Defining and taking action on poverty

By Jack Bourassa, Regional Executive Vice President for the North
As published in the Yellowknifer, May 2016

Defining poverty is not an easy undertaking. In Canada, different groups use different indicators to measure poverty, but no measure has been officially endorsed by the federal government.

Using a proxy measure of poverty (Low Income Cut-Off), it has been shown that the average child poverty in Canada is 17%, while the percentage for indigenous children is as high as 60% in some Canadian jurisdictions.

In the NWT, there is no formal definition of poverty, either. We collect statistics on homelessness, income, educational outcomes, but not on poverty.

According to the latest data published by the NWT Bureau of Statistics, the percentage of individuals reporting income of less than $15,000 per year ranges from 15.1% (Yellowknife) to 46.4% (Ulukhaktok). The regional disparity is immense, with smaller communities experiencing greater economic hardship.

Actions speak louder than words, goes the age old proverb. But actions may have little impact when the problem is not clearly defined. We need the words to set the stage for meaningful action, allowing us to properly address and monitor our progress. 

We are seeing some actions taken at all levels of government.

The federal government’s 2016 budget provided important investments in Canada’s North, including an expanded Nutrition North program, funding for infrastructure, affordable housing, adult education and child care initiatives.

In an effort to tackle homelessness, in April 2016, the City of Yellowknife has requested a call for proposals for the delivery of a Housing First program, with the hope that the GNWT will provide the much needed wrap-around services for future residents, including counseling and other types of supports).

In response to calls from the civil sector, in February 2010, the Government of the Northwest Territories passed a motion to develop an anti-poverty strategy. Fast forward to March 2016, the GNWT invited representatives from Aboriginal governments, businesses and non-governmental organizations to the 3rd Anti-Poverty Roundtable. We discussed solutions, listened to success stories and updates, and set priorities for the coming year.

The resulting Anti-Poverty Action Plan focused on five pillars: Children and Family Support, Healthy Living and Reaching our Potential, Safe and Affordable Housing, Sustainable Communities, and Integrated Continuum of Services. Fairly comprehensive, one might say.

Granted, all levels of government are indicating their intentions to take action on poverty. And for those efforts we sincerely commend them.

But are these actions strong enough? Clearly, some actions are stronger than others. We need to start an honest dialogue about poverty issues and priorities with all levels of government, service providers, and anti-poverty advocates, and begin adopting proven solutions such as Housing First, Guaranteed Basic Income, universal childcare and progressive taxation.

The NWT has one of the highest income gaps in Canada. The above noted actions would allow us to move toward overcoming the vast income gap between rich and poor.

But let us not forget that what we are tackling here are the mere symptoms of deeper structural issues, such as neo-liberal policies, corporate welfare, austerity economics and lost sovereignty through free-trade agreements.

Last, let us acknowledge that indigenous populations are disproportionately impoverished, suffering the effects of over a century of cultural genocide.

As Gabor Mate was noting in a recent article, “when some among us suffer, ultimately we all do”. Hence, governments need to realize the true long-term benefits of ending poverty and investing in human capital.