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Seizing this moment

9 June 2021
The pandemic experience is often likened to living through a war. Lives have been tragically lost and many more are still at stake. We are all implicated and affected. We don’t know when or how this will end, but we are tired and yearn for a return to the freedoms and the relative safety we enjoyed before the pandemic.
Wars are also frequently societal inflection points – a trigger for fundamental challenges to prevailing institutions and norms, kicking open the door to new ideas and ways to make our society better. 
In this spirit, many Canadians are asking themselves what the pandemic’s legacy will be in their lives, families, and work, but also for Canada. Will we use the awareness and insights from our experience to build a better life for ourselves and others going forward or will we simply resume our old ways?
Recent events have added urgency to this question.  
The discovery of the unmarked graves of 215 Indigenous children at the site of the former Kamloops residential school has galvanized public attention, bringing home to non-Indigenous Canadians in a visceral way, the true horror of these institutions and the tsunami of misery they unleashed on Indigenous Peoples.  
To many non-Indigenous Canadians, these institutions, and the racist and culturally genocidal ideas they were created to enact and propagate, may have felt like an historic chapter in Canada’s past, one well left behind us. The reality, however, is that the last of these institutions did not close until the 1990’s and many of the wounds they inflicted are raw and unhealed, compounding the historical and inter-generational trauma of prior generations of Indigenous children torn from their family, community and culture and, in many cases, subjected to unspeakable cruelty and abuse.
The inquest into the inhuman mistreatment of Joyce Echaquan which concluded last week is a stark reminder that the brutally racist attitudes embodied by Canada’s residential school system did not die with them, but still live in many hearts, minds, and institutions in Canada.  Ms. Echaquan was a 37-year-old Atikamekw woman who was mocked and tormented by healthcare workers as she died untreated and in pain on September 28, 2020 at the Centre hospitalier de Lanaudière in Saint-Charles-Borromée, Quebec.
The response to these events cannot simply be expressions of sorrow and regret and invitations to turn the page. Apologies, while essential to healing and reconciliation, are also not enough.  
The victims of our residential school system and Joyce Echaquan’s family deserve justice for the abuses and crimes perpetrated against them.  They also deserve to know that our leaders, institutions, and non-Indigenous Canadians are committed to rooting out the racism that still manifests in subtle, as well as overt ways, in our laws, our institutions, and our day-to-day interactions with each other.  They also deserve redress through concerted investment and action to, together, restore what we have broken – the cultural integrity, safety, dignity, and well-being of Indigenous Peoples in Canada.
These efforts require every Canadian to look into their own heart, but also into their workplace, their community, and their governments and to put real effort into ensuring this work moves forward. In doing so, we must accept responsibility for educating ourselves and others and championing change, but equally be guided first and foremost by Indigenous Peoples themselves in deciding what changes are needed and how these should move forward.
What does this mean in the context of financial empowerment?
  • Learning about financial wellness in the specific context of Indigenous Peoples, their history and culture:  As a starting point, AFOA Canada and Prosper Canada developed The Shared Path: First Nations Financial Wellness as a resource for those seeking to build a strong foundation for their work with and in First Nation communities (French language version). This report does not specifically address the context of Inuit or Métis peoples.  More work is needed to develop comparable resources specific to these distinct populations.
  • Ensuring community financial help services are accessible to and appropriate for Indigenous community members: Community financial help providers should take steps to ensure Indigenous People are proportionally represented among their service users, relative to their presence in the community. The formation of partnerships with local Indigenous organizations can help to build the knowledge, understanding and trust necessary to serve Indigenous community members appropriately and effectively and create opportunities for capacity building and formal referral relationships that further strengthen services and the community.  Such relationships, while valuable, can also place additional demand on already over-burdened Indigenous organizations though, so it is important to consider how additional resources can be mobilized and shared to effectively support these collaborations and strengthen, rather than deplete, participating organizations. For tailored tools and resources developed with and for Indigenous communities and organizations serving Indigenous individuals, please visit Prosper Canada’s Learning Hub
  • Mobilizing financial institutions to ensure financial inclusion for Indigenous Peoples: Indigenous Peoples are among the most likely to be unbanked and to live in communities without access to mainstream financial services. Financial institutions frequently see business opportunities in serving Indigenous communities engaged in resource development initiatives or in receipt of treaty settlements, but are they also working to ensure members of these communities have access to safe and affordable local financial services? It is hard to imagine a more prosperous future for Indigenous Peoples if their communities remain financially excluded. Some cooperatives and credit unions have made attempts to close this gap in specific communities, but the time has come for a concerted effort by all of Canada’s major banks and credit unions – in collaboration with Indigenous leaders and indigenous capital corporations, and the federal government – to close this gap for once and for all. This may be costly in the short run but will significantly expand economic opportunities for many Indigenous people and communities and would be a fitting way for financial institutions to substantively advance reconciliation.
  • Stepping up federal action to connect First Nation community members to income benefits they are entitled to but not receiving: In First Nation communities, tax-filing rates are significantly lower than for Canadians overall which means individuals who don’t tax file are potentially missing out on significant income benefits. The aggregate effect is hundreds of millions of dollars annually in foregone income. The Canada Revenue Agency has engaged in outreach to First Nation communities to promote tax filing but their own research suggests that information alone will not close this gap and many people need hands-on help to tax file successfully.
Our experience working with AFOA Canada and several First Nation communities to pilot on reserve tax-filing services has taught us, however, that there is often little surplus capacity in communities to devote to such services and that, without capacity investment, we are unlikely to close the current benefit gap. The federal government can fix this. We encourage the federal government to consult with AFOA Canada and other interested First Nation organizations and leaders to see how they think this problem can best be solved and to work with them to put an action plan and the necessary resources in place. Prosper Canada is available to support and assist any such Indigenous-led effort. In the interim, we are working with AFOA Canada, community partners in Winnipeg and Sudbury, and four First Nation communities to develop and test models for delivering remote tax filing and financial help services, with the support of IG Wealth Management.
  • Pursuing similar federal, provincial, territorial, and municipal partnerships with Métis, Inuit and urban Indigenous organizations and leaders:  Governments at all levels should be working with Indigenous partners to map out and invest in solutions to connect Indigenous individuals to trusted, culturally appropriate, tax-filing and benefit navigation assistance. Such efforts can include building the capacity of Indigenous-led organizations to deliver tax-filing and benefit assistance, building this element into other established programs and services accessed by Indigenous individuals, and building these initiatives into broader poverty reduction and diversity, equity, and inclusion strategies. Ensuring Indigenous individuals, families and communities have the help they need to access all the resources available to them is an effective way to financially stabilize households with lower incomes, reduce poverty, and open the door to further opportunities for Indigenous individuals and families to set and pursue financial goals for their future.
These are just a few suggestions of ways we can more actively build reconciliation into our consciousness, our organizations, and our work. There are many others. The important thing is that we do not let the moment slip by us but, instead, seize it, to help reconcile past wrongs and build a more just and equitable society for the future.