Aboriginal People, Social Conditions
Social conditions of Canada's Aboriginal people vary greatly according to government jurisdiction, geographical location, income level and cultural factors.
Aboriginal People, Social Conditions
The social conditions of the registered Aboriginal population of Canada are primarily affected by the federal Department of Aboriginal Affairs and Northern Development Canada (AAND), known as Indian and Northern Affairs Canada (INAC) until 2011. See Aboriginal Peoples, Government Programs; Aboriginal Peoples, Government Policy.
Historically, legislation governing the registration of Indians treated women and men differently. Prior to 1985, women classified as status Indian who married non-status men (Aboriginal or non-Aboriginal) lost their First Nations membership or status and could no longer pass status to their children. However, non-status women (Aboriginal or non-Aboriginal) who married First Nations men were automatically conferred Indian status. In 1985, Bill C-3 amended the Indian Act to allow many women and their children to reclaim their Indian status.
The administration of most social programs for registered Indians on reserves was transferred to Band administration, the elected body responsible for the operation of reserves. By 2010, 60% of INAC Aboriginal programming for basic services such as elementary/secondary education, social services, infrastructure such as water and sewer, and local government was allocated for local administration. The remaining funds were distributed nationally and provided services such as housing, economic development and post-secondary education.
Aboriginal organizations are representative associations at the national, provincial, and regional levels and often have mandates that include the improvement of social conditions both on and off reserves, and represent or advocate for the interests of their members. Tribal Councils, First Nation bands and issue-based organizations are not considered Aboriginal representative organizations.
To date, non-status Indians and MÉTIS are not subject to the Indian Act, and therefore are not eligible for assistance by AAND. Legally the provinces are responsible for social assistance for these groups. The provincial Métis and non-status Aboriginal organizations have obtained support from various federal departments such as CMHC to provide some social services such as housing.
INUIT were not covered under the Indian Act: in 1939, the Supreme Court of Canada interpreted the term "Indian" in the CONSTITUTION ACT, 1867 to include Inuit and as such, ruled that Inuit were under federal responsibility. They receive assistance from AAND, and from the provincial and territorial governments.
Aboriginal people live in all parts of Canada, from isolated northern communities and reserves to large urban centres. Registered Indians may live on or off reserves and reserves themselves may be isolated (north), relatively near urban centres (south), or within urban centres. In 2006, 56% of registered Indians lived on reserves. See Aboriginal Peoples, Demography.
Canada continues to be a predominantly urban country. In 1996, 78% of the total Canadian population lived in an urban area and the same urbanization trend also existed for Aboriginal people (see Aboriginal Peoples, Urban Migration). More than half of Canada's Aboriginal people live in three provinces: Ontario (21%), British Columbia (17%) and Alberta (16%), and more than half of all Aboriginal people in Canada live in urban centres (34% live in Winnipeg, Edmonton, Vancouver, Calgary and Toronto).
In northern communities, Aboriginal, Inuit and Métis live in settlements ranging from a few dozen people to several thousand. For many, subsistence still partially depends on trapping, hunting and fishing, although it has become more and more difficult to rely on these activities in recent years. Still, as much as 50% of their food may be "country" food including seal, caribou, whale, ducks, fish and berries, harvested directly from the land. Country foods are particularly important to the Inuvialuit in the western Arctic, and the cooperative activities of harvesting, processing, distributing and preparing the foods emphasize the traditional culture of cooperation. A recent study showed that 65% of the meat and fish consumed by Inuit in Nunaat was country food.
The unemployment rate for Aboriginal people is generally higher on-reserve than off-reserve and the overall unemployment rate of Aboriginal Canadians is several times higher than that of the general population. On average, Aboriginal people's incomes are well below the Canadian average. There are also a large proportion of Aboriginal people who rely on social assistance. In 2003, 35% of on-reserve Aboriginal people were receiving social assistance, compared to 5.5% of the general population.
Cultural factors can significantly affect social conditions. Some have suggested that traditional values such as sharing, non-competitiveness and restraint support people in traditional settings, but conflict with the values of the dominant society, and hinder adaptation to modern society.
The population of Aboriginal peoples has been increasing rapidly for many years. From 1991-96, on-reserve Aboriginal people increased their population by one-half (due in part to changes in Bill C-31), off-reserve Aboriginal people tripled their population, and Inuit increased their population by one-third. It has been suggested that Aboriginal populations are approaching their pre-contact numbers (see Aboriginal Peoples, Demography).
Between 1996 and 2006, the Aboriginal population grew by 45%, compared with 8% for the non-Aboriginal population. In 2006, over 1 170 000 people, or almost 4% of the population, identified themselves as one of Canada's Aboriginal groups, that is, 698 025 First Nations, 389 785 Métis and 50 485 Inuit. More than 81% of First Nations people were status Indians, meaning they are registered under the Indian Act.
