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Advancing reconciliation together: Supporting First Nations communities' financial wellness

18 September 2023
Author: Anitha Thillainathan

Advancing reconciliation together: Supporting First Nations communities' financial wellness

Photo: Home of Niigaaniin Ontario Works

Canada's diverse landscape is home to many First Nation communities. Despite the availability of resources, these communities often face neglect in accessing vital financial support. The Financial Wellness in First Nations project is attempting to change this reality by bringing together non-profit organizations, community service centres, and Indigenous community organizations in a transformative partnership. This two-year project funded by IG Wealth Management aims to embed culturally appropriate financial wellness support in several First Nation communities.

Project Background

As leaders of financial empowerment in Canada, AFOA Canada, Community Financial Counselling Services (CFCS), SEED Winnipeg (SEED), Sudbury Community Service Centre (SCSC), and Prosper Canada are committed to ensuring that First Nations across Canada have access to the financial empowerment (FE) services they need to build their financial wellness, understood “as a holistic concept seen as “living a good life” and having a “good mind” built on Indigenous values, culture and language”[1]. This commitment aligned well with the IG Wealth Management’s Empower Your Tomorrow Indigenous Commitment that  supports programs and initiatives to further the financial confidence of Indigenous communities in Canada. 

Beginning in 2021, IG Wealth Management provided funding to Prosper Canada, AFOA and three Financial Empowerment Champions (FEC) in Ontario and Manitoba, to embed culturally appropriate financial wellness supports in 4+ First Nation communities. For example, FECs work with the Indigenous community organization Niigaaniin Services to provide financial support programs to Sagamok First Nation. Partway through Year 2, project partners have renewed or established relationships with 20+ First Nation communities connecting more than 2,700 members with FE services and supports and over $6M estimated new income secured.

Promoting Financial Wellness: Insights from a rural Ontario partnership

John Cockburn, Financial Empowerment Coordinator, and Francine Herbert, Program Manager from Sudbury Community Service Centre expressly share their excitement about building partnerships with First Nations organizations to deliver financial wellness services and supports in their communities. John, from a small town himself,  finds it was rewarding to serve smaller rural communities through his work. He finds fulfilment in knowing that he has provided information and services to those who need it. Francine echoes John’s perspective and adds the importance of being present in these communities in building strong foundational relationships.

Addressing challenges and fostering partnerships

Early on it was apparent that there would be challenges that would need to be overcome throughout the project such as the need for sustainable funding and capacity building within the communities. Building trust and forming partnerships emerged as crucial elements in successful financial wellness programs. John's non-judgmental and relatable approach, coupled with an understanding of cultural values, has made him a sought-after resource within the community. Collaborative efforts with First Nation community organizations have allowed for a holistic approach, connecting community members with complementary services. One notable example of John’s collaborative efforts was catering specific services to the community's needs. In Sagamok First Nation, located on the north shore of Lake Huron, John worked primarily to help individuals file their taxes. In other communities, he provides services related to accessing benefits.

John believes, “it's the flexibility that the community liked.” Once he had developed a relationship with the community, he would then introduce other services as well. Reaching out to communities based on existing relationships and population size allowed the project to address immediate financial challenges through workshops and services. As Francine notes, another challenge that emerged for the Sudbury team was finding the “right person that’s willing to be trained on a few things that we offer.” John maintains that overcoming this challenge in part, is to ensure he is available “to help them” and not “just stand on the sidelines.”  Building trust and being consistently present in the communities played a key role in delivering successful FE services, leading to positive reception and expansion all around.

Insights: Direct and indirect impacts

While the project directly impacted participants by providing essential financial services to individuals, helping to improve their financial situations, stability, and access to resources, there were also indirect impacts. John shared his experience, mentioning that the program’s reach extended beyond the direct impact noted above but also reached other communities not initially targeted. He stated they were able to assist “communities that weren’t on his radar, but they heard about us and they sought us out, it was great.” In this way, the financial wellness program became a community-driven initiative, generating a positive ripple effect throughout First Nation communities. Furthermore, John added that seeing young children with their parents at these clinics was reassuring because it meant that  he could file for the Canada child benefit for them. “They’re going to get child tax credit, which is going to go toward buying necessary food and clothes.”

 Lessons Learned

The importance of going slow and being open to different perspectives, while building trust and being present within the community, was emphasized as crucial in overcoming challenges and ensuring the collaborative process was maintained and respected. For Francine, being “part of the community and being a face and showing up to their Pow Wows demonstrates we understand, and we want to learn also.” She genuinely believes “having a presence is important.”

