For many Aboriginals, life is better off-reserve

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Appeared in the Calgary Herald and Ottawa Citizen
Are First Nations reserves in trouble? The recent coverage of northern Ontario’s Attawapiskat reserve and its squalid conditions suggest the answer is “yes.” So too Ottawa’s decision to put Attawapiskat band finances under third-party control.

Tragically, the Attawapiskat reserve is not an isolated case. Out of 630 First Nations, 145 are now subject to some form of federal intervention. One type is “recipient-managed,” where Ottawa requires a reserve government to implement a remedial financial plan. Another is co-management where, as the name implies, a co-manager will run reserve finances along with the local government.

In the most severe form of intervention, third-party management, the type ordered for Attawapiskat and to which another 12 First Nations are subject, the finances are delegated to an accounting or other firm, for example.

Such statistics are one indication of problems on many reserves. Another is this fact, gleaned from the 2006 census: a majority of Canada’s Aboriginals choose not to live on reserve.

The numbers are stark: Out of almost 1.2 million Canadians who identify themselves as Aboriginal, just over 26 per cent live on a reserve; the rest do not.

Some of that is easily explained. Metis, who by definition are not treaty Indians, are not likely to live on a reserve.

But the lack of enthusiasm for reserves occurs even among First Nations peoples (“North American Indians” in Statistics Canada language), most of whom do have treaties. Even there, fully 57 per cent of First Nations people live off-reserve. That’s up from 2001 when just over 55 per cent lived off-reserve.

Drill down into the last available census and other numbers reveal much about where Canada’s Aboriginals prosper.

Nationwide, when earnings for on-reserve North American Indians are compared with their off-reserve counterparts, the median was $29,014 for on-reserve folk compared to the off-reserve figure of $37,477. That’s an $8,400 advantage.

When median earnings of various Aboriginal groups are compared, but this time combining on-reserve and off-reserve population earnings, census data reveals that the median earning for a First Nations person was $34,209 (for an adult between ages 25 and 54 who worked full-time).

Among those who self-identify as Metis, median earnings were higher, at $39,784, while the equivalent figure for Inuit was $44,440, likely because most Inuit live in the north, where salaries are higher. In other words, the Aboriginal cohorts most likely to not live on a First Nation reserve earn more than those who do.

There are other ways to measure the success or plight of Aboriginal Canadians on reserves: compare education levels, earnings, and unemployment to a nearby city.

For example, compare the Kahnawake reserve with nearby Montreal, and to use a slightly different statistic, median earnings for everyone over the age of 15. (That figure includes all who work, the unemployed and the retired.) The median is just $15,744. The comparative figure for Aboriginals in Montreal is 41 per cent higher at $22,269.

In the 2006 census, unemployment among Aboriginals on the Kahnawake reserve was 16.8 percent and just 8.7 per cent in Montreal. On educational attainment, about 37 per cent of Kahnawake residents had some post-secondary education compared to about 49 per cent of Aboriginals who lived in Montreal. 

Or compare the Stoney First Nation with nearby Calgary on the same figures: median earnings for the total population over age 15, which clocks in at $13,774. That compares to median earnings for Calgary Aboriginals at $25,318. As of the 2006 census, unemployment on the Stoney reserve was 37.7 per cent, but just 7.3 per cent among aboriginals who lived in Calgary.  

On educational attainment, 22 per cent of Stoney residents had some post-secondary education compared to 43 per cent of Aboriginals who lived in Calgary. 

Such trends appear in a plethora of other city/reserve matches across the country. Aboriginals who live in cities have higher educational achievements and higher earnings. They have lower rates of unemployment and also lower rates of government transfers when compared to on-reserve Aboriginals.

There are some happy exceptions: In British Columbia for example, the comparative statistics for Kelowna and Westbank First Nations (across the Okanagan Lake from Kelowna) are closer to each other. But that’s a relative rarity.

The 2006 census data should give First Nations leaders and policymakers in Ottawa pause. What’s clear is that living off-reserve is better for one’s overall quality of life. 

That might explain why even a majority of self-described First Nations peoples, those who have treaties with the Crown, choose not to live on reserves.

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