In 2010 there were 615 First Nations communities, which represented more than 50 nations and 50 Aboriginal languages. In general, the Aboriginal populations represent one of the youngest age groupings in Canada. In 2006, the median age of the Aboriginal population was 27 years, compared with 40 years for non-Aboriginal people. The implications for social services are obvious: while most of Canada will be preoccupied with providing services for the elderly, the Aboriginal community (both on- and off-reserve) will be concerned with providing educational opportunities and finding permanent employment for a relatively young population (see Aboriginal Peoples, Government Programs).
Aboriginal communities have endured inadequate housing for years, although there have been some improvements. In 1977-78, 53% of houses on reserves had minimum water service but within 20 years this had improved to 98%. Minimum service includes a pipe-stand for water (compared to hauling water) and holding tanks and pumper trucks for sewage. Over the same period minimum sewage disposal improved from 47% to 96% of all reserve dwellings. In 2006, nearly one quarter of all lived-in homes on reserves required major repairs, a rate that has not changed since 1996.
Originally, the federal government provided housing units and repairs to existing houses on reserves with the cooperation of the Canadian Mortgage and Housing Corporation (CMHC), although it maintains that it has no legal or treaty obligation to do so. From 1990 to 1995 INAC and CMHC subsidized the construction of 18 000 new homes and the renovation of 15 000 existing homes for Aboriginal people. In 1993, the CMHC program was discontinued and eliminated subsidies for new social housing projects. The program was replaced in 1994 with the National Aboriginal Housing Association (NAHA), an association that advocates for funding for Aboriginal housing.
These figures must be balanced with the realization that in the past, Aboriginal housing was often shoddily constructed. In the 1960s, the new houses that were being built did not meet basic national building standards, nor were they designed to meet the special needs of a traditional lifestyle and harsh climate. Although AAND housing is now being built to national building code standards, Aboriginal housing in the past had a life span of 15 to 20 years, less than half the national average. Thus, despite the increased number of houses being built, the short life span of these buildings, and the influx of new residents through Bill C-31, mean that housing shortages are still a major problem on most reserves.
Similar housing programs are in place for the Inuit, but housing for non-status Indians and Métis in remote communities still lag far behind. There are several rural and Aboriginal housing programs, often administered by provincial Métis and non-status Indian political organizations, which provide subsidies for Métis and non-status Indians. Provision of services to remote communities are naturally dependent on accessibility by road or rail, which continues to be a challenge for remote reserves and communities. Electricity has been available in virtually all Aboriginal communities and reserves for some time, and there has been gradual improvement in other utilities.
The health of Canadian Aboriginal people has improved over recent years, although it still lags behind the overall population (see Aboriginal Peoples, Health). Life expectancy is significantly lower in remote regions. Between 1981 and 1995, life expectancy at birth for Aboriginal males increased from 62.4 to 69.1 years and for Aboriginal women from 68.9 to 76.2 years. Although Canada's life expectancy ranks among the highest in the world, the Aboriginal population continues to have a much lower life expectancy than the total Canadian population and the most recent statistics report that Aboriginal life expectancy is still five or more years less than that of the total Canadian population.
The leading causes of death among registered First Nations for the past decade are unintentional injuries and violence (motor vehicle accidents, suicides, burns and fire, firearms and drowning). In 1996-97, Aboriginal people were more than six times as likely to die of injuries than the general Canadian population. These rates have decreased, but are still higher than the national rate.
The suicide rates for Aboriginal people in Canada have been higher than those of the general population for many years. In 1991-93, almost one quarter of all injury deaths in First Nations people were due to suicide. The 1995 Royal Commission on Aboriginal People reported that the suicide rate for Aboriginal people was approximately three times higher than the non-Aboriginal population. For years, the highest rate of suicide among Canada's Aboriginal population has been among the Inuit people: from 1999 to 2003 the suicide rate for Inuit people was more than ten times the national rate.
Improved water and sewage facilities are at least partly responsible for a drop in infant mortality rate and an increase in general health conditions. Improvements in Aboriginal health are also due to better control of infectious disease, improved living conditions, better medical technology and easier access to medical services; however challenges such as crowding and inadequate housing remain. In 2006, Aboriginal people were five times more likely than non-Aboriginal people to live in crowded homes and the highest crowding rates were on reserves. Increased urbanization of the Aboriginal population has resulted in a greater incidence of diseases characteristic of modern society, such as cardiovascular disease, cancers and mental health problems. The incidence of AIDS in the Aboriginal population has steadily increased; between 1998 and 2003, 23% of the AIDS cases who reported ethnicity were Aboriginal people. Also of concern is the tuberculosis rate among the Aboriginal population, which was more than five times that of the general population in 2005.
Generally, Aboriginal people are over-represented in the criminal justice system as offenders and inmates, and under-represented as officials, officers, court workers or lawyers (see Aboriginal Peoples, Law). The Aboriginal Justice Inquiry of Manitoba (1991) attributed the high crime rate among the Aboriginal population to poverty, alcohol, cultural disintegration, a marginalized position in society, overpolicing and systemic discrimination within the justice system.
