Urban Natives plagued by poverty

TimminsPress.com – news – Delegates from friendship centres across the province meet in Timmins
Oct. 24, 2011.    Ryan Lux

Ontario’s welfare system alienates and degrades Aboriginals and is failing at lifting vulnerable communities out of poverty, Aboriginal representatives from across the province heard in Timmins Saturday.

Frances Lankin, commissioner for the review of social assistance in Ontario, was the keynote speaker at the Ontario Federation of Indian Friendship Centres (OFIFC) annual general meeting in Timmins Saturday.

The meeting drew representatives from Native friendship centres from across the province.

The OFIFC represents 29 centres located in urban throughout Ontario.

As part of the weekend-long event, friendship centre representatives were able to share their concerns about Ontario’s disability and social assistance regime with one of the two people working on a report that will advise the government on what needs to change.

Delegates at the meeting heard that Aboriginal people make up a significant portion of those depending on social assistance. One in four Ontario Native families live below the poverty line and 53% of single Aboriginals living in urban areas fall into the same income bracket. Because of this, Friendship Centres spend a lot of time interacting with Ontario Works.

Delegates expressed a variety of concerns ranging from cultural insensitivity to racism, humiliation and hopelessness.

“It almost feels like you’re facing an enemy,” said Tom Dockstader, a friendship centre representative of Windsor.

Another delegate, Jayanne Burning-Fields of Niagara, expressed frustration to the deputy minister of Aboriginal Affairs, who was also on hand for the event.

“You’re the Aboriginal Minister. Maybe I’m naive, but I expect you to be our champion,” said Burning-Fields.

Ontario’s Indian Friendship Centres try to assist Aboriginals of all stripes, whether First Nations, Inuit or Métis, to establish fulfilling lives in Ontario cities where more than 80% live. The challenge, delegates argues, is that most resources and services geared towards Aboriginals can only be accessed on reserve. When Aboriginals move to urban centres, they often find the legacy of colonialism, racism and residential schools is ignored by the welfare bureaucracy.

“We’re still trying to heal,” said Dockstader. “We’re starting to but it’s going to take time and when we’re treated as if we’re lazy when we go to access social services it’s degrading.”

Commissioner Lankin pledged to bring that message to Queen’s Park.

“First Nation people are faced with a number of very particular barriers in their lives,” Lankin said. “These stem from history, geography, social attitudes and racism. We need to better understand those barriers and build the right kind of responses to address them.”

But, she said, it is vital to do so in a culturally sensitive way.

“If someone is not from a First Nation culture and doesn’t understand it, you can have a conversation and you might not be understanding one another,” Lankin said.

That’s why the commission has been touring the province to gather perspectives from Aboriginal communities.

“It’s an important part of getting the answers right,” said Lankin of consultations with Aboriginal groups.

Throughout her consultations, Lankin said she has heard a common refrain across communities.

They include difficulty finding work in small and remote cities, a sense of disrespect from ministry staff and rules that make recipients feel guilty before they walk through the door of Ontario Works offices.

The most prevailing theme, however, has been that sense of hopelessness expressed by Dockstader.

“There’s a great sense of hopelessness and that a process of healing needs to take place, which is something we need to understand and respect,” said Lankin.

One way of doing that is to change attitudes in the system, she suggested.

“There’s this pervasive attitude, particularly in tough economic times, that people on social assistance are cheating the system, so over the years we’ve built a system based on the assumption that our clients are cheaters,” said Lankin.

“Instead of a system that really tries to help people get back to work and lift themselves out of poverty.

“It consumes everyone’s time – both workers’ and clients’. So much effort is spent filling out forms, checking off boxes and ensuring none of the rules are being broken with very little time left over to actually help people steer their way to a better future.”

OFIFC executive director Sylvia Maracle drew hope from Lankin’s presence at the annual general meeting.

“We’re trying to address historical trauma and as a past community advocate, it seems like the commissioner understands that,” said Maracle. “She’s walking in our moccasins.”

Maracle, who worked on the OFIFC submission to the commission, said her organization is committed to changing the system.

“Friendship centres, by their very definition, are trying to change the status quo. We’re about change. We look at quality of life issues, self-determination and returning our people to the kind of societies we had before colonialism.”

With so many friendship centre clients depending on social assistance, Maracle said it is about time the province considers their input on re-imagining the province’s system.

“All we’re asking for is that people quit trying to do it to us and try working with us,” she said.

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