Native People and Employment:
A National Tragedy*

By: Richard C. Powless

From: Currents Vol. 4, No. 2 pp. 2-5
© 1985 Urban Alliance on Race Relations

*This article was excerpted from a larger paper prepared for the research study "Equality in Employment" Abella Royal Commission April 1985.

"Just imagine, if you will, the state that Canadian society would be in if its unemployment rate was at 80%; if the only ones working were those whose funding came from government programs. What type of social structure do you suppose you would find? Would there be a high success rate in education? What type of alcoholism rate would you have? What about suicides and other social indicators? These are the problems that face Indian communities right now as I speak and it is because we are experiencing unemployment rates that have never gone below 80%....It is without a doubt a national tragedy, a national disgrace, and one which Indian people cannot and will not tolerate any longer."

This statement was made by Charles Paul on April 26, 1983, to the Special Parliamentary Committee on Indian Self-Government. It is a lament that is often heard in Canada when Indian people talk about employment. It imparts a sense of the frustration and anger that many Native people feel when they discuss this all-pervasive problem.

Scope of the Problem

The Department of Indian Affairs and Northern Development (DIAND) published a report in 1980 on Indian conditions in Canada(1). According to its statistics for Canada from a 1978/79 study, 56 per cent of the Indian population is of working age. This compares with 66 per cent of the Canadian population being of working age. Of the Indian labour force population, 46 per cent were nonparticipants, compared with 40 per cent of Canadians. Fifteen per cent of the Indian labour force population were pursuing traditional lifestyles; there is no estimate of this for the national population. Eighty-two per cent of the Indian labour force population were employed, compared with 92 per cent of the national force.

The unemployment rate of the Indian labour force was 18 per cent compared to 8 per cent for the national population. Indian Affairs estimates that the working age population of the Indian people will increase by 50,000 to 60,000 over the next 10 to 15 years. By the mid-1980s the Indian working age population was expected to expand to 66 per cent. A large portion (65 per cent) of these people will be seeking work on reserves, although the employment market there is unable to satisfy current requirements. Indian Conditions also reports that 35 per cent of Indians are employed less than half a year. In 1970, only 24 per cent of Indian males made more than $6,000 per year, compared with 52 per cent of Canadian males. Of the female Indians employed, only 5 per cent made more than $6,000 per year, compared with 14 per cent of Canadian females.

These statistics deal with the Indian population only. It is difficult at best to obtain reliable figures that would include the Inuit, Metis, and non-status Indian populations, and thereby give a "Native" employment picture. The government of the Northwest Territories gave evidence to the Mackenzie Valley Pipeline Inquiry that there were 5,000 unemployed, and Justice Berger concluded that a vast majority of this 5,000 were Native people (Berger, 1977:1:134). Since Statistics Canada gives the Native population of the Northwest Territories as 26,430, the Native employment rate in the NWT could be estimated at 18 per cent. We begin to see why the statistics are unreliable. Justice Berger did admit that he did not know and doubted whether anyone knew what the employment rates were for the North (Vol.1:135).
When dealing with Metis, non-status Indian, and Inuit employment figures we must rely more on the Canada Employment and Immigration Commission. The fault in these statistics lies in the fact that Metis, non-status Indian, and Inuit people must "self identify" when registering at Canada Employment Centres. There is no way of determining what percentage of Metis, Inuit, and non-status people even register and then identify them selves as Native persons. The assumption that the Ontario region of CEIC Native Services office makes is that there are at least as many Metis and non-status people in Ontario as status Indian people (1983). Frideres (1974) states that the urban Indian population is made up of 40 per cent status Indians. The remainder is made up of Metis, non-status, and Inuit.
McCaskill, in"The Urbanization of Indians in Winnipeg. Toronto, Edmonton and Vancouver: A Comparative Analysis", states that less than half of the respondents (from his survey of urban Native people) were employed in the four large Canadian cities that he studied. He also states that unemployment and heavy reliance on social assistance characterized nearly half of the respondents in Toronto (48 per cent), Edmonton (46 per cent), and Vancouver (45 per cent), as compared to 32 per cent in Winnipeg. Males were employed at nearly twice the rate of females. For example, 51 per cent of males compared to 27 per cent of females in Toronto were working full time.
In relation to full-time, full-year workers, a 1978 Canadian Human Rights Commission study states that based on the three indicators of economic opportunity (employment earnings, occupational distribution, and rate of employment), Native Indians are shown to be at a disadvantage compared to the average Canadian. For example, the earnings of the average Canadian man are 29 per cent higher than those of the Native Indian man. The earnings of the average Canadian woman are 17 per cent greater than those of the Native Indian woman. The proportion of men having the high prestige managerial, administrative, professional, and technical occupations among all Canadian men in the labour force (18 per cent) is more than twice as high as the proportion of Native Indian men in the labour force with such occupations (8.6 per cent). The percentage of Canadian women with such jobs is 23.7 per cent, compared to 19.1 per cent for Native Indian women.
Where education factors are the same for the age group 35 to 44, the data indicate that the average Canadian man earns 35 per cent more than the average Native man in the same occupation (management and administration); in service occupations, the earnings of the average Canadian woman are 11 per cent higher than those of the average Native woman.
What becomes painfully obvious in looking at all of these statistics is the disastrous situation of Native people with respect to employment in Canada. Vast numbers of Native people are unemployed and because the Indian labour force is increasing at a much higher rate than that of other Canadians, there is a much greater need to find employment opportunities for them. The situation will get worse before it gets better. Even when we look at those Native people who are working, we see that they earn less, have higher unemployment rates, and are under represented in professional, managerial, and technical jobs compared to the national average.

