Document Type

Conference Proceeding

Publication Date



Social Policy, Indian Act, First Nations, Canada


Social assistance, whether directed to the mainstream population or to First Nations, is not – according to Forum participants -- a sexy topic. Specifically, with respect to First Nation persons living on reserve in Canada, it has been largely a neglected field except for those directly responsible for administering it. Despite its substantive importance, it has not received a lot of attention from the academic research community, for example, nor is it usually near the top of the list of priorities for political leaders and governments.

Why is this the case? Perhaps it has to do with the history of providing assistance, which for colonial and federal governments has been seen through the lens of limiting government expenditures. Indeed, the major historical study of this social policy area has the title Enough to Keep Them Alive: Indian Welfare in Canada 1873-1965.1 It may also have to do with the stigma associated with being on welfare, the legacy of the English Poor Laws and their division of the population in need between the deserving and the undeserving poor.

As Naiomi Metallic points out in her presentation reproduced below, providing social assistance on reserve also does not rest on a very firm legal foundation. It was in 1964 that federal officials were first given formal authority to allocate funds for assistance, but this was only through a Treasury Board Directive, not through legislation backed by Parliamentary approval. In addition, social assistance is normally provided to Canadian citizens by the provinces, and indeed federal officials in the 1960’s were busy trying to get the provinces on board to deliver assistance on reserve. They were unsuccessful in all cases except Ontario, with the result that “social” has been funded by the federal Indian Affairs department with delivery devolved to individual First Nations. The 1964 Treasury Board Directive tied social assistance to the policies and practices of the provinces and thus did not develop the legal, policy and administrative infrastructure that would normally attend such an important social policy. The provinces, for their part, were understandably focused on the needs of their provincial populations and paid little heed to the implications of their policies and programs for on-reserve populations nor did they consult them when changes were in the offing. Indeed, First Nations have had virtually no input on the matter of social assistance at either the federal or provincial levels.

Yet this social policy area is so important on reserve. As data presented in Andrew Sharpe’s presentation reveal, looking at First Nations across Canada, some 30 per cent of the population living on reserve receives social assistance according to the latest statistics available (2016-17), a number that is six times that for the mainstream population. While dependence rates vary widely from one First Nation to another, almost 40 per cent of First Nations fall into the category of having more than 37 per cent of the population on assistance2. Data reported below indicates that levels of poverty and dependency have declined substantially over the past several decades in the mainstream population, but among First Nation persons living on reserve, poverty and social assistance rates are multiple times higher than they are for the mainstream population.