The social conditions of Aboriginal peoples in Canada vary greatly according to place of residence, income level, family and cultural factors and Aboriginal classification (First Nations, Métis and Inuit). Areas of particular social concern include housing, employment, education, health, justice, and family and cultural growth.

Overview

The federal Department of Aboriginal Affairs and Northern Development Canada (AAND) is responsible and provides funding for nearly all the social programs and services to the registered Aboriginal population — First Nations people registered with status under the Indian Act and the Inuit.

Historically, legislation governing the registration of Indians treated women and men differently. Before 1985, if a status woman married a non-status man, her status was automatically removed and any children produced from the union were likewise ineligible. However, when a man with Indian status married a non-status woman, she was automatically granted status. In 1985, Bill C-31 amended the Indian Act, allowing many women and their children to reclaim their status.

Through the Indian Act the federal government provides funds for social programs on reserves to First Nations band administrations — bodies that are either elected or chosen through traditional means and are responsible for the operation of reserves. In 2013, Aboriginal peoples and their communities were allocated approximately 70 per cent of AAND’s investment in Aboriginal and Northern communities; funding of $617 million covering basic services like education, social services, public infrastructure, and local government, housing and economic development.

The Inuit were not recognized as a federal responsibility until a 1939 decision by the Supreme Court of Canada. AAND is responsible for funding health care, some economic development, post-secondary education, and negotiating and implementing self-government agreements.

National, provincial and territorial Aboriginal representative organizations such as the Assembly of First Nations, Métis National Council, Congress of Aboriginal Peoples and the Inuit Tapiriit Kanatami often have mandates that include the improvement of social conditions, both on and off reserves, and represent or advocate for the interests of their members. Many of these organizations receive funding from AAND.

Non-status Aboriginal peoples and Métis have received funding since 2003 through the Office of the Federal Interlocutor (OFI) within AAND to assist with economic, social and political development. Currently, federal and provincial Métis and non-status Aboriginal organizations receive funding from various departments of the federal government, such as the Canadian Mortgage and Housing Corporation (CMHC), to provide social services such as housing.

Place of Residence

Aboriginal peoples live in all parts of Canada, from isolated northern communities and reserves to large urban centres. First Nations people may live on or off reserves and the reserves themselves may be isolated — more likely in the north — relatively near urban centres — more likely in the south — or within urban centres. According to the 2011 census, 49.3 per cent of First Nations peoples lived on reserves.

The Aboriginal population of Canada continues to be predominately urban. In 2011, 56 per cent of the total Canadian population lived in an urban area. In 2011, more than half of Canada’s Aboriginal people lived in three provinces: Ontario (21.5 per cent), British Columbia (16.6 per cent), and Alberta (15.8 per cent). During this same period, metropolitan areas with the highest concentrations of First Nations and Métis peoples were Winnipeg (3.6 per cent and 10.2 per cent), Edmonton (3.1 per cent and 7 per cent) and Vancouver (3.7 per cent and 4.1 per cent).

Like Aboriginal peoples in southern Canada, the Inuit are also migrating to urban centres. In 1996, 5,235 Inuit peoples reported they lived in urban centres, whereas in 2006, this figure had increased to 8,395. These individuals reported they lived in urban areas outside Inuit Nunangat, the Inuit homeland stretching from Labrador to the Northwest Territories. In 2011, Nunavut was home to the highest concentration of Inuit (45.5 per cent of all Inuit), followed by Nunavik (Northern Quebec) which is home to 18.1 per cent of the total Inuit population.

In many contemporary northern communities, foods like fruit, vegetables, and milk must be transported long distances. The resulting high costs, limited availability and lower quality of the food is somewhat mitigated by the availability of "country food” — wild foods like seal, caribou, duck, whale, and fish. A 2005 report found that 68 per cent of Inuk adults in Inuit Nunangat harvested country food. Country food remains an important food source for many Inuit, with 65 per cent of households getting at least half their meat and fish from country food, and approximately 80 per cent of Inuit Nunangat families sharing country food with people in other households. The communal activities of harvesting, processing, distributing and preparing the foods emphasizes a traditional culture of cooperation

Income Levels and Education

In 2009, the rate of employment for Aboriginal peoples in Canada (57 per cent) was lower than the non-Aboriginal population (61.8 per cent). During this same year, Aboriginal youth (45.1 per cent) were less likely to be employed compared to their non-Aboriginal counterparts (55.6 per cent). In comparison to non-Aboriginal peoples, Aboriginal peoples’ income tends to be below the Canadian average. In 2006, the median income for Aboriginal peoples was 30 per cent lower than the median income for the rest of Canada ($18,962 and $27,097). Aboriginal people are also more likely to rely on social income assistance. In 2012-2013, 33.6 per cent of on-reserve First Nations peoples received social income assistance compared to just over 5 per cent of the Canadian population. In some Aboriginal communities, social income assistance rates are higher than 80 per cent.