 Although an integral part of the project's vision is to promote capacity building and long-term sustainability within the First Nation communities, through the tools and training needed to deliver their own financial help services, capacity building is reciprocal. The FE partners were also able to build their capacity from working and partnering directly with First Nation Communities.
Promoting Financial Wellness: Insights from Niigaaniin Services

Prosper Canada had the privilege of speaking with a group of individuals who serve as Niigaaniin specialists for the Ontario Works office in Sagamok. These dedicated professionals play a vital role in providing financial services within their community. The team is passionate about helping their community members achieve financial stability. Through their collaboration with the Sudbury Community Service Centre and their engagement in income tax clinics and workshops, they have made a significant positive impact on the lives of those they serve.

The impact of financial wellness services

 The team from Niigaaniin shared the positive impact of working directly with John and the Sudbury team to provide financial wellness services. The services empowered community members to manage their finances more effectively. For example, through one of John’s Money Matters workshops, the team walked away with the knowledge or “a toolbox” of sorts on how to manage debt and save for the future. Meanwhile, their joint service delivery – a partnership between non-Indigenous organizations and a First Nations community of Sagamok - fostered trust, support, and understanding. The trust that has been developed has led to the continuation of a partnership between Sudbury and Niigaaniin. Niigaaniian expressed enthusiasm for the partnership especially for setting up tax clinics and providing staff members with information on tax filing. 

The role of trust and comfort

Trust emerged as a central theme for the First Nation community organization. The community members expressed how they enjoyed working with John due to his non-judgmental and relatable approach, understanding of their cultural values, and the safe space he created for addressing financial concerns. The team shares the time when they had a client that hadn’t “done taxes in 10 years and John was so welcoming.” He approached the situation in a non-judgemental way, and even had multiple touch points with the clients before filing their taxes for them. They all believe John’s ability to go “above and beyond” his call of duty is what helps build trust and comfort among community members.

Challenges in implementation

As stated, there were numerous challenges faced during the implementation of this project within First Nation communities. Most notably and pervasive was fostering a safe environment and encouraging community members to actively participate in workshops and services. The team acknowledges a major challenge is getting community members into clinics as they deal with personal issues that prevent them from seeking help, along with a history of distrust of outsiders. Many of these community members, including the team at Niigaaniin are not familiar with financial terminologies, especially as it relates to filing one’s taxes. Overcoming barriers like this requires a compassionate and patient approach, ensuring individuals feel safe and valued while addressing their financial concerns in simple terms and with plain language.

The potential of partnerships

Building partnerships between non-Indigenous organizations and First Nations communities can provide and enhance access to financial wellness services, connecting community members with various complementary services they may not have had access to previously. This collaborative effort creates a space where community members feel comfortable seeking support, resulting in a positive and impactful experiences which often leads to recommendations to family and friends, expanding possible positive outcomes to more community members.

The need for clear communication

When asked what can be done to better serve First Nation communities, the Niigaaniin team emphasized the importance of clear communication about the services offered to increase community engagement. They suggested that a well-defined list of workshops and services would enable community members to better understand what is available to them and encourage active participation. The team would love to see services like credit counselling added to the list as they rarely see that offered within First Nation organizations.

The collaborative financial wellness project between Prosper Canada, Sudbury Community Service Centre, and the First Nation community organization of Niigaaniin Services showcases the power of trust building, partnership, and cultural sensitivity in promoting financial empowerment and wellness. Building trust, providing tailored services, and promoting partnerships have been instrumental in achieving positive outcomes. By fostering confidence, clear communication, and compassion, non-Indigenous organizations can work together with First Nations communities to create a brighter financial future for all. This collaborative journey not only addresses immediate financial concerns but also sets the stage for long-term empowerment for individuals and financial stability within the community.
About Sudbury Community Service Centre
A charitable, not-for-profit organization offering free income tax filing services for low-income individuals for the city of Greater Sudbury, Manitoulin Island, Parry Sound, and Sturgeon Falls areas.
About Niigaaniin Services
The creators (welfare administrators) of Niigaaniin saw a need in their communities and became the first official group delivery agent of Ontario Works on reserve. Niigaaniin became responsible for the delivery of the program to all people in need within our communities, without discrimination.
[1] The Financial Wellness in First Nations project is a collaboration between Prosper Canada, Financial Empowerment Champions (FEC), and several First Nations communities. To highlight the collaborative experiences and the process throughout the project thus far, interviews were recently conducted with some of the key partners including FEC partner Sudbury Community Service Centre, and the Indigenous organization Niigaaniin Services that serve the First Nation community of Sagamok. 


Anitha Thillainathan is a Senior Officer, Marketing and Communications at Prosper Canada.

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