'For us, it's always an uphill battle': Report finds two-thirds of kids on Manitoba reserves live in poverty

According to a new study, more than half of First Nations children living on Manitoba reserves live in poverty, but one Manitoba community is investing in their local economy to boost their standard of living.

Opaskwayak Cree Nation leader hopes local investment will help reduce 'shocking' child poverty rate

Opaskwayak Cree Nation Onekanew (Chief) Christian Sinclair says his community is working to reduce child poverty rates and 'get on par with the rest of Canada as a whole.' (CBC)

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.

Prepared by the Upstream Institute — a national think tank — in collaboration with the Assembly of First Nations and the Canadian Centre for Policy Alternatives, it tracked trends in Indigenous child poverty over a 10-year period, from 2006 to 2016.
According to a report written by the Assembly of First Nations and Canadian Centre for Policy Alternatives, Manitoba has the highest rate of poverty for children living on reserve. (CBC)

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. 

With the money generated from the local economy, OCN continues to invest in infrastructure and the training and development of community members, preparing them to fill jobs in the area, such as forestry and construction. That includes working with students from OCN's high school.
Community members from Opaskwayak Cree Nation can receive training in forestry. (Submitted by 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."