Income levels for Aboriginal peoples are directly linked to educational attainment levels. In 2011, 28.9 per cent of the Aboriginal population aged 25 to 64 did not have a high school diploma or equivalent compared to 12.1 per cent for their non-Aboriginal counterparts. Younger Aboriginal peoples, those aged 35 to 44, are more likely to have a high school diploma (68 per cent) compared to those aged 55 to 64 (58.7 per cent). These figures are significantly lower than non-Aboriginal peoples in the same age categories: 88.7 per cent and 79.5 per cent respectively. As of 2011, more Aboriginal women aged 35 to 44 earned a college (27.1 per cent and 18.3 per cent) or university (13.6 per cent and 7.6 per cent) degree compared to Aboriginal men in the same age category. However, more than twice as many Aboriginal men aged 33 to 44 had received a trades certificate in comparison to Aboriginal women (19.3 per cent and 9.9 per cent).

Contemporary research has found that educational attainment rates and income are directly related. Therefore, Aboriginal educational programs are crucial to closing the income gap between Aboriginal and non-Aboriginal wage earners.

Population

Since the 1960s, the population of Aboriginal peoples has steadily increased. Changes to the Indian Act in 1985 helped to increase these numbers, as people previously denied status were able to reclaim their identity.

In 2011, over 1,400,000 people, or 4.3 per cent of Canada’s population, identified themselves as one of Canada’s Aboriginal groups: 851,560 First Nations, 451,795 Métis and 59,445 Inuit. More than 74.9 per cent of First Nations people had status.

In 2012, there were 3,169 First Nations reserves, though not all were inhabited. 617 bands represent more than 50 nations and languages. In general, the Aboriginal population represents one of the youngest age groupings in Canada. In 2011, the median age for Aboriginal people was 28 compared to 41 for the non-Aboriginal population. The implications for social services are obvious: as the general population in Canada ages and focus shifts toward providing services for the elderly, the Aboriginal community (both on- and off-reserve) will be concerned with providing educational opportunities and finding permanent employment for a comparatively young population.

Housing

Much of the housing in Aboriginal communities is inadequate and in need of repair. In 1977–78, 53 per cent of houses on reserves had minimum water service but within 20 years this had improved to 98 per cent. In 2011, 72 per cent of on-reserve homes received water services by pipe, 13.5 per cent by truck service, 13 per cent by individual wells and 1.5 per cent of homes did not have water service. In this same year, 54 per cent of on-reserve homes had piped wastewater systems, 8 per cent had sewage hauled by truck, 36 per cent had septic and other individual wastewater systems, and 2 per cent of homes had no service. Despite high levels of water delivery many communities face water contamination, thus water safety remains an important policy issue.

Homes in need of major repair increased from 12,500 in 1997 to 23,800 in 2009. However, renovations to these homes have decreased significantly from approximately 4,200 in 1997 to 2,700 in 2009. One factor that contributes to homes needing major repairs is overcrowding, which causes excess wear and tear. In 1996, approximately 18.1 per cent of on-reserve homes were overcrowded compared to approximately 1.9 per cent of non-Aboriginal homes and 4.2 per cent of off-reserve Aboriginal homes. Although improvements have been made, in 2006 on-reserve rates of overcrowding were significantly higher compared to non-Aboriginal homes and those living off-reserve (12.1 per cent, 1.7 per cent, and 2.1 per cent respectively).

The federal government provides housing units and repairs to existing houses on reserves with the cooperation of the Canadian Mortgage and Housing Corporation (CMHC), although it maintains it has no legal or treaty obligation to do so. From 2001 to 2006, AAND (then known as Indian and Northern Affairs Canada) and CMHC subsidized the construction of 3,544 new homes and the renovations of 4,098 existing homes for Aboriginal people on reserves. A 2007 research report estimated that in 2001 First Nations communities required approximately 5,000 new homes to replace homes deemed uninhabitable, 24,000 new bedrooms to address overcrowding, and an additional 11,000 homes to address the problem of “doubling” (i.e., two or more families residing in a single home).

