What Is Income Assistance?
All Canadian provinces maintain a program of income support, sometimes referred to as “social assistance” or “income assistance” with the purpose of alleviating extreme poverty by providing a monthly payment to people with little or no income.
To support low-income First Nations, Aboriginal Affairs and Northern Development Canada (AANDC) developed the Income Assistance Program as one of five social development programs offered by the department. Its broad objective is to provide individuals and families with the means to meet basic needs for food, clothing and shelter. In addition, when funding permits, AANDC has the authority to support pre-employment activities such as counselling, education upgrading and life skills training, among others.
AANDC follows the terms and conditions of other provincial and territorial general assistance programs. While it may deliver its income assistance program directly, the Department has largely devolved the program so that its activities consist primarily of providing funding to First Nations who in turn deliver programs and services to community members. In 2006-2007, 534 First Nations administered their own income assistance programming.
The Assembly of First Nations (AFN) has been very active in income assistance programming, collaborating with different levels of government and establishing its own projects to explore the development of income assistance for First Nations in Canada. In partnership with officials at AANDC and the First Nations Income Assistance Working Group (FNIAWG), the AFN social development team continues to work toward the improvement of income assistance-related programs, projects and services for First Nations individuals, families and communities through research, participation in the program’s accountability activities, and development of best practices, lessons learned and other policy-driving information.
The AFN & Income Assistance
The Assembly of First Nations (AFN) considers income assistance one of its top social development strategic priorities. The AFN’s overall objective for its income assistance-related activities for 2010-2011 was:
The AFN Social Development team, INAC officials and the First Nations Income Assistance Working Group (FNIAWG), will work towards the improvement of income assistance related programs, projects and services for First Nations individuals, families and communities through research, participation in the program’s accountability activities, and development of best practices, lessons learned and other policy driving information.
1Indian and Northern Affairs Canada (INAC) was renamed by the federal government in 2011 and is referred to as Aboriginal Affairs and Northern Development Canada (AANDC). Neither the structure nor the responsibilities of the department were altered as a result of the name change.
During 2010-2011, the AFN convened a meeting of the FNIAWG and participated in the Active Measures conference hosted by the First Nations Social Development Society in Vancouver. This meeting highlighted a number of priority areas for the FNIAWG and AFN:
- Active measures;
- Youth issues and engagement;
- Authorities renewal; and,
- A national learning event for First Nations.
While both the AFN and the FNIAWG were not invited to any federal discussions related to income assistance or active measures during this time, it is acknowledged that part of this lack of communication is due to high rates of turnover at AANDC.
The AFN also engaged with both the Elders Council and the National Youth Council to advance work related to income assistance in the areas of senior and veteran income assistance as well as active measures for youth. In collaboration with the FNIAWG, the AFN social development team worked on developing recommended actions on the Old Age Security (OAS) and Guaranteed Income Supplement (GIS) programs.
Into 2012, the AFN will continue to collaborate with the FNIAWG and AANDC to ensure that income assistance programming specific to First Nations is relevant and effective, meeting the needs of all First Nations eligible to access these funds and resources.
Active measures are activities and processes that help an income assistance client become more self-sufficient, access the labour market and help First Nations community members break the cycle of dependency on income assistance. These measures may include assessment and pre-employment programs, life skills, accessible child care services, and training and employment incentives for employers both on and off reserve.
Increasingly, the AFN and the FNIAWG continue to advance work in the area of active measures. A barrier at this time to the success of active measures programming is a lack of funding and current budget restrictions. Growing costs of administering income assistance in general has left little room to expand the delivery of new programs and activities in the area of active measures.
An example of such an active measure is access to child care. In order to break the income assistance cycle of dependency, it is important that First Nations parents be able to access quality care for their children so that they may work or study. Not only is this essential for the parents’ ability to maintain employment or complete their education, but access to quality child care has proven crucial to childhood development.
The AFN recognizes the persistent gap between the services offered by the income assistance program to First Nations communities and the real needs of community members currently dependent upon income assistance. In order to overcome this gap, the AFN continues to advocate for increased funding and effective programming to break the cycle of dependency.
Income Assistance & Youth
There has been a growing concern among First Nations leadership with regard to the rising number of First Nations youth that rely on income assistance as a primary source of income. In 2008, the Assembly of First Nations (AFN) and the First Nations Income Assistance Working Group (FNIAWG) identified this concern as a top priority issue to be addressed in their ongoing work.
As a result, the AFN Youth Income Assistance Draft Action Plan was developed. Due to a loss of funding for the AFN Social Secretariat in 2009-2010, this work was put on hold.
At the Special Chiefs Assembly in December 2010, resolution 74/2010 was passed, calling for the AFN to address the First Nations youth cycle of dependency on income assistance.
On February 12, 2011, the National Youth Dialogue on Income Assistance was held in Vancouver. The outcome of this important gathering was a ten minute video on youth perspective on income assistance. The video, “Investing in Social Change for Future Generations,” was distributed at the Gathering Our Voices Conference 2011 in Prince Rupert, an event that welcomed over 1000 Aboriginal youth delegates.
Rather than translating the video developed during the youth gathering held in Vancouver, a similar dialogue session was held in Quebec with First Nations francophone youth who were currently, or had recently been, receiving income assistance. Held on February 19-20, 2011, two youth from each francophone First Nations community in Quebec attended the meeting in Sept-Iles and contributed to a 5-minute video.
Income Assistance & Seniors/Veterans
On February 23-24, 2011, the AFN Elders Council and the First Nations Veterans Working Group met with the AFN social development team and the FNIAWG in Calgary. The purpose of this gathering was to identify issues and develop a draft set of recommended actions on Old Age Security (OAS) and Guaranteed Income Supplements (GIS).
This meeting was a successful initiative that highlighted opportunities for the improvement of take-up and access to the benefits of OAS and GIS programs for First Nations Elders, veterans and seniors.
First Nations Income Assistance Working Group (FNIAWG)
The First Nations Income Assistance Working Group (FNIAWG) was formed to develop and implement the Social Development Policy Framework (SDPF) Income Assistance Action Plan. This working group and its activities were endorsed by the Assembly of First Nations at its Annual General Assembly in July 2008 (see Resolution 12/2008).
Since its development, the FNIAWG priority areas include:
- Regional negotiations and implementation of active measures, including those at a community level;
- A youth strategy for income assistance and breaking the cycle of dependency;
- Special areas of impact from the Income Assistance program, including shelter allowances and housing, inadequacies surrounding Old Age Security (OAS), and Guaranteed Income Supplement (GIS) for First Nations Elders;
- Income Assistance program evaluation and audits;
- Required research in areas such as active measures and youth-specific activities, supports and services, as well as research to justify the “ask” for increased resources and authorities to improve the Income Assistance program; and,
- Information sharing of best practices of active measures to assist regions in developing their own measures and prevention strategies.