‘Promised Land’ Not Too Bright

Aboriginal Futures, Commentary, Frontier Centre, Housing Affordability, Media Appearances, Poverty

The Winnipeg-based Frontier Centre for Public Policy recently released a discussion-provoking research paper titled “Indigenous Peoples from an International Perspective: How is Canada Faring?” Author Joseph Quesnel offers that Aboriginal peoples living off reserves are generally experiencing a better quality of life than those on reserves. But that’s not true for all.

“Peter” once confided to me that he left his reserve and moved to Winnipeg to escape poverty and social problems. The move, however, didn’t solve anything — he ended up in the same environment, felt trapped and passed away in a shelter.

The federal government allocates almost $9 billion annually to fund First Nations people living on reserves. But problems continue. Aboriginal leaders are unhappy with the current system and outcomes, but there is lack of consensus about how to solve the problems that plague their people.

While there is universal agreement for the need for reform, solutions seem elusive and expensive. In the absence of opportunities and solutions, Aboriginal people are leaving reserves for urban centres in pursuit of something better. Yet, far too many arrive in the urban “promised land” ill-equipped to secure employment beyond minimum levels, relegating them to living below the poverty line, dependent on shelters and food banks.

Although many disdain their existence and governments underfund them, shelters and food banks are a lifeline to hundreds of First Nations people every day. Until better answers are found and implemented on our reserves, demands will increase.

Partly a failed social experiment and partly due to thoughtless funding reduction, our Canadian governments have de-institutionalized mental illnesses and downsized psychiatric hospitals for the past 40 years.

In his Master’s thesis “Hope for the Homeless and Poor,” Art Voth concludes that more than 30% of people experiencing homelessness suffer some form of mental illness with limited abilities to care for themselves. They are the most vulnerable and helpless of the homeless population. Former patients are now expected to assume the facets of normal living including self-medication, money management and cooking. However, without community-based supports or resources to help them relocate and reintegrate, the challenged are relegated to survival on our streets. As they become numbered among our homeless, they are dependent on our food banks and shelters. Until better solutions and care are offered for our mentally ill citizens, demands will increase.

Lack of a national social housing program (since 1993), diminishing affordable housing stock (5,000 net loss in Winnipeg since 1992) and low vacancy rates (1.5%) have created a “Perfect Storm” housing crisis for the poor. So, if affordable housing isn’t available and there are no serious plans to increase the stock, where will the poor live?

Until affordable housing is available for the poor, demands will increase.

No one sees non-profit social agencies as acceptable answers. But imagine how difficult life would be for those affected by reserve challenges, mental illnesses or housing shortages if they didn’t exist.

And, without them, what would our city look like?