Historically housing subsidies for on-reserve First Nations communities have been administered by government and other agencies, like the CMHC, but such homes were often poorly constructed and not built to code. Homes built on reserves with federal money have since 1983 been required to adhere to the national building code, but code enforcement is done by band councils, and is not subject to external verification. Thus, many homes may not meet standards. On-reserve housing has an approximate life span of 15 to 20 years, less than half the national average. High population growth and decreased home suitability in many cases outpaces investment in repairs or new construction, thus housing shortages on most reserves remain a major problem. Low housing suitability is a major factor in pushing First Nations people to off-reserve housing. However, off-reserve housing is not guaranteed to be suitable; in 2011, 21.5 per cent of the total Aboriginal population in Canada lived in residences — both on and off reserve — requiring major repairs, compared to 7.4 per cent for the non-Aboriginal population.

Similar housing programs are in place for the Inuit, while other programs, often administered by provincial Métis and non-status political organizations, provide subsidies for Métis and non-status peoples. Provision of services to remote communities — both reserve and non-reserve — is naturally dependent on accessibility by road or rail, which continues to be a challenge. Only about one third of reserves have year round road access, others rely on combinations of rail, road, and water access. Electricity is available in the large majority of Aboriginal communities and reserves — about 90 per cent — and there has been gradual improvement in other utilities, though shortcomings in central heating, water, sewage, and fire protection are faced at a higher rate than the rest of Canada.

Health

The overall health of Aboriginal people has improved in recent years; however, it continues to lag behind the overall population. In 2009, the life expectancy for Canadian women was 83 years of age compared to 79 years for men. Between 1980 and 2001, life expectancy at birth for registered Aboriginal men increased from 60.9 to 70.4 years and for registered Aboriginal women from 68 to 75.5 years.

Health Canada reported in 2001–2002 that the leading causes of death among registered First Nations peoples were external causes (accidental poisoning, vehicle accidents, and intentional self-harm), diseases of the circulatory system (hypertension, cardiovascular disease), and neoplasms (various types of cancer).

Suicide rates for Aboriginal peoples in Canada have for some time been much higher than those of the general population. A 2000 study found that suicide and self-inflicted injuries were the leading causes of death for First Nations people below 45 years of age. Suicide rates among First Nations youth are around five to six times the national average, while Inuit youth rates are approximately ten times the national average. The causes for such high rates of suicide are multiple and may include depression due to social, cultural, or generational dislocation; drug and substance abuse; or lack of housing, food, and access to opportunity. In small or isolated communities, youth suicides may be particularly traumatic and may lead to “suicide clusters.”

Richard Cardinal: Cry from a Diary of a Métis Child by Alanis Obomsawin, National Film Board of Canada

Improved water and sewage facilities are at least partly responsible for a drop in the infant mortality rate and an increase in general health conditions. Improvements in Aboriginal health are also due to better control of infectious disease, improved living conditions, and better access to medical technology and services. However, challenges such as overcrowded living conditions and inadequate housing remain.

Increased urbanization of the Aboriginal population has resulted in a greater incidence of diseases characteristic of modern society, such as cardiovascular disease, cancers and mental health problems. Rates of HIV/AIDS have steadily increased. In 2008, of those who reported ethnicity, Aboriginal peoples accounted for 8 per cent of all HIV cases in Canada and 12.5 per cent of new infections. Also of concern is the tuberculosis rate; Aboriginal people accounted for 21 per cent of all cases, while Canadian-born non-Aboriginal people accounted for just 13 per cent.

Justice

Aboriginal people are over-represented in the criminal justice system as offenders and inmates, and under-represented as officials, officers, court workers or lawyers. Research has shown the high crime rate among the Aboriginal population is a result of the effects of the residential school system, experience in the child welfare system, effects of the dislocation and dispossession of Aboriginal peoples, family or community history of suicide, substance abuse and/or victimization, lower educational attainment, poverty, poor living conditions, and exposure to/membership in street gangs.

Rates of incarceration among the Aboriginal population continue to increase. In 2013, Aboriginal offenders accounted for 23.2 per cent of federally-sentenced offenders compared to 17 per cent in 2000–01. In this same year, Aboriginal women represented 33.6 per cent of all federally sentenced women. Aboriginal offenders were on the whole younger than their non-Aboriginal counterparts; 21.3 per cent of federally-incarcerated Aboriginal offenders were 25 years or younger versus 13.6 per cent of non-Aboriginal offenders.

