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Women's Different Experiences

Aboriginal Women and the Economy

Women's work as producers and caregivers of life is not often recognized in our money-based economy. But certain groups of women have an especially difficult time fitting into a market model of economics in which the exchange of money is the only recognized economic activity. Aboriginal women face economic discrimination on the basis of gender as well as race and culture.

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Aboriginal drum ceremonyWe were never hungry
In Canada, 42.7% of Aboriginal women live in poverty,1 double the percentage of non-Aboriginal women and significantly more than the number of Aboriginal men. The average annual income of an Aboriginal woman is $13,300, compared to $19,350 for a non-Aboriginal woman and $18,200 for an Aboriginal man.2 As well as being overrepresented among the poor, the economic contributions Aboriginal women do make are often minimized and ignored.

But Aboriginal peoples' current economic status in Canada is a far cry from what it once was. The Original peoples of the land we call the Americas had fully functioning and healthy economies before the arrival of the European settlers - a fact ignored by many.3 Theirs was an economy intimately connected with the land. The land provided all their needs and they in turn cared for the land ensuring that it would continue to provide for future generations. As Dorothy explains in Dorothy's Story, "We were never hungry." Though life was not without hardship, they lived economies of balance and sustenance. Aboriginal peoples' marginalization within today's economy is tied to their displacement from their land.

Take care of our lakeYou cannot sell the land the people walk on
When Europeans arrived in the Americas they immediately recognized the richness of the land around them, quickly imagining ways to use this land to their advantage. Aboriginal peoples responded to the settlers in a spirit of sharing. As one chief explained, "We believed it was reasonable to share what we had in the hopes that someday the whites might become self-sufficient."4 But the spirit of sharing was never reciprocated. By imposing European notions of land ownership on the original caretakers of the land, white colonizers took over the land that was not theirs to own, displacing Aboriginal peoples in the process. This displacement destroyed a traditional way of life and undermined Aboriginal peoples' ability to provide for themselves, a right which is guaranteed in international laws such as the International Covenant on Economic, Social and Cultural Rights.

While