OTTAWA — Four out of every five Aboriginal reserves have median incomes that fall below the poverty line, according to income data from the 2016 census that provides insight into the depth of poverty facing Indigenous Peoples in Canada.
A Canadian Press review of census figures for areas identified as Indigenous communities found about 81 per cent of reserves had median incomes below the low-income measure, which Statistics Canada considers to be $22,133 for one person.
In absolute numbers, of the 367 reserves for which there was data on total individual median incomes, 297 communities fell below the low-income measure, while just 70 registered median incomes above the de facto poverty line.
At the lowest end, 27 communities reported median total incomes below $10,000.
Women fared marginally better than males, according to the data. About 22 per cent of female incomes on-reserve was over the low-income measure, compared to about 19 per cent for males.
The income figures come from tax filings for 2015, the year the Trudeau Liberals were elected in part on a promise to improve economic outcomes for Indigenous Peoples, who collectively face the harshest poverty and housing conditions in the country.
The Liberals are finalizing a national housing strategy with specific initiatives targeting Indigenous communities, and have been meeting with Indigenous leaders about what is needed in an Indigenous-specific poverty reduction strategy.
But the figures are not a full picture of Indigenous Peoples in Canada. Many of the communities registered so few residents that data had to be suppressed out of concerns for their privacy.
Statistics Canada plans to provide more robust census data at the end of the month as part of its ongoing effort to paint a five-year portrait of the evolving Canadian population.
So far, the emerging picture of Indigenous Peoples living on reserve shows a significantly younger population — thanks to a fertility rate that far exceeds its non-Indigenous counterpart — but with shorter life expectancies and much lower incomes.
In September, Statistics Canada reported a spike in income levels in 2015, thanks to a prior boom in commodity prices, particularly in the Prairies, that pushed median total household income to $70,336, up 10.8 per cent from a decade earlier.
Only 26 of the 503 of reserves with income data had higher median household incomes. Totals — which include sources like employment, investments and government benefits — ranged from $13,168 in Manitoba's Roseau River First Nation to $114,381 in Cree Nation of Chisasibi on the eastern shore of James Bay in Quebec.
What's not clear from the numbers is precisely how those incomes are earned, whether resources are shared or if those who do better have specific advantages over those who do not. Each community is different, said Marshall Ballard, director of business, employment and social development with the Native Women's Association of Canada.
Indigenous leaders have pushed the Liberal government to help those communities where the need is greatest. In meetings last week, Assembly of First Nations National Chief Perry Bellegarde called for a meeting between Indigenous, federal and provincial leaders next year to work on closing the economic gap with the wider population.
Previous research has shown that Indigenous Peoples regularly earn less than the median income. A 2014 study found they were almost as disadvantaged as in 2006 as they were 25 years earlier in 1981.
Some of that is tied to location, or the geography lottery, as some communities know it, Ballard said. Location, he said, can make all the difference in the prosperity of the community.
Martin Cooke, one of the authors of that 2014 study, said previous research has suggested income isn't always tied to location, such as being in a remote community.
"There's not a clear geographic pattern," said Cooke, an associate professor in the School of Public Health and Health Systems at the University of Waterloo.
"To me that's the interesting thing: it's not all geography."
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Jordan Press, The Canadian Press