Several mitigating social factors have contributed to the over-representation of Aboriginal people in the justice system. A history comprised of dislocation from traditional communities, disadvantage, discrimination, forced assimilation including the effects of the residential school system, poverty, issues of substance abuse and victimization, and loss of cultural/spiritual identity are all contributing factors. In 1996, the Criminal Code was amended to address the problem of Aboriginal over-representation within the justice system. One amendment was 718.2(e), which allows judges to examine alternatives to imprisonment which are reasonable for the circumstance for all offenders “with special attention to the circumstances of Aboriginal offenders.” To date, many Aboriginal-directed alternatives to incarceration in correctional facilities are being developed, including healing and sentencing circles. Such treatment involves traditional healing methods rather than punishment by imprisonment, with an emphasis on helping both the victim and offender.

Because existing police forces were not always aware of the cultural differences and needs of Aboriginal communities, Aboriginal people began to develop their own police forces in the 1970s and 1980s. Aboriginal police recruitment programs helped the RCMP and other police forces to add Aboriginal constables to their staffs. In 1991, the federal government introduced the First Nations Policing Policy in order to meet the needs of Aboriginal communities. By 2012–13, there were 396 Aboriginal communities in Canada with dedicated police services employing 1,261 police officers.

Family

Statistics on Aboriginal family structure are particularly difficult to interpret because definitions of family, and of what comprises a family unit, differ greatly from culture to culture. Canadian census-based data are naturally based on the dominant culture's sense of what comprises a family unit, a sense that may not be consistent with Aboriginal peoples’ ideas of family, where extended family support systems are common. Thus, the figures for "single-parent families on reserves" may be misleading in terms of actual household composition and how children and adults interact within these arrangements.

In 2011, the majority of Aboriginal children aged 14 and under (50 per cent) lived with both parents, while 28 per cent lived with a lone mother and 6 per cent with a lone father. In addition, 3 per cent of Aboriginal children lived with a grandparent (with no parent present) and 1 per cent lived with another relative. Aboriginal children were also twice as likely as non-Aboriginal children to live in multiple-family households, in 2006. For example, 18 per cent of Inuit children lived in a household that was home to more than one family, compared with 4 per cent of the non-Aboriginal population. One-third of Métis families were single-parent families, contrasted with 14 per cent of the non-Aboriginal population.

Since the 1960s, a large number of Aboriginal children have been placed in care by social agencies. In some instances, children were taken because of misunderstandings regarding Aboriginal family practices and the values of non-Aboriginal social workers. In 1951, Aboriginal children represented 1 per cent of all the children in care in British Columbia. However, in 1964 this figured climbed to over 34 per cent. By the 1980s, a report issued by the Canadian Council on Social Development found Aboriginal children in care were over-represented and accounted for 60–70 per cent of all children in care in Saskatchewan, 50–60 per cent in Manitoba, and 40–50 per cent in Alberta. In 2003, approximately 30–40 per cent of children in foster homes across Canada were Aboriginal children.

Aboriginal children in care are adopted less frequently than non-Aboriginal children, and are more likely to be adopted into non-Aboriginal families. The disproportionate placement of Aboriginal children in non-Aboriginal foster homes has been damaging to both individuals and communities. Aboriginal people and Canadian society in general are coming to terms with the results. A study by Bagley (1991) showed that Aboriginal teenagers adopted by non-Aboriginal families were far more likely than other adopted children, including those adopted from other countries, to have behavioural and emotional problems. Research from the early 2000s expresses concern about damaged self-esteem and identity confusion that develops from mixed-cultural adoptions.

Culture and Progress

Cultural factors can significantly affect social conditions. Culture is crucial for learning and maintaining a strong ethnic identity. Many Aboriginal peoples across Canada continue to participate in traditional activities such as hunting, fishing and trapping. Some have suggested that traditional values such as sharing, non-competitiveness and restraint support people in traditional settings, but may conflict with the non-traditional values of the dominant society, and thus hinder integration. While integration may not be the goal, the promotion and revival of such cultural values may in fact hold the key to the improvement of social conditions through indigenous self-determination initiatives.

Progress with respect to social conditions is being achieved. However, the gaps that persist between the social and economic conditions of Aboriginal people in Canada and those of the general Canadian population continue to pose challenges. The well-being of all people is determined by a combination of social conditions including health, income, social support, education, employment, community, history and culture. Dispossession of cultural traditions, social inequities, prejudice and discrimination have all contributed to the challenges faced by Aboriginal people in Canada. Many communities are implementing community-based strategies stressing the importance of history and culture; governance, culture and spirituality; unique qualities and values; the link between self-government and economic development; and the role and importance of traditional economies.