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Daniel Wilson: Income Inequality and Indigenous Peoples in Canada


Canadians are awakening to the fact that income inequality is a seriously problematic trend that marginalizes large segments of society and threatens social harmony and progress. However, for Indigenous people, vastly inferior incomes are a longstanding reality that makes up only a part of a much deeper and broader inequality.

While the historical roots of this situation are vaguely familiar to most Canadians, they remain poorly understood. More importantly, an improved understanding of both existing conditions and desired outcomes must inform a markedly different approach to solutions if we are, as a society, to avoid making matters worse.

It is no coincidence that the 370 million Indigenous people worldwide rank consistently toward the bottom of their national income levels. Whether in colonial Asia, Africa, Australia or the Americas, Indigenous peoples have been treated with enormous inhumanity. Across the Americas, it is estimated that the Indigenous population was reduced by up to 90% in the two centuries following the arrival of Columbus, while the discredited doctrines of discovery and terra nullius were used to provide the cover of legitimacy to the theft of the land. In Canada, campaigns to segregate First Nations onto reserves, followed by a formal policy of assimilation created a separate class of citizen, and for them, a level of poverty that remains unparalleled. Every indicator of social well-being – from educational attainment rates far below national averages to rates of unemployment, imprisonment and suicide vastly above – tells the same story of what colonial policies toward Indigenous peoples have achieved.

The numbers tell us that earned incomes for First Nations, Inuit and Métis people are 70% that of other Canadians and will continue to trail well behind for the foreseeable future. At current growth rates, it would take 63 years for the income inequality faced by First Nations, Inuit and Métis citizens to match that faced by other Canadians. In other words, the gap between rich and poor Canadians – about which people are rightly concerned – is so much larger for Indigenous people it would be three generations before the level of inequality is even comparable.

Meanwhile, whether through intent or negligence, the drastic underfunding of basic services like safe housing, clean water and education stands as a barrier to development that ensures the persistence of the most extreme poverty in the country.

A thorough understanding of today’s circumstances reveals that solutions to address the problem of income inequality in Canada must be differentiated for Indigenous peoples. It is a difference not only of degree, but of kind. 

Indigenous peoples in Canada continue to struggle for their cultural survival and acknowledgement of their legal rights. Canada’s reluctant accession to the United Nations Declaration on the Rights of Indigenous Peoples in late 2010 has not led to a change in policy approach any more than the Prime Minister’s apology for residential schools in 2009. Assimilation continues slowly, though this policy – formerly explicit – has failed to achieve its full objective over the past 200 years. 

Assimilation policy is now cloaked in the language of formal equality. Over the past 50 years – most notably in the White Paper of 1969 – successive governments have attempted to diminish Indigenous rights to precisely those of other Canadians while pretending that this was a step forward. However, to imagine that Indigenous rights are the same as those of other Canadians is to deny the distinct legal and constitutional reality enshrined in treaties, the Royal Proclamation of 1763, Sections 25 and 35 of the Constitution and the United Nations Declaration on the Rights of Indigenous Peoples. 

For the most part, policy prescriptions that would aim to address income inequality for the bulk of the country strive to create greater harmony within our society by reducing differentiation. For First Nations, Inuit and Métis peoples, however, efforts to increase equality must be informed by the historical and contemporary reality of a people still fighting for acknowledgement of their humanity (implicitly denied through the continuing reliance of the Crown on the notion of terra nullius), their inheritance (actively refused by Canada in conflicts over Aboriginal rights and title), and their autonomy (deprived by the Indian Act and other colonial legal instruments). Policy makers must guard against the attraction of formal equality and aim toward substantive equality by broadening the scope of their analyses and prescriptions.

Many believe that social harmony can be achieved by pursuing the goal of reconciliation – as prescribed by the Supreme Court and explicitly endorsed by Indigenous leadership – which is intended to replace assimilation as the governing policy for relations between First Nations, Inuit and Métis peoples and the rest of Canada. Reconciliation demands a diagnosis and set of prescriptions that are wholly different from those that would address income inequality in the rest of Canada. Those prescriptions might begin with historical, legal and cultural education for the majority of Canadians and greater autonomy and political empowerment for Indigenous peoples. This approach may or may not lead in the short term to a reduction in income inequality, but is a necessary step in restoring the broader equality between societies that has been ruptured by the legacy of colonialism.

The exceptional circumstance of Indigenous peoples in Canada requires a holistic approach to restoring equality that goes well beyond the question of income and speaks to bringing about economic equality as part of political and social change.