Few Canadians think support for Indigenous communities should be a federal priority: poll

Children play in a playground in the Attawapiskat First Nation in northern Ontario. Reuters Photo.
Children play in a playground in the Attawapiskat First Nation in northern Ontario. Reuters Photo.

Canadians overwhelmingly want the federal government to help low-income families, while few say support for Indigenous communities should be top-of-mind, a new Ipsos poll suggests.

Seven in 10 polled say helping families living below the poverty line should be the main investment priority for the government, while only 17 per cent say the same for support of Indigenous communities, according to the survey commissioned by Yahoo Canada.

Furthermore, support for Indigenous communities ranked fifth of six social priorities on where the government should be spending tax dollars — behind funding for lower-income students, assisting those with mental illness, addressing homelessness and helping families living below the poverty line, which was the No. 1 priority.

These findings were met with mixed reactions from Indigenous leaders and experts, who say a disproportionate number of Aboriginal people fall into these categories. For example, the poverty rate for First Nations children is the highest in Canada and more than three times the national average.

“Our people are overrepresented in the first four categories, which indicates our country needs to work harder to close these gaps,” Assembly of First Nations national Chief Perry Bellegarde said in an emailed statement. “We need to work together to close the gap in the quality of life.”

Pedro Barata, a senior vice-president at United Way Toronto and York Region, suggested the lack of support for Indigenous communities may be part of a bigger problem.

“What may be happening here is that people are expressing a greater priority for the issues that touch on all of us, including Indigenous people, and really flagging that that is something that needs to be front and centre,” Barata said.

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A joint 2015 report by United Way and McMaster University found 52 per cent of adults work in temporary, contract or part-time positions in Greater Toronto and Hamilton Area.

“It’s alarming that we have an issue the scale of which has become so big and so entrenched that it’s top of minds for Canadians,” Barata said. “It’s a call to action to all of us to really do whatever we can from our places to start fighting back against poverty.”

Francyne Joe, interim president of Native Women’s Association of Canada — one of five federally recognized Indigenous groups — concurred with Barata.

“It’s good to see that Canadians identify these are issues that are affecting a large part of our population, including Indigenous people,” she said.

“There’s really not a whole lot of differences between Indigenous people and non-Indigenous people. We want the same things,” Joe added. “Unfortunately, because of colonization and residential schools and the Sixties Scoop, we’ve had a number of barriers placed before us.”

Robert Bertrand, national chief of the Congress of Aboriginal Peoples, said at first he thought, “Oh geez we’re fifth on the importance list.” But then he reread the results and realized, “a lot of these people in the upper four brackets are Aboriginal people living on the streets — they have problems both mentally and physically.

“So yes, the Canadians have put us in the fifth bracket, but if you help the other four, you’re also helping Aboriginals living off-reserve.”

More than 70 per cent of Canada’s 1.4 million Aboriginal people live in urban areas, and Winnipeg, Edmonton and Vancouver have the largest Indigenous populations, according to the 2011 census. (Aboriginal population data from the 2016 census won’t be disclosed until October, Statistics Canada said.)

“God knows there’s a lot of work that needs to be done on-reserve,” Bertrand said. “But let’s not forget the other 70 per cent that are living off-reserve,” he added. “We have to get this message across to Canadians [that] they do not benefit the same way as Aboriginals living on-reserve.”

Grand chief Stewart Phillip, president of the Union of British Columbia Indian Chiefs, said he wasn’t shocked by the poll results. “Nothing I saw on there surprised me.”

The outspoken Okanagan Aboriginal leader noted “the two provinces that were least inclined to support investment in Indigenous communities were Alberta and Quebec, and they’re probably two of the most racist provinces in the country.”

According to the poll, support for Indigenous communities was lowest in those two provinces at 11 per cent (Alberta) and 12 per cent (Quebec), while it was highest in British Columbia and Ontario at 17 per cent and 22 per cent, respectively.

“Racist attitudes in this country against Indigenous people is deeply entrenched,” Phillip said. “We have a lot of work to [do to] address that. It’s a very steep hill that all Canadians need to climb. It’s very painstaking work.”

One effort “to dispel and do away with the stereotypes” is his community’s annual salmon ceremony. Since 2003, the Okanagan Nation Alliance (ONA) has run the annual Sockeye fry release program, re-introducing millions of young fish back into the Okanagan river system, whose fish stocks were decimated by dams on the U.S. side of the Columbia River in Washington state.

Okanagan elementary schools participate in this educational program by raising Sockeye from fertilized eggs in aquariums supplied by the ONA’s hatchery. During an emotional ceremony with drumming and singing, these children and local residents converge on the riverbanks in May and stand patiently in line with their small cups of fry to release into the water.

“It brings people together,” Phillip said. “It’s really caught the attention of the communities in the Okanagan, the non-native communities, and it’s garnered an enormous amount of respect of the work we’ve done.”