Socio-Economic Implications

The situation for the large numbers who are unemployed leads to serious consequences. A great majority of those Native people unemployed are dependent on assistance from government, and many are near the poverty line in their standard of living. In 1969, 80 per cent of Indian families were below the poverty line (Frideres, 1974:24). Low income has a dramatic effect on the quality of life that a family can have. Just meeting the basic needs of food, clothing and shelter is in many cases a great struggle.

In 1977, there was a backlog housing need of 11,000 units, 24 per cent of existing houses needed major repairs, and 3 per cent needed to be replaced (2). The quality of housing was also inferior, lasting only 15 years on average compared to a national average of 35 years. Indian homes were also overcrowded (18.8 per cent of on reserve homes had two or more families, affecting 40 per cent of Indian families[3]). Indian homes also lack services: in 1977 an average of 10 per cent of homes lacked electricity, 55 per cent lacked sewage systems, and 50 per cent lacked running water. The Canadian averages were around three per cent for these categories. (The situation for Indians is much worse in rural and remote locations, where 71 per cent of all reserves are located.)

An unusually high rate of fires and fire deaths can be attributed to lower quality housing. Factors such as sub-standard heating systems, crowded conditions, and scarcity of fire protection services on reserves(4) also contribute to the high rate of fire deaths (28/100,000 for Indians compared to 4/100,000 for non-lndians). The poor quality of housing, crowding, and lack of services also contribute to high respiratory, digestive, and infective diseases among Indians(5).

The low economic situation of Native people in Canada also affects many other aspects of their day-to-day lives, one of the most significant being health(6).

Life expectancy is generally considered a broad measure of the health of a people. The death rate for Indian people is six times the national average (Siggner,1982) and the infant mortality rates are more than twice the national average (DIAND,1980). The life expectancy at one year of age is 63.4 years for Indians and 72.8 for the national population. Indian Conditions state the lower life expectancy rate Indians may be due to the high infant and youth mortality rates. It also states that a large portion of post-neonatal (one month to one year) deaths in the Indian population is attributable to "respiratory ailments, infections, parasitic diseases reflecting poor housing, lack of sewage disposal, potable water as well as poorer access medical facilities (probably due to remote location of a majority reserves). Among youth (ages 5-14), violent deaths (by accidents, poison and drowning) account for more one-third of deaths, compared to per cent for Canada.

Among the 15-44 age group, violent deaths are four to five times the national average. The suicide among Indians is six times the national average; suicides account for 35 per cent of the accidental deaths in the 24 age group and 21 per cent in the 25-34 age group.

Indians use hospital facilities 2.5 times more than the average Canadian. Indian Conditions also states that 50 to 60 per cent of all Indian illnesses and deaths are alcohol related. In 1975 the alcoholism rate on-reserve Indians in Saskatchewan was five times the national rate. The rate for on-reserve Indians was two to three times that of off-reserve Indians; (based on hospital admissions alcoholic psychosis). Since 2.3 per cent or $5,539,000 of DIAND social support expenditures went toward dealing with alcoholism (Indian Conditions , 117), the problem is clearly evident across Canada.

One result of the high alcoholism rate among Indians and other Native people (as reflected in a 1981 Ontario study), has been that Indians have come into conflict with Canadian laws. A 1977 paper on socio-economic development by the National Indian Brotherhood states that is is believed that almost all Indian criminality involves alcohol. The paper states that a majority of arrests in the western provinces are for liquor and vehicle law infractions, and that in Saskatchewan (1970-71) 75 per cent of the liquor infractions were committed by Indians.

