Eskasoni chief says progress against poverty slow but steady

Eskasoni chief says progress against poverty slow but steady

Eskasoni First Nation in Cape Breton has a child poverty rate of 72.7 per cent, the highest of any community in Nova Scotia.

The figure was released Tuesday by the Canadian Centre for Policy Alternatives, which used data from the 2015 long-form census.

Eskasoni Chief Leroy Denny called the statistic "alarming."

He blames inadequate government funding, which he says is not keeping up with the rapid population growth on First Nation reserves.

Hard to keep up

"They give you so much money and our communities are growing really fast, so it's really hard to keep up," he said.

Kayleen Henderson is one of the 700 or so people on the reserve who are on social assistance.

"It's hard to find a job, so I don't have a job in Eskasoni and I'm on welfare and I'm a single mom," she said, "and I know a lot of people are struggling."

Eskasoni is the largest First Nation in Nova Scotia, with a population of about 4,500 people.  

Denny said social development directors in Mi'kmaq communities across the province are working with Indian and Northern Affairs Canada (INAC) on a new social assistance program.

"The one we have doesn't work for us because we didn't build it. We didn't make it. It was given to us," he said.

Hopeful signs

Denny is optimistic improvements will be made.

"So far it looks very promising," he said.

Lives on the reserve are improving as the band focuses on education and creating jobs, Denny said.

He points to investments in seven local companies, new housing and a new health centre.

"Since seven years ago, when we got out of debt, we built over 85 houses and we have been building quite a few apartments," he said.

High school graduation rates are also a point of pride for Denny.

They have increased from 30 to almost 90 per cent in recent years.

"We are investing in education, so more and more of our people are getting educated and getting jobs," he said. "So we are moving in the right direction."