Canada is home to 6.9 million children, 1.2 million of whom live in poverty. That's 18 per cent.
That number is bad enough in itself, but it becomes even more disturbing when you consider that, within the subset of 478,000 indigenous children in the country, 182,000 live in poverty. That's 38 per cent.
Of course, these numbers from a new report by the Canadian Centre for Policy Alternatives (entitled Shameful Neglect: Indigenous Child Poverty in Canada) tell us something we already knew: Indigenous children live in far worse conditions, economic and otherwise, than non-indigenous ones.
But no matter how inured we become to that grim reality, the numbers are worth pondering because they are a sharp reminder that, even in a country such as Canada that takes pride in its multiculturalism and diversity, a person's health status is profoundly influenced by his or her racial/ethnic identity and geography.
Slicing the CCPA data in various ways to examine it from different angles reveals the following range of poverty rates among Canadian children:
--In First Nations living on reserve, the rate is 60 per cent;
--First Nations living off reserve, 41 per cent;
--First Nations with "status," 51 per cent;
--Non-status First Nations, 29 per cent;
--Inuit, 25 per cent;
--Métis, 23 per cent;
--Immigrants, 32 per cent;
--Visible minorities, 22 per cent;
--Non-immigrant, non-racialized (read: Caucasian), 13 per cent.
The focus of the report, rightly, is on the children among the more than 1.4 million people in Canada who identify as indigenous, about 4 per cent of the population. Half of that total are "registered Indians," 30 per cent are Métis, 15 per cent are non-status Indians and 4 per cent are Inuit. More than half of indigenous people live in urban centres.
These figures are a lot to digest, but they should, nonetheless, be the object of much reflection for our politicians and policy makers.
They are, among other things, an eloquent illustration of the fact that Canadian society is stratified by class, by race and by income, a direct challenge to our comfy belief that we are an egalitarian, socially progressive and colour-blind country.
What we look like and where we came from have an inarguable impact on our opportunities, our income and our health. So does where we live.
Again, the CCPA report reminds us not only that there is a lot of child poverty, but there is a geography of poverty.
The poorest of the poor are found predominantly in the country's 617 First Nations communities, most reserves established by the Indian Act of 1876.
Many of these communities are small and isolated – out of sight and out of mind. They also, for the most part, have abysmal health and social services, a situation made worse by the fact that the federal government openly discriminates by funding on-reserve services at levels 22 per cent to 34 per cent lower than those off-reserve. (While the Canadian Human Rights Tribunal recently ordered the federal government to fix this, it has yet to do so.)
There are important disparities between provinces as well: In Manitoba, 76 per cent of on-reserve First Nations children live in poverty; First Nations kids living off reserve fare better – if you can actually consider Winnipeg's 42-per-cent rate of child poverty laudable.
The only bright spot – again, all things being relative – is the Eeyou Istchee (James Bay Cree), where the child-poverty rate is relatively low at 23 per cent. It is not a coincidence that the communities are highly autonomous and have modern treaties that allow them to benefit from the exploitation of natural resources on their territory, including hydro dams, forestry and mining.
By contrast, across the bay in Ontario's Attawapiskat – which is in the news because of its suicide crisis – the child-poverty rate is 48 per cent, and there is no revenue-sharing with the nearby diamond mine or forestry companies.
The CCPA report offers some well-worn recommendations to address the problem of rampant indigenous child poverty: better tracking of the data; improving income supports; bolstering employment opportunities, and implementing long-term solutions.
That last recommendation is the key to ending the shameful neglect. The long road out of poverty and despair begins with reconciliation and self-government, and, in the words of the Truth and Reconciliation Commission, "unlocking the potential of First Nations to improve the lives of their own citizens, including their children."