In fact the Native population is highly over represented in prison compared to the national average. In 1979 Native people represented 9.3 per cent of the penitentiary populations and 6.7 per cent of the federal inmate population, even though they only represented 1.3 per cent of the Canadian population(7). The Canadian average was 3.5 per cent in prison. Native people are also over represented in violent crimes as compared to the non-Native population. They are significantly over represented in manslaughter compared to the non-Native population. There is also a much higher rate of juvenile delinquency among Indian people (three times the national average), and fewer Native people are likely to be let off with a warning (only 15 per cent, compared to 46 per cent of non-Native juvenile delinquents). Lastly, the other important crime among Native people is the inability to pay fines. The NIB paper stated that one-third of all Indians in jail in British Columbia and Saskatchewan in 1970/ 71 were there because of non-payment of fines(8).

What these figures point to is a high incidence of conflict in the values of the Native and non-Native societies. The juvenile delinquency points to a breakdown in the family, and Natives in jail for non-payment of fines indicates that many Native people are in jail because of their socio-economic situation.
Other related social statistics indicate that family breakdown is occurring among Native people. The number of children in care among Native people was five times the national average (DIAND, 1979). From 1962 to 1978, adoptions out of Native families increased 500 per cent, with a large portion of the adopted children going to non-lndian families. The divorce rate among Indian people has also been on the increase and the rate of births outside marriage is more than four times the national rate(9).

The Cost of the Problem

The employment situation of Native people is only symptomatic of the larger problems that Indian people must deal with on a day-to-day basis. This situation has high costs associated with it in terms of the loss of productivity of Native members of the population. The cost to treat the symptoms and the human costs are, of course, immeasurable.

In terms of unemployment, the costs are associated with a loss of potential income and productivity (had those individuals been working). There is also the cost of the created dependency on social assistance as a direct result. In 1974, 55 per cent of the Indian population was using social assistance, compared to 6 per cent of the non-lndian population in Canada. In 1970/71, the social support expenditures of all federal programs for Indians amounted to $84,267,000, of which 41.1 per cent went toward direct social assistance and 43.4 per cent went to cover medical service. By 1978/79 the total amount expended was $242, 158,000. Social assistance accounted for 43.0 per cent and medical services accounted for 38.8 per cent of the total. Other expenditures included child care (13.9 and 10.2 per cent, respectively; for 1970/71 and 1978/79); other social services (adult care, welfare aids; 1.3 and 4.1 per cent, respectively); treatment for alcoholism (.2 and 2.3 per cent, respectively); legal services and Native justice (.7 per cent for 1978/79); and recreation (.1 and .9 per cent, respectively).

The cost of medical and in-hospital patient care for Indians in 1975 was $630 per person, compared to $250 for the average Canadian (DIAND, 1980).

The total cost to treat these same areas now exceeds $1 billion annually (NIBA, 1982:9) and is expected to exceed $2 billion by 1986 (NIB,1981). It is important to note that even at these costs the quality of social services to Indians is much lower than for that of the non-lndian population, and that many services available to municipal residents are not available to Indian communities (DIAND, 1980:28).

There are also costs associated with keeping Indian people in jail, with loss of productivity while in jail, with loss of potential income while in hospital, and with the loss of dollars invested on students who do not complete school and end up unemployed. The cycle continues and perpetuates itself. Without education it is difficult to find jobs, and there just are no jobs on reserves.

Cultural Intolerance and Misunderstanding Equals Racism

The most important question is why do these problems exist? To answer this question it is necessary to look at the history of the Native people and their relationships with Euro-Canadian peoples and governments. Only in examining the history can we begin to understand the answers to this all important question, and only in answering this question can we begin to deal with solutions.

The Special Committee on the Disabled and Handicapped (in it's follow-up report on the Native population) makes a very astute and currently relevant observation that to a large degree sums up the main reason for many of the problems encountered by Native people today.

"Perhaps the key problem which exists in the relationship between Native people and other Canadians has been the inability of Native people to explain and the inability of non-Native people to comprehend the nature, scope and importance of Native cultures....The gap in communication is the result of two totally different ways of looking at life, both of which are incredibly rich in unconscious values, customs and patterns of sentiment, thought, language and action. Native and non-Native peoples in Canada have lived for three centuries in an uneasy relationship based on two totally different ways of organizing and strengthening human relationships, two different ways of proving one's individual worth, two different ways of identifying and solving problems which affect a whole community and two totally different ways of reaching group decisions." (SCDH, 1981 :9)

The greatest and single most cogent reason for the current situation of Native people in Canada has been this inability to understand and accept the value and legitimacy of other peoples and cultures in Canada. In essence this is racism. Canada's history and systems of governance and behaviour have institutionalized this racism into current reality. No other cultures or institutions can be tolerated.

