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Income Support for B.C.’s Indigenous population inadequate: Report

April 06, 2022
Charles (Chazz) Elliott is a Coast Salish artist from the T’sartlip First Nation on southern Vancouver Island. The artwork depicted in this report is called “Community” and is Chazz’s visual illustration of how Indigenous peoples work in a communal way to support and lift each other up.

A new report analyzing the gaps and barriers in income supports for B.C.’s Indigenous peoples will help to inform provincial and federal governments to address poverty among the province’s Indigenous population.

The report, Income Supports and Indigenous Peoples in B.C., provides recommendations that range from targeted measures for specific deficiencies to broader strategies such as the creation of an Indigenous-specific poverty plan that could help to break the cycle of poverty and state dependency for Indigenous income support recipients.

Simon Fraser University economics professor Anke Kessler produced the report in partnership with the First Nation Leadership Council and Indigenous communities from across B.C. Co-author Jacqueline Quinless of University of Victoria’s Centre for Indigenous Research and Community-Led Engagement (CIRCLE) provided research support for the project’s community-based component.

Funded by B.C.’s Ministry of Social Development and Poverty Reduction, the study examines Indigenous experiences in social programming, and identifies a multitude of gaps and barriers for Indigenous income support recipients, including systemic racism in government services, obstacles for Indigenous persons with disabilities, lack of coordination between federal and provincial governments, inadequate benefits, and lack of affordable, accessible, and safe housing options.

Recommendations include creating a new framework for evaluating income support programs, one that is developed through an Indigenous lens, the integration of provincial and federal programs, and an Indigenous-specific poverty action plan to address the cycle of poverty.

“The system, as it is currently designed, is a band-aid rather than a cure,” says Kessler. “It continues to perpetuate the cycle of state dependency and poverty for Indigenous clients.

To break that cycle we first need to acknowledge how land dispossession, forced assimilation, colonization and racism have brought us to the point where Indigenous peoples make up a disproportionately large part of income support recipients.”

“But aside from tackling these larger issues, there are ways to reform the system that address some of the contemporary root causes of the problem and will help break the cycle. Effective reform will involve all levels of government meaningfully engaging in a dialogue with First Nations communities and leaders, Indigenous organizations, and advocacy groups.”

Researchers conducted interviews and surveys in six participating First Nations—including the Tsleil-Wauthuth Nation, Nak’azdli Whut’en First Nation, Tseshaht First Nation, Fort Nelson First Nation, Lower Similkameen Indian Band and Xaxli’p First Nation— as well as federal and provincial social workers.

In addition, they analyzed data from the national census, the B.C. government, and Indigenous Services Canada.

“It is reassuring that many of the findings and recommendations are entirely consistent with the direction of my ministry and our government. We are committed to continuing the work of improving services and eliminating colonialism and systemic racism,” said Nicholas Simons, Minister of Social Development and Poverty Reduction in a statement.

According to the researchers, Indigenous peoples are three times more likely to receive social assistance than the rest of B.C.’s population – one in five provincial support recipients is Indigenous. While income poverty permeates all age groups and family types, one-parent families and single working-age adults are particularly affected.

And employment is no shield from poverty—one in five families living in a First Nation Community with a least one full-time working adult fall below the poverty line.

Community members stressed the need to address issues of systemic racism and colonization in government services. They also point to insufficient benefit levels and subsidies, lack of housing options, including transitional and supportive housing, and lack of support for harm reduction and substance use treatments. Support for employment, training and life skills development in First Nations communities, and more culturally safe spaces outside First Nations communities are also needed.

In a statement, the First Nations Leadership Council notes that this important work "captures the long-standing disparities between Indigenous and non-Indigenous peoples in this province and makes clear the work that must yet be done."


Interviewees highlighted a need for a culturally safe environment to access government services without discrimination, stigma, or fear of mistreatment. They cite a bureaucratic application process that is difficult to navigate, requiring new applications when moving out of communities and extensive documentation that is often difficult to obtain for Indigenous clients, causing delays in the approval process.

Access to technology, such as home internet or cellular data, represents a barrier for people living in poverty as applications and monthly reports for provincial support have increasingly moved online. Instead of going through a call centre or self-serve portal, face-to-face interactions are critically needed to establish trust relationships and help applicants navigate the complicated process.

Social workers dedicated to working with particularly vulnerable populations estimated that 47 per cent of their clients who are eligible for disability assistance do not currently receive it. This perception was mirrored by community voices and backed by researchers’ data, which shows that Indigenous clients have been consistently underrepresented among disability assistance recipients for the past 20 years. These findings point to systemic barriers preventing eligible Indigenous clients from successfully completing their applications for a disability designation.

Access to primary health care providers and racism in the health care system are some of those hurdles, but the demoralizing and colonized experience of the application itself is also a factor.


Income assistance payments fall short of meeting monthly basic living expenses for an individual household, particularly the higher cost of living in remote and rural First Nations communities.

Households transitioning from on-reserve to off-reserve face process delays in switching from the federal income assistance program administered on reserve to income assistance administered off-reserve by the province.

The chances of Indigenous youth graduating from high school are 28 per cent lower than those of their non-Indigenous peers, according to the researchers calculations, and gaps in postsecondary education are widening.

The researchers identified an intergenerational cycle of income dependency that is particularly apparent in the Indigenous population. Their data shows that almost one in three Indigenous children in Grade 7 with parents on income assistance will receive income assistance themselves by age 22. The chances are even higher for Indigenous youth who do not complete their high school education.

Kessler says taking steps to address critical gaps in Indigenous child poverty, education and mental health support, would help the current generation and in the long run, help to break the cycle, sustainably improving the wellness of future generations.