A new report on poverty in Edmonton indicates that 43.7 per cent of young Aboriginal children up to age five lived in poverty in 2011, more than twice the poverty rate of young Edmonton children overall. Almost one-third of the 100,000 people who live in poverty are children.
Aboriginal people in the city make up a disproportionate number of those living in need, says the Mayor’s Task Force on Poverty, even though those with Aboriginal background in 2011 represent only 5.6 per cent of Edmonton’s population.
“The report affirms with hard data what Aboriginal people are facing as a people: poverty rates that not only harm people currently but create great worry over the future. When half of Aboriginal children are living in poverty, when Aboriginal families have disproportionate involvement with child welfare, what will the future look like for Aboriginal children?” said task force member Mark Holmgren, executive director of Bissell Centre, a service agency providing assistance to homeless and at-risk people in the inner city.
The report also says that adult and senior Aboriginal women have significantly higher poverty rates than Aboriginal men and double those of the overall Edmonton population.
Mayor Don Iveson created the task force in March 2014, inviting 18 community leaders to participate for one year, with the goal of eliminating poverty in the city within one generation. In addition, the task force created an Aboriginal round table as one of two round table working groups to provide research and information.
The group will be collating their information and submitting their own report “so that it is not just through one lens,” said Aboriginal round table co-chair Brenda St. Germain, a social worker with a specialization in Indigenous issues, who has spent the last 30 years working in community development both for the government and her own consulting.
St. Germain says that lower literacy levels leading to higher unemployment rates among Aboriginals is the major reason for higher poverty levels, a trend that has not changed since the 1970s. She also points out that attitudes which date back to colonial history need to change in order for the situation Aboriginals are in to improve.
“We want to make people aware that it’s not out and out discrimination, but it is inside and causes stressful problems, and Aboriginal kids are facing this and making them not want to go to school,” said round table co-chair Dr. Daniel McKennit. McKennit is Ojibwe from Sandy Bay outside of Winnipeg, but grew up in Edmonton where he just completed his residency in family medicine and is currently working as a family doctor in the city and in Maskwacis.
“Canada has no national discrimination strategy or plan. They have a mental health commission but nothing on discrimination like Australia or New Zealand has. It’s always put to the Aboriginal people to change and we need to do this and that, but maybe Canadian society as a whole has to look at its values,” said McKennitt.
Community engagement will continue to take place until the end of February, after which the information gathered will be collated and given to task force members to review. The next steps include making recommendations and strategizing to implement them.
“We need to stop studying Aboriginal people over and over and get to solutions and governments, funders, and organizations like Bissell Centre, must do a better job of listening, engaging Aboriginal people in solution building, taking leadership from those living in poverty, with racism, with trauma and working hard to change how we work together to fix things,” said Holmgren.