'For us, it's always an uphill battle': Report finds two-thirds of kids on Manitoba reserves live in poverty
Opaskwayak Cree Nation leader hopes local investment will help reduce 'shocking' child poverty rate
More than half of children on Manitoba reserves live in poverty, a new study says — but the leader of one Manitoba First Nation hopes investment in the local economy can boost that standard of living.
"The fact that children are in poverty, and we're supposed to be the No. 1 country in the world based on the UN index quality of life, is shocking to say the least," said Opaskwayak Cree Nation Onekanew (Chief) Christian Sinclair.
"For us, it's always an uphill battle to ensure that we reduce those numbers, and try to get on par with the rest of Canada as a whole."
One of the keys to doing that, according to a new report titled Towards Justice: Tackling Indigenous Child Poverty in Canada, is promoting the financial independence of First Nation communities — something Sinclair says his community has made a priority.
The study, released Tuesday, says on-reserve child poverty remains a serious problem across Canada, but particularly in Manitoba.
Drawing on data from the 2016 census, it found 53 per cent of First Nations children living on reserves in Canada live in poverty. In Manitoba, that number jumps to 65 per cent.
The Manitoba statistic, though still high, has actually dropped in recent years. The rate of poverty for children living on reserve in Manitoba peaked in 2011 at 76 per cent.
"The cause of poverty for Indigenous peoples is a complex affair without a single solution," the report says, though it makes four broad recommendations — including calling for a commitment from the federal government to "supporting self-determination, both financially and jurisdictionally."
That financial self-determination is something Sinclair says OCN — about 530 kilometres northwest of Winnipeg — is working toward by investing in various businesses under the Opaskwayak Business Development Corporation.
"Everything ranging from transportation, Pepsi supply, to retail. We have the Otineka Mall, which is the largest retail [facility] in northern Manitoba … the majority of these positions are filled by Opaskwayak Cree Nation members," said Sinclair.
"We are actually the major employer within the region," Sinclair says, which guarantees that money stays in the local "Cree economy."
Investment in infrastructure, training
He says the community does have one advantage: connected to other communities by highways and sitting next to the town of The Pas, it is not remote, and is a popular commercial hub for people living nearby.
Sinclair also cites investment from large companies, such as Arctic Gateway and Canadian Kraft Papers Industries Ltd., as contributors to the financial success of OCN.
"One [thing] we're really excited about is actually having the Oscar Lathlin Collegiate students build two houses this fall … introducing the students to the trades," said Sinclair.
The report notes that funding public services on reserves falls exclusively under federal jurisdiction, placing the responsibility of these shortfalls on the government.
It's a sentiment Sinclair agrees with, saying that it all boils down to treaty agreements — which he says the federal government has failed to fulfil.
"Until they honour that agreement … our people are going to have to figure out themselves how to get out of those negative statistics that we're in," said Sinclair.
"I'm proud to say that Opaskwayak Cree Nation is carrying its own, punching above its own weight, and we're meeting and exceeding our goals … to get us on par with Canada."