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Indigenous, disabled at highest risk of poverty

  • December 3, 2021

Campaign 2000’s annual in-depth look at poverty reveals that being poor in Canada is perfectly predictable. Canada’s poor are overwhelmingly Indigenous or they are disabled.

The Diocese of Saskatoon is seeing the hard edge of Indigenous poverty in a homelessness crisis sweeping the city. Justice and Peace office co-ordinator Myron Rogal has witnessed a 30-per-cent jump in Saskatoon homelessness in September, followed by another 33 per cent in October. He’s waiting with trepidation on November’s numbers. What was a steady Saskatoon homeless population of about 100 is suddenly up around 1,200.

Rogal points out that 30 per cent of Saskatoon’s homeless are Indigenous, even though Indigenous people represent 18 per cent of the city’s overall population.

“I’m hearing from community-based organizations, not only working on housing but also on food security, that they’re maxed out right now,” Rogal said. “That is new. They don’t say that lightly.”

Rogal is part of an ecumenical effort to bring churches and charities together for a Dec. 7 meeting to see what can be done in Saskatoon.

Using child poverty as an indicator of family poverty, Campaign 2000 reports that 53 per cent of First Nations children living on reserve live in poverty. It gets a little better for off-reserve First Nations kids at 41 per cent. Nearly a third (32 per cent) of non-status First Nations children live in poverty. It’s incrementally better for Inuit children, 25 per cent of whom are poor. One in five Métis children (22 per cent) are in poverty.

A comparison between on-reserve, status First Nations children and non-immigrant white kids shows a poverty rate 4.4 times higher for the Indigenous children. Those numbers combined with a change in Saskatchewan’s income support programs has created a homelessness crisis in Saskatoon.

“It’s kind of a perfect storm,” said Rogal. “Charities and churches are doing often as much as we have capacity to do, but the problem is growing.”

Nearly one-third of working-aged people with a disability live in poverty, according to the Campaign 2000 report card. There are more than 830,000 Canadians with disabilities.

“You can’t talk about poverty and not acknowledge that people with disabilities disproportionately live in poverty. Nor can you talk about disability without knowing that a disproportionate number of (disabled) people live in poverty,” said Silent Voice executive director Kelly MacKenzie.

In addition to serving the deaf community in Ontario at Silent Voice, MacKenzie sits on the social justice and advocacy committee of Catholic Charities. She and other directors of Catholic agencies are seeing disabled people sinking.

“For people to expect to make ends meet on ODSP (Ontario Disability Support Progam) is not realistic,” she said. “I would like you to tell me where I can find something for $600 a month that is livable?”

COVID has uncovered the vast gulf that exists between middle-class Canadians and disabled people trying to scrape by on government programs and minimum wage jobs, said MacKenzie. When everything went online, Silent Voice scrambled to get refurbished iPads and computers out to its clients.

“Canada is one of the most expensive mobile data countries in the world. To assume that everybody has high-speed Internet for Zoom calls and their child’s education, never mind the hardware — computers and laptops and iPads — was not realistic..”

Child poverty numbers are actually getting better, but not so as you would notice. Campaign 2000 reports the 2019 national child poverty was 17.7 per cent, half a percentage point better than 2018. 

In 1989, when Canada’s child poverty rate was 15.3 per cent, a non-binding all-party resolution in the House of Commons promised to eliminate child poverty in Canada by 2000. Campaign 2000 launched in 1991.

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