The Canadian Centre on Policy Alternatives and Save the Children have posed a disturbing question in the title of their report released on Wednesday: Poverty or Prosperity? The report is about poverty experienced by indigenous children in Canada, but the question is about all of us. The future of indigenous children will be an important determinant of the prosperity and health of all Canadians, and, especially, of our children.
We have become jaded about indigenous child poverty. We might be concerned, but we don't really feel that there is anything we can and should do. By and large our media and politicians ignore the issues, or worse, pay lip service to it. The federal government's residential schools apology showed us talk is cheap, but poverty is partially a result of the social and economic deprivation caused by the residential schools and similar colonial policies. That attitude of ignoring the problem is held at our own peril: There will be a high cost to our prosperity if we continue to do nothing.
Eight years ago, in the last days of the federal Liberal government, Canada's premiers, then prime minister Paul Martin and indigenous leaders signed a $5-billion agreement to deal with the drivers and consequences of indigenous poverty. Had it been implemented, all Canadians would be better off today.
Manitobans should be especially concerned about this because approximately 16 per cent of indigenous children live in Manitoba, compared with three per cent of non-indigenous children. Even more important, Manitoba experiences the second-highest rate of poverty among First Nations children (62 per cent) and the highest rate among Metis, Inuit and non-status children (just over 30 per cent).
First, the indigenous population is much younger than the Canadian population as a whole, with a much greater proportion of children. Therefore, we need indigenous children to grow into healthy, productive adults, filling some of the skilled labour shortages. But poverty impairs educational attainment and health, and in turn, the capacity of poor indigenous children to become economically productive adults.
Second, child poverty generates social costs throughout the life cycle. Because of the number of indigenous children, these will be relatively high costs, particularly in health-care service (poverty is a strong driver of morbidity for most diseases), criminal justice, and child welfare.
Third, high levels of poverty and related economic inequality lead to social conflict as the aspirations of poor indigenous children who have grown into poor adults are thwarted. It could get a lot uglier than Idle No More. This kind of conflict provides a climate that is damaging to the economy, including making it hard to attract capital and talent.
Sociologist Richard Wilkinson and others have shown high rates of poverty and inequality damage everyone's health, the middle class and affluent as well as the poor.
In 1996, the Royal Commission on Aboriginal Peoples estimated the cost of doing nothing about indigenous poverty was $7.5 billion annually. In 2006, the Centre for the Study of Living Standards estimated a $115-billion cumulative benefit to federal and provincial governments as a result of taking action to yield equivalent educational and labour market outcomes for indigenous people. The Canadian Centre on Policy Alternatives and Save the Children estimate that with an 11 per cent increase in Aboriginal Affairs and Northern Development Canada's budget, poverty for First Nations children could be completely eliminated.
We all share the interest in this. The cost of doing nothing is too high.
Sid Frankel is an associate professor in the Faculty of Social Work at the University of Manitoba and a member of the national steering committee to end child poverty.