Aboriginal offenders account for a higher proportion of all sentenced admissions than the general population. The proportion of admissions fluctuates across the country. Intakes into provincial probation show a similar pattern, with the highest concentrations in Manitoba, Saskatchewan, Alberta and the Yukon. In 2010, the Office of the Correctional Investigator reported that the Aboriginal incarceration rate was nine times higher than the national average. Aboriginal people represent approximately 4% of the Canadian population, however 20% of male and 33% of the female inmate population are Aboriginal people. The incarceration of Aboriginal women in federal prisons has grown by almost 90% during the last ten years and is the fastest growing sector of the offender population.
Aboriginal offenders in federal institutions also tend to serve longer sentences than non-Aboriginal offenders. As well, Aboriginal youth are over-represented among young offenders; compared to non-Aboriginal youth, Aboriginal youth have more charges laid against them, are more often detained before trial, are detained for longer periods, are more likely to be sentenced to custody and serve longer sentences. Similar rates have been reported across Canada.
The Supreme Court recognized several mitigating social factors that contribute to the overrepresentation of Aboriginal people in the justice system. A social history comprised of dislocation from traditional communities, disadvantage and discrimination, forced assimilation including the effects of the residential school system, poverty, issues of substance abuse and victimization, and loss of cultural/spiritual identity are all contributing factors. To combat these problems, Aboriginal people are playing an increasing role in the justice system. Many Aboriginal-directed alternatives to incarceration in correctional facilities are being developed, including healing and sentencing circles. Treatment involves traditional healing methods rather than punishment by imprisonment, with an emphasis on helping both the victim and offender.
Because existing police forces were not always aware of the cultural differences and needs of Aboriginal communities, Aboriginal people began to develop their own police forces in the 1970s and 1980s. Aboriginal police recruitment programs helped the RCMP and other police forces to add Aboriginal constables to their staffs. In 1991 the federal government introduced the First Nations Policing Policy in order to meet the needs of Aboriginal communities. By 2011 there were 405 Aboriginal communities in Canada with dedicated police services employing 1217 police officers, most of whom were of Aboriginal descent.
Statistics on Aboriginal family structure are particularly difficult to interpret because definitions of family, and of what comprises a family unit, differ greatly from culture to culture. Canadian census-based data are naturally based on the dominant culture's sense of what comprises a family unit, a sense that may not be consistent with Canadian-Aboriginal ideas of family, where extended family support systems are common. Thus, the figures for "single-parent families on reserves" may be misleading in terms of actual household composition, interaction of children and adults, etc.
Approximately one-third of all Aboriginal children under age 15 lived in a single-parent family in 1996; this was twice the rate of the general population. One-quarter of this age group lived in a common-law family and less than half lived in a married family. Just over one in 10 Aboriginal children did not live with their parents.
In 2006, the majority of Aboriginal children aged 14 and under (58%) lived with both parents, while 29% lived with a lone mother and 6% with a lone father. In addition, 3% of Aboriginal children lived with a grandparent (with no parent present) and 4% lived with another relative. Aboriginal children were also twice as likely as non-Aboriginal children to live in multiple-family households, for example, 18% of Inuit lived in a household that was home to more than one family, compared with 4% of the non-Aboriginal population. One third of Métis families were single-parent families, contrasted with 14% of the non-Aboriginal population.
A problem among many Aboriginal families has been the large number of children taken into care by social agencies, sometimes as a result of misunderstandings regarding Aboriginal family practices and values by non-Aboriginal social workers. The number of Aboriginal children in care peaked at 6.5% in the mid-1970s. The situation improved in the early 1980s, when Aboriginal-run child and family service agencies began to assume responsibility for dependent and neglected children. In 1990-91, just under 4% of Aboriginal children were in care, though this number had risen to almost 6% by 2006.
Aboriginal child and family services have attempted to locate and return many of the children previously placed in non-Aboriginal homes to Aboriginal communities. The disproportionate placement of Aboriginal children in non-Aboriginal foster homes has been damaging, both to individuals and communities (see Child Welfare). Aboriginal people and Canadian society in general are coming to terms with the results. A study by Bagley (1991) showed that Aboriginal teenagers adopted by non-Aboriginal families were far more likely than other adopted children, including those adopted from other countries, to have behavioural and emotional problems.
Progress with respect to social conditions is being made; however, the gaps that persist between the social and economic conditions of Aboriginal Canadians and those of the general Canadian population continue to pose challenges. The wellbeing of all people is determined by a combination of social conditions including health, income, social support, education, employment, community, history and culture. Dispossession of cultural traditions, social inequities, prejudice and discrimination have all contributed to the challenges faced by Canada's Aboriginal people.
James Frideres, Native Peoples in Canada: Contemporary Conflicts, 4th ed (1993); DIAND, Highlights of Aboriginal Conditions (1986, 1991) and Demographic, Social and Economic Characteristics (1995); David Long and Olive Dickason, Visions of the Heart: Canadian Aboriginal Issues (1996).