant abuse in these schools, the government and churches could not erase the culture. They were unable to break the spirit of the Indigenous people they sought to “civilize.” While Indigenous People can still feel the effect of residential schools, their strength leaves room for hope.


The first Indian Residential School in Canada opened in 1831. Christian Missionaries ran early schools to convert Indigenous people to Catholicism. However, in the 1870s, the government stepped in and began to include treaties regarding these schools. In 1894, attendance became compulsory. Children as young as three years old forcibly removed from their homes and sent to the schools.

Over the next 100 years, more than 130 Indian Residential Schools existed in Canada under state sponsorship. Churches ran the vast majority of these schools; Catholic churches operated three-fifths, the Anglican Church operated one-quarter, and the United and Presbyterian Churches operated the rest.

Over 150,000 children attended these schools. At one point, 75% of children between 7 and 15 years old were attending or had attended Indian Residential Schools. These children faced terrible conditions due to underfunding and physical, sexual and psychological abuse.

Lasting Effect of Residential Schools

The effects of the abuse and mistreatment in the schools have a lasting impact on the Indigenous population. Studies have shown that survivors of the schools have poorer mental and physical health. There are higher rates of suicide attempts as well as chronic illnesses such as diabetes among these individuals.

There is also evidence to suggest that historical trauma has led to negative health impacts for subsequent generations. Historical trauma is when historical events are endured by whole communities and negatively affect the individuals who experience them and the whole group in ways that result in problems for future generations. There are three main characteristics of a historical trauma event including that it was widespread among a specific group, an outgroup perpetrated it with an intentionally destructive purpose and it generates a high level of collective distress.

This historical trauma has led to “enduring links between familial Indian Residential School attendance and a range of health and social outcomes among the descendants of those who attended.” These negative outcomes include higher rates of depression, suicidal thoughts, drug and alcohol abuse and food insecurity as well as                                  lower educational outcomes and income levels. All of these outcomes show that the effect of residential schools is still with us today.

Moving Forward

As more people become aware of the lasting effect of residential schools, now is the time to face these issues and take action to deal with them. One of the first and most basic steps toward healing is for full acknowledgment of the trauma and effect these schools had from the government and the churches. While the Canadian government has issued apologies, the Catholic Church, which operated most of the schools, has not yet come out with a formal apology. They have also refused to release records from the residential schools, which could provide more accurate information on the effect of residential schools.

Steps have been taken to right this wrong. In 2007, a settlement from The Indian Residential Schools Settlement Agreement, the largest class-action suit in Canadian history, implemented the Truth and Reconciliation Commission. Between 2007 and its conclusion in 2015, over 6,500 witnesses gave their stories to engage and educate the public. The commission also put out a full report on the Indian Residential Schools, which included 94 calls to action.

Beyond acknowledgment, apology and education, other movements are growing in response to the effect of residential schools. One significant movement, the Land Back Movement, pushes the government to return the land that initially belonged to Indigenous people. This transfer of land back to Indigenous people is already happening in some places. The land returned to the Squamish Nation is now being developed into housing in Vancouver on the Senakw project.

Despite the historical trauma and the lasting effect of residential schools, Indigenous people have used their strength to prevent the complete erasure of their culture. While we are still dealing with the negative effects, there is hope for a better future.

– Taryn Steckler-Houle
Photo: Flickr