A new report from the Conference Board of Canada on social outcomes in the territories doesn’t paint a beautiful picture of the North.
The report found that the territories generally fall behind the Canadian average on measures of equity and social cohesion; key challenges that explain these outcomes are educational attainment, service availability, geographic isolation and lack of infrastructure; and culturally specific measures of social cohesion are vital to understanding the issue in the territories and especially in remote Northern Indigenous communities.
The Northwest Territories generally take second-worst only to Nunavut in statistics across the board.
More than 21 per cent of the NWT population has less than a high-school diploma, next to a staggering 46 per cent in Nunavut.
But Bobbie Jo Greenland-Morgan, president of the Gwich’in Tribal council, doesn’t put too much stock in statistics about the North.
“I don’t take the stats too serious,” she said. “I’m skeptical about how they produce these reports.”
The combination of a small population to draw from and the number of people who don’t answer surveys makes her skeptical of some of the findings.
Income distribution at first looks good for the NWT in the report, as 42 per cent of individuals in the territory occupy the top two Canadian income deciles.
“The story … changes considerably when looking at the income distribution of Indigenous individuals in the territories,” states the report.
About 24 per cent of Indigenous people in the territory occupy the bottom two Canadian income deciles.
A large split in income emerges when looking at family makeup.
“In NWT, eight per cent of couple families and 41 per cent of lone-parent families are considered low income,” states the report.
Greenland-Morgan said single-parent households can definitely be more challenging than dual-parent households, but that burden can be eased with a large familial support network, as is traditional for many Indigenous people.
She joked about that cultural difference with non-Indigenous traditions and harkened back to her days as a child watching TV shows.
“I used to wonder why… the kids always seemed to not like when the grandparents were coming over,” she laughed. “In my mind, I loved when my grandparents (were coming).”
What matters more is how healthy the home relationship is, she said.
“I believe that we should promote dual-parenting when it’s in a healthy way,” said Greenland-Morgan.
“I know some people who say they would have rather’d their parents divorce than raise them in an environment (where) they’re constantly fighting and it’s negative. The dual-parenting I do promote, so long as it’s healthy.”
On employment, the report finds Indigenous unemployment rates much higher than non-Indigenous across the board. In the NWT, around three per cent of non-Indigenous people with university credentials are unemployed, while closer to 15 per cent of Indigenous people with university credentials are unemployed.
Greenland-Morgan said some very skilled and experienced people fall out of work because of their struggles with addiction, while many youth of today seem to show little ambition to achieve.
She relayed hearing from high school students about their desire to live on income assistance as an adult.
The lure of welfare seems stronger and doesn’t carry the same stigma she remembers from her elders.
“The mentality it’s not looked at as a last-resort thing anymore,” said Greenland-Morgan. “For some, it’s almost looked at as the government owes it to me. It’s free money.”
She wants to see more ambitious Indigenous youth taking over Northern stores and other pillars of the communities.
Though she supports diversity, the GTC president wonders if some of the area’s traditional culture is being lost as excessive drunkenness and social ills seem to become more public.
“Society here, we’ve got to be very careful but I’m seeing it more and more these days… It’s like we’re becoming southern, where we see something and some of us right away want to help but some of us get afraid and we don’t want to go there so we just walk by,” said Greenland-Morgan.
She believes some of the rise in social ills could be from deep wounds opened up during the Truth and Reconciliation Commission and not enough services to address people who shared their stories.
“If something’s not dealt with, it doesn’t matter if it’s 50 years or 100 years, the problem’s still going to be there,” she said.
The rise in drugs and different kinds entering the communities is no help either, she said.
“Put residential school aside – I’ve never met a person who said alcohol really helped my life,” said Greenland-Morgan.
Ultimately, she wants to stop talking about the economic and social difficulties and take action to address them.
People need to do less gossiping and criticizing and more empowering, she said. Instead of complaining about youth not engaging in traditional activities, she said, bring them out on the land yourself.
“That’s a gap we have to fill ourselves,” said Greenland-Morgan.
The full report from the Conference Board of Canada is available on the organization’s website.