Canada's Native people are in the worst socio-economic situation of any peoples in Canada. This situation largely results from their cultures, societies, and governments being radically different from Canadian culture and society, and from an inability on the part of the Canadian government to understand and tolerate this fact. Canadian government policies and programs for Indians have primarily tried to assimilate Indian cultures. This assimilation has not worked. Government programs see the problem as being one of a disadvantaged ethnic minority and a problem of regional economics. They have concentrated too much on the individual and not enough on the collective communities. They have failed to identify the problem and consequently their solutions deal only with the symptoms (social ills).

While remedial programs help to ease the situation under which Indians live, a long-term, comprehensive approach is needed to deal with the problem. Radical changes are necessary.

Toward Solutions - Clarification and Confirmation of Relationships

In moving toward solutions of the employment problems of the Native peoples in Canada, one must deal with their socio-economic situation. Native peoples must not simply be viewed as an economically disadvantaged social class within Canada's mosaic and dealt with through special programs aimed at making them equal.

If real, long-lasting solutions are to come, then Canada must first of all deal with who the Native people are and what rights they have as a result of that identity. That is, the Canadian government and Canadians must accept the fact that Native people are not Canadians but members of their own nations, societies, and cultures. Canada must stop trying to assimilate Native people and accept their distinctiveness and their right to that distinctiveness as recognized through international standards. Native people have a legal and moral right to an equal place in Canada. It is only in assuming that place and crawling out from under the weight of paternalism and dependence that they will solve their socio- economic problems and consequently their employment problems.

In the time it will take to achieve this goal many years may pass, and during this transition phase DIAND will slowly be dismantled, with its powers and responsibilities transferred directly to Indian governments. The federal government will need to deal directly with Indian governments in the future when designing employment programs and regional economic development programs.

Many Native people will continue to live and work in the cities, and for these Natives the employment and affirmative action programs should be continued and enhanced. The private sector should be encouraged to hire and train-Native people on a much larger basis than they now do because not all Native communities can be expected to become self-sufficient. To complement this affirmative action in employment, consideration should be given to affirmative action in education, because affirmative action will work only if job applicants have the prerequisite skills or knowledge.
Racial discrimination is an insidious and elusive problem which makes it almost impossible to combat. The only generally agreed-to approach is education and human rights legislation to deter it from becoming blatant. Both of these are necessarily long-term solutions. Institutional discrimination will need to be gradually weeded out by government itself. Those institutions, systems, laws, and policies that reflect and favour the majority culture in Canada will eventually have to be changed to recognize Indian cultures and societies.

The solutions will not come easily, but we have in Canada a chance to establish a unique indigenous people colonial government relationship. The test of Canada's integrity will be how it handles this challenge.

Richard C. Powless is an intergovernmental relations officer with the Department of Indian Affairs and Northern Development, Saskatchewan region.


(1) DIAND Indian Conditions: A Survey, Supply and Services, Ottawa, 1980.

(2) Ibid., p.30.

(3) Ibid.

(4) Only 32 per cent of reserves have adequate fire protection services.

(5) DIAND Indian Conditions, op. cit., p. 36.

(6) The following statistics are taken from the DIAND (1980) report, Indian Conditions. To the author's knowledge no similar statistics are available for the Inuit and Metis populations. It is offered for debate that these figures would not reflect the same degree of disadvantage among the Inuit because of their income being based on a shorter period of contact contributes to less family breakdown. For the Metis populations (a majority of which live in urban centres) the effects are presumed also to be not as bad, due to their treatment by governments as provincial citizens, thereby affording them direct access to provincial health and social services programs.

(7) Correctional Services Canada Operational Information Services: Inmate Record System, Native and non-Native Population Profile. Selected Trends in Canadian Criminal Justice, Ministry of the Solicitor General, Ottawa, 1981.

(8) To the author's own knowledge many Native people from northern locations plead guilty to charges just to get them over with and to save time and trouble of having to commute to often far-away cities (where the courts are) should their case be remanded several times.

(9) Follow Up Report: Native Populations. Special Committee on the Disabled and Handicapped, Fourth Report, Supply and Services, Ottawa, 1981, p. 8.

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