According to experts, Canada’s very encouraging ranking on the United Nations’ human development scale would genuinely fall if the country were judged primarily on the economic and living conditions of First Nations people in its reserves.
Of the about 500,000 people who live on Canada’s 3,117 reserves, thousands still have to live every day without indoor plumbing and a good number of them rely on water systems that carry potential risks to health, safety, and the environment.
Without doubts, poverty, infant mortality, unemployment, morbidity, suicide, criminal detention, children on welfare, female victims of abuse, and child prostitution are all more prevalent among people on Reserves in Canada than in any other sector of the Canadian society.
According to reports, economic, social, and human indicators of well-being, quality of life and development are completely lower among aboriginal people than other Canadians. Although Quebec may be dealing with collapsing overpasses and Ontario its aging power plants, have it in mind that a lot of Canada’s most notable infrastructure deficiencies are on aboriginal reserves.
From roads to water to housing, infrastructure troubles in these reserves are nowhere near encouraging. For instance, in Wasagamack First Nation, a remote northern Manitoba community, a good percentage of residents have no indoor plumbing and have to use outhouses, slop pails, and frequent trips to a communal water station.
Also, across the border in Pikangikum, an Ojibwa community in northwestern Ontario where around 70 percent of the population is under 25, they have some of the most alarming numbers of suicides among youth. Over the years, at least 3 northern Ontario reserves have declared a state of emergency because of housing shortage.
Some have even resorted to housing people in uninsulated sheds, wood-frame tents heated by wood stoves, and donated construction trailers, where some families have been living for two years already. To properly understand the social well-being of the First Nations people on reserves in Canada, below is a quick breakdown of their living conditions and the state of certain basic amenities.
Living Conditions on Reserves in Canada
Table of Contents
Lack of Infrastructures
According to reports, housing on reserves is critically substandard, dilapidated, and overcrowded. The average number of First Nations family members residing in a house is 3.7, against the Canadian average of 2.5. A good number of on-reserve First Nations live in crowded homes, a rate that is 7 times greater than that of non-Indigenous people.
Crowding, and any lack of electricity or internet connectivity make it quite challenging for young students to do their homework. Crowding and discomfort also make it daunting for people to rest and be ready for work. Crowding also heightens the possibility of sexual exploitation and bullying. It can also cause tempers to flare. Portables, not buildings, are the norm for schoolchildren in many First Nation communities.
A good number of these reserves also depend on ice roads and have only a two- to three-month window to bring in the required building supplies for the year. According to reports, the overall number of on-reserve housing units required ranges from 35, 000 to 85,000.
This infrastructure problem that comes with a wide range of physical and social ills has carried on for many years, and even the government officials tasked with Canada’s 631 First Nations admit that there has been little to no improvement in recent decades.
The kind of infrastructure that many reserves lack is what is provided by municipalities or provinces and territories. Howbeit, unlike cities or provinces, these reserves have no tax base and little independent revenue with which to fund infrastructure.
Poverty is a very massive social problem among most people living on reserves in Canada. According to experts, this is a result of being dispossessed of their lands, their traditional livelihoods, and cultures, and being placed on less valuable lands as reserves, coupled with a very domineering lack of educational opportunities.
Note that the poverty, unemployment, and low rates of education that come with this have now also expanded to food and water insecurity, lack of housing, or severe over-crowding.
In addition, it has also resulted in a severe lack of infrastructure for sanitation or power, higher rates of preventable diseases like heart attack, stroke, asthma, diabetes, and TB known to lead to hopelessness, sadness, and the corresponding higher rates of violence, depression, and suicide.
Aside from federal laws and policies forcing these people living on reserves in Canada into this current state of extreme poverty, it has also restricted them in this state especially owing to the habitual underfunding of basic amenities that even Canada’s own officials have called discriminatory.
Also, note that new policies in the country have in no way tried to cater to the constitutional responsibilities that the Crown owes these people. In recent times, the failure of federal policies to improve the conditions of First Nation communities can be seen in the ravaging crisis in Attawapiskat, Pikangikum, and even Kashechewan.
The Crown has also failed to put together a workable plan to tackle poverty in First Nations communities and instead paid more attention to the legislative amendments to the Indian Act on program areas.
Lack of Employment
According to reports, unemployment is very high among aboriginals than in any other sector of Canadian society. The reasons for this very massive employment gap include the distance from the home community to employment opportunities, roadblocks to economic development on reserves, poverty, and lack of formal education and training.
On reserve, a good number of the available jobs tend to be with the Band Administration, providing services to the community. Since a great percentage of the service jobs are traditionally occupied by women, the only thing encouraging is the higher employment rate, higher labor force participation rate, and lower unemployment rate for women on reserve.
Have it in mind that band-owned businesses are another source of employment on reserves. But since many of the jobs in the Band Administration are funded by the federal government, there is a peculiar doubt, especially in terms of when funding will come, how much there will be, and how long it will last.
On Reserves in Canada, Employment Training Programs have to always contend with funding unpredictability, and they most often pay more attention to temporary and short-term opportunities rather than careers. Most times, the training programming pays more attention to getting people off social assistance instead of building the career path of young people.
Climate and Remoteness
Have it in mind that most reserves are situated on inferior lands known to be prone to erosion and flooding. Especially in the north, very cold temperatures and piling snow and ice affect buildings and home plumbing.
Note that all these add up to ensure that houses and infrastructures deteriorate more quickly. According to reports, at least one-third of new houses built on the reserve are merely replacing houses that are no longer considered habitable.
Although Canada is renowned as the country with the freshest water in the world, at least 30% of reserves have substandard water or sewage systems. Most often, people living in these reserves resolve to boil the water or avoid it entirely.
This issue has plagued reserves in the country for years and has steadily appeared in newspaper headlines. Howbeit, it is necessary to note that provincial regulations barely apply to reserves, and the regulations in these places are known to be less rigid than provincial regulations.
In Canada, modern municipal systems are constructed to always provide at least 450 liters per resident per day, but most systems on reserves provide only 180 liters. According to experts, even if more rigorous and rigid regulations were imposed, achieving the standards in the regulations will take many more years, especially since most communities on reserve barely have members who can expertly compare engineering proposals.
Truth be told, the living condition of on reserves in the country remains one of the most pressing human rights issues facing Canada, and the health of these people remains a matter of serious concern. In 2019, a United Nations report noted that over 25% of First Nations people on reserves in Canada live in very pitiable conditions.
To better the lives and conditions of these people, the government will have to first deal with the many challenges impeding this goal such as laws relating to on-reserve housing, unclear band regulation powers, increasing band debt, and issues such as population growth rates, low income, and unemployment.