In November, my home province of Saskatchewan learned that its child poverty rate was about 10 points higher than we had previously thought. Rather than posting a middling, but comfortable, child poverty rate of 14.4% as in 2011,[1] we were now on the hook for a rate of no less than 25.4%!

To put these numbers in perspective, a child poverty rate of 15% is high, but not egregious for a rich country like Canada. A child poverty rate of 25% puts the province of Saskatchewan on par with middle-income countries like Romania.

What happened? For the first time, a leading report on poverty in Canada had included a number of populations that had traditionally been excluded. Most importantly, it included on reserve First Nations people.

The discrepancies this caused underscore just how important a federal initiative on poverty reduction is—particularly to Saskatchewan.

Campaign 2000 Report Card

In 1989, the Canadian House of Commons voted unanimously to eliminate child poverty by the year 2000. In November, Campaign 2000 released its twenty-third annual Report Card on Child and Family Poverty in Canada documenting our progress.

For a generation, poverty researchers, including Campaign 2000 and UNICEF, have used the Survey of Labour and Income Dynamics (SLID) to track poverty in Canada and the provinces. However, recent cuts to Statistics Canada have led to the cancellation of SLID, forcing Campaign 2000 to look elsewhere for their 2014 report card. For better or for worse, they turned to a so far underutilized source: the T1 Family File (T1FF).

The information in SLID and T1FF are collected using very different methodologies. Whereas, SLID interviews a random sample of Canadians who are not institutionalized and who are not living on reserve, T1FF is compiled using tax-records provided to Statistics Canada by Canadian Revenue Agency. In other words, anyone that files a tax return is included in T1FF.

Despite common prejudice to the contrary, most on reserve First Nation people file taxes. There are a number of reasons why on (and off) reserve First Nations people file taxes, not least of which is to collect their returns on tax garnered wages and to collect the same benefits that all Canadians receive such as the Canadian Child Tax Benefit.

For provinces like Saskatchewan and Manitoba, with the largest and fastest growing First Nations populations in Canada, the switch from SLID to T1FF has been revelatory.

Including on reserve First Nations children

More and more children in Canada, but especially in Saskatchewan and Manitoba, are First Nations children. At present, First Nations people make up as much as 10% of the populations of these provinces, and this share is projected to grow considerably in the coming decades. Just under half live on reserve.

First Nations populations tend to have more children, so their share of the provincial child population tends to be disproportionately large. At the same time, their children are vastly more likely to live in poverty. 50% of status First Nations children in Canada live in poverty. This number rises to 62% in Manitoba and 64% in Saskatchewan. Including populations left uncaptured by SLID increases child poverty levels in Canada by as much as 5 percentage points.[2] Meanwhile, provincial discrepancies between SLID and T1FF are greatest in the provinces with the most on reserve First Nations: the Prairie and Maritime provinces.

fig 1

Figure 1: Child AT-LIM poverty rates in Canada and the provinces in 2011 (Statistics Canada, CANSIM Tables 202-0802 and 111-0015).

This discrepancy is greatest in Saskatchewan. When on reserve First Nations children are included in child poverty estimates for my province, provincial estimates shoot through the roof. Including on reserve children increases the provincial poverty rate by as much as 10 percentage points!

On reserve poverty requires federal initiative

For historical reasons beyond their control, provincial governments have no jurisdiction over on-reserve populations. Over the last decade we have seen nine of ten provinces commit to comprehensive poverty reductions strategies—most recently, Saskatchewan—but these efforts will have little to no effect on poverty levels on reserves.

The Dignity For All campaign is a collective initiative launched by Canada Without Poverty and Citizens for Public Justice calling for a renewed federal initiative on poverty reduction. In February, after a year of extensive consultations, the campaign released its recommendations for a federal comprehensive poverty reduction strategy.

Dignity For All offers several reasons for why a federal initiative on poverty reduction is needed. Not least among them, they highlight the federal government’s ultimate authority for economic development and social services on reserves. Discrepancies between poverty estimates based on SLID and T1FF allow us to better understand the full extent of this need.

On reserve populations represent a large share of child poverty in Canada. Insofar as Canadians are sincere in their 1989 commitment to end child poverty, we won’t be able to achieve this without concerted effort on the part of the federal government. Commitment to a federal poverty reduction strategy along the lines of the one detailed by Dignity For All might be a good place to start.

Charles Plante is the Policy Director of Upstream: Institute for a Healthy Society.

[1] All explicitly mentioned poverty rates are for 2011—the most recent year for which we have comparable data in SLID and T1FF—and are based on the standard poverty threshold used for international comparisons: 50% of after-tax median national, better known in Canada as the after-tax Low-Income Measure (LIM).

[2] There are a handful of other smaller vulnerable populations that are also not captured by SLID, but may also be included in T1FF, including the homeless and some institutionalized populations. The inclusion of the territories also contributes to the Canada-wide discrepancy.

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Charles Plante

Charles Plante

Charles (Chuk) Plante is a founding member of Upstream: Institute for a Healthy Society and currently serves as the organization’s Policy Director. He played a leading role in Poverty Costs, the public awareness campaign that ultimately lead to the Government of Saskatchewan's decision to commit to a comprehensive poverty reduction strategy in 2014. Charles holds an MA in sociology with a specialization in social statistics from McGill University, where he continues to study as a PhD candidate in sociology. He is lead author of the report, “Poverty Costs Saskatchewan: A New Approach to Prosperity for All.” His recent academic publications compare and contrast family poverty outcomes among Canada's largest provinces. Charles can be reached at Follow him on Twitter @chukpl.
Charles Plante

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