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Indigenous Financial Wellness

2 March 2018
This issue of the Prosper Canada newsletter focuses on Indigenous Financial Wellness featuring a number of articles from our partners. We invited Simon Brascoupé, Vice-President, Education and Training of AFOA Canada, to write this month’s feature article and share why financial wellness matters in Indigenous communities. Simon explains some innovative approaches that focus on our work in the First Nations Financial Wellness Project to increase benefits up-take through tax filing.

We all strive to achieve a good life or Miyupimaatisiiun. To achieve financial wellness we have to look at the big picture; a balance between the physical, emotional, mental and spiritual aspects of our life. To be truly well you need healthy relationships with family, work, community, mother earth, etc. Elders remind us that finding balance is a continuous journey rather than a destination. In the world we inhabit we haven’t been genetically programmed or adapted. We are genetically programmed to run from danger but not to balance our household budget. That is why it’s so difficult to teach financial literacy to twenty-first century human beings. While difficult, it’s not impossible.  
The opportunity
The Indigenous world of First Nations, Inuit and Métis has many opportunities. There is growing social, economic and political momentum in favour of the revitalization of Indigenous communities, cultures and Peoples in Canada. Looking forward, a workforce that includes all working-age Indigenous people in Canada could potentially contribute $27.7 billion to the Canadian economy (National Aboriginal Economic Development Board, 2016). Dr. Simona Bignami says there is a huge potential “demographic dividend” to education investments in Indigenous youth, who represent nearly half the Indigenous population, if they have received education and training and have access to employment opportunities. There are more than 43,000 First Nations, Inuit and Métis people in Canada who are business owners, according to the 2011 National Household Survey. The Canadian Council for Aboriginal Business also found that these businesses were innovative with 63 per cent introducing new products, services and processes. (Canadian Council for Aboriginal Business, 2016). The federal government announced it will fully implement the United Nations Declaration on the Rights of Indigenous Peoples (UNDRIP) recognizing the rights of Indigenous Peoples including to be free from racial discrimination and the right to self-determination. The Harvard Project found that successful Indigenous communities are linked to self-determination, control of institutions, capable leaders and cultural revitalization. Supreme Court decisions continue to support Indigenous rights to land, resources and governance which are key to prosperity. 
The external and internal factors are promising in terms of moving Indigenous Nations from poverty to prosperity.
The pathway
Prosper Canada and AFOA Canada have developed an Indigenous Financial Wellness Framework - a strength based, community directed approach that is a promising practice that integrates all of these external factors. The Indigenous Financial Wellness Framework is a pathway for moving low-income Indigenous individuals and families from poverty to prosperity.
Financial wellness is determined by a mix of personal, institutional and community factors that affect individuals’ financial knowledge, attitudes and behaviours, as well as their ability to participate in the mainstream financial system.
The Indigenous Financial Wellness Framework
The Indigenous Financial Wellness Framework includes the societal and community context needed to support a successful journey to financial wellness. This includes four key dimensions:
  • Strong legal and political assets to positively support First Nations communities in economic development
  • Enabling legislative, regulatory and governance frameworks to protect consumers
  • Strong institutional assets such as First Nations post-secondary institutions, Indigenous financial institutions, and First Nations community economic development corporations, and
  • Cultural revitalization through developing and delivering culturally relevant programs that reflect and respect community customs and traditions. 
The framework also includes active financial empowerment supports that contribute to financial wellness when people have access to all of the following: 
  • Financial information, education and counselling that builds financial literacy and capability
  • Help with tax filing and accessing benefits that can increase incomes
  • Safe and affordable financial products and services that increase financial inclusion
  • Saving and asset building opportunities that build financial wealth and security. 
Through the First Nations Financial Wellness Project, we have learned that access to income boosting benefits is one of the key elements of the framework.
Income tax filing in Indigenous communities
While many people are able to successfully access the benefits they are eligible for, others encounter barriers that prevent them from accessing benefits through tax filing. Millions of dollars in federal and provincial benefits are not claimed by eligible individuals, and nearly a half-billion dollars in the Canada Child Benefit (CCB) are not flowing to eligible low-income Indigenous families. Tax filing is a necessary step to accessing other benefits such as the Working Income Tax Benefit, Disability Tax Credit and Old Age Security. Tax filing is also necessary for accessing some programs, services and registered savings plans like the Registered Education Savings Plan if eligible. 
Through the First Nations Financial Wellness project, Prosper Canada and AFOA Canada have been assisting First Nation communities and Indigenous organizations to set up and/or expand local tax clinics. These clinics are part of the Community Volunteer Income Tax Program (CVITP), a collaborative program between the Canada Revenue Agency (CRA) and community organizations. 
To address barriers like lack of identification and applying for benefits, some community organizations host “super clinics” or “financial wellness clinics.” These are events that bundle multiple services connected to tax filing (such as getting identification, benefit application, opening bank accounts) offered at the same time and the same place. This provides people with services that meet them where they are at, and helps address some of the systemic awareness and access barriers that people face while navigating government and financial services.
Tax filing clinics at Wikwemikong Unceded Territory
In 2014, Wikwemikong Unceded Territory in the northeastern end of Manitoulin Island hosted a community tax clinic with two community volunteers, which filed 143 returns for the 2013 tax year at no cost to community members. The program has increased the number of community members using the service, people aware of the service, and people recommending the service. Today, their clinic has seven volunteers and as of May 2017, they filed 473 returns for the 2016 tax year along with 107 returns for prior years going back to 2006. Together, that represents an estimate of $150 filing fee per return a total of $87,000 in savings for community members. Not to mention the hundreds of thousands of dollars of income that would be accessed through benefits as a result of tax filing. They not only assist community members with filing returns but also assist community members being audited by the CRA, completing T1 adjustment forms and writing letters to CRA for tax related issues.
For the current tax season, Wikwemikong is planning to run a series of super clinics to further assist community members with accessing benefits. They are also interested in building the knowledge and confidence of community members to file their own taxes so that individuals feel comfortable making financial choices and can pass on what they have learned with family and friends.
Helping more Indigenous communities
AFOA Canada and Prosper Canada are inspired by the passion and creativity in Indigenous communities to address challenges and are committed to working together to ensure that communities have the resources, tools and support to integrate financial wellness programs into their existing strategies, plans and services.
Here are some of the things AFOA Canada and Prosper Canada along with other organizations can support going forward: 
  • Work with communities to develop tailored financial wellness program models
  • Develop toolkits and training to support tailored financial wellness program delivery
  • Build capacity and provide support to those implementing programs
  • Support communities to integrate financial wellness programs into existing strategies, plans and services
  • Conduct research, evaluation and knowledge exchange to expand and improve program delivery
  • Coordinate policy and advocacy efforts to improve financial wellness outcomes.
Miigwetch / Nia:wen / Thanks / Merci
Simon Brascoupé, Vice-President, Education and Training 
AFOA Canada