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Poverty and child welfare

Information about poverty, its effects on children and families, and the role it plays in child welfare involvement.


Poverty is not neutral; it intersects with many identity categories such as gender, ability, age, sexual orientation, and citizenship status, and disproportionately affects certain communities and individuals, such as newcomers to Canada and people with mental health issues.

This page focuses on the intersection of poverty with Indigenous and racialized communities (specifically the African Canadian community). It is not meant to be comprehensive, but instead provides a brief overview of how historic and ongoing oppression has contributed to high levels of poverty among Indigenous and African Canadian families in Canada.

While the overrepresentation of Indigenous and African Canadian children in child welfare is a complex and multifaceted issue, the racialization of poverty has been identified as one systemic force that brings Indigenous and African Canadian families into contact with the system.


Poverty and Indigenous communities

Colonial policies and practices created, and continue to create, conditions that contribute to a higher prevalence and greater depth of poverty among Indigenous peoples in Canada.

The poverty experienced today by Indigenous communities across the country is a direct result of the dispossession of Indigenous peoples of their lands and livelihoods, and their forced dependency on the colonial state. This relationship between colonization and poverty is what Melisa Brittain and Cindy Blackstock described as the deliberate impoverishment of Indigenous Canada, or "poverty by design."

Historic practices of colonialism contributing to Indigenous poverty include:

  • The displacement and relocation of Indigenous peoples from their resource-rich territories and hunting lands which disrupted traditional economies and resulted in a model of economic dependency on the government
  • The Indian Act which reinforced economic dependency by making it difficult for Indigenous people to participate in the non-Indigenous economy or profit off of activities such as farming
  • The assimilationist residential school system which also had devastating effects on communities; survivors of the school system as well as intergenerational survivors often carried trauma with them and, in the absence of supportive health and social services, sometimes turned to substance use and other problematic coping strategies. This cycle of trauma negatively impacted family functioning and created significant barriers to social, cultural, and economic participation

Today  in addition to the cumulative effect of colonialism  chronic underfunding and lack of investment in on-reserve services perpetuates poverty among Indigenous communities, which are more likely to have poverty-related structural risk factors such as inadequate housing and drinking water advisories. Barriers to educational achievement, such as lower quality teaching, lack of culturally relevant curriculum, and geographical and financial obstacles to attending school also negatively impact employment outcomes. Stereotypes, bias, and discrimination also present barriers and can prevent Indigenous people from excelling at school, being hired or promoted, and finding housing.


Poverty and racialized communities

Anti-Black racism has created, and continues to create, conditions that contribute to the higher rates of poverty among African Canadians in Canada.

The African Canadian Legal Clinic attributes contemporary anti-Black racism, and the socio-economic inequities experienced by the African Canadian community, in part to Canada's collective refusal to acknowledge its histories of slavery, segregation, and racial discrimination. The denial of these histories has meant that Canadian society is "left without a reasonable historic explanation for the disadvantaged position occupied by the African Canadian community" and, as a consequence, relies instead on disparaging stereotypes that further perpetuate anti-Black racism.

Historic practices of anti-Black racism contributing to African Canadian poverty include the following:

  • Despite widespread belief to the contrary, Canada has a history of slavery and stolen labour spanning more than 200 years from the 16th century until its abolition in 1834. Slavery in America also played a role in the impoverishment of people of African descent in Canada; many of the earliest arrivals had been enslaved Africans in the United States and came to Canada without anything
  • Early African Canadians faced considerable hostility from Canadian society and encountered many barriers to getting clear title to land. The land grant system was racist and unfair, with Black veterans of the War of 1812 and American Revolutionary War allotted smaller plots and land of poorer quality than White veterans. There was opposition to Black settlements; in one instance, in Chatham, White residents protested the sale of land to people of African descent. African Canadians were also sometimes removed from land they either owned or had been led to believe would be granted to them; this happened to families living in the Queen's Bush Settlement in Wellington County as well as in Holland Township in Grey County.
  • Racial segregation further compounded inequities, discrimination, and anti-Black racism, and reduced socio-economic mobility for African Canadians. Segregation in Canada existed in both informal and formal ways and negatively impacted the housing, employment, and other economic opportunities of African Canadians; in Ontario, legislation allowed for the development of segregated schools, the last one of which was not closed until the 1960s

Today African Canadians are overrepresented among those living under the poverty line. According to census data tables, 32.8% of African Canadian children in Ontario under the age of 18 live in poverty (based on LIM-AT); this is more than double the rate of all children in Ontario overall.