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High child poverty rates on reserve best fixed under First Nations' jurisdiction: leader

The Canadian Centre for Policy Alternatives (CCPA) released a report today that finds a tiered system of child poverty in Canada, with on-reserve First Nations poverty sitting at the bottom tier with a 50 per cent rate. But at least one First Nations leader says the CCPA's financial solutions don't go far enough to fix the problem.

Released jointly by CCPA and Save the Children, report authors David MacDonald, CCPA economist, and Daniel Wilson, a former Canadian diplomat, found three tiers of child poverty in Canada by examining Statistics Canada's 2006 census and annual Survey of Labour and Income Dynamics data.

The first tier, made up of Caucasian-looking Canadian citizens, had a child poverty rate of 12 per cent. The second tier, made up of Inuit, off-reserve First nations, Metis, and immigrant children, had a poverty rate ranging from 22 to 33 per cent. First Nations children living on reserve were delegated to the third and highest tier, at 50 per cent child poverty.

Although the report indicated a high rate of poverty for immigrant and racialized children, it focused primarily on indigenous kids: "The link between the denial of basic human rights for Indigenous children and their poverty is equally clear. Failure to act will result in a more difficult, less productive, and shorter life for Indigenous children," it read.

The highest rates of on-reserve child poverty were found in Saskatchewan (64 per cent), followed by Manitoba (62 per cent), British Columbia (just under 50 per cent), and then Alberta (about 45 per cent). Ontario and Quebec, which have significantly lower First Nations populations, had on-reserve poverty rates of between 30 and 40 per cent. The report doesn't include child poverty statistics on the Atlantic provinces or northern territories.

The solutions the CCPA proposed include increasing federal funding to First Nations beyond the two per cent annual increase they've received since 1996. Increasing the Aboriginal Affairs and Northern Development Canada child development budget by 11 per cent or $580 million annually -- the cost the CCPA estimates for bring on reserve kids and families out of poverty -- is also recommended/

But Cheryl Casimer, a member of B.C.'s First Nations Summit Task Group, says money isn't enough. In order to change the lives of First Nations families and children, jurisdiction for child and family services needs to be completely turned over to First Nations communities.

"The work needs to be on the ground. It cannot be at a higher level, because they're not the ones that are seeing what's happening on a day-to-day basis," said Casimer, who spent 12 years running the Ktunaxa Kinbasket Child and Family Services Society, a provincially delegated child welfare organization.

"You can make all the policies you want, you can make all the formulas you want, but unless you're on the ground, dealing with the day-to-day issues, you're not going to be effective."

Casmier says provincial, federal, and First Nations governments need to work towards this goal because with proper resourcing and full jurisdiction, poverty on reserves will decrease.

That won't help non-status children decrease their child poverty rate, however. Casmier says she doesn't know for sure why non-aboriginal families are able to stay out of poverty, but she suspects it has to do with provincial governments' aboriginal funding "envelopes."

"Regardless of where you are, there is always an envelope that has been earmarked for First Nation issues, whether it's on reserve or off reserve," she told The Tyee, "and it is always still that much more lower than what it is when you're non-native."

She hopes First Nations Child and Family Caring Society's case currently before the Canadian Human Rights Tribunal can help change that.

"I think Cindy Blackstock (FNCFCS executive director) is doing wonders in that area of raising awareness to the disparity between funding for First Nations children and families compared to the funding available to non-aboriginal families," she said.

Katie Hyslop reports on education and youth issues for The Tyee Solutions Society. Follow her on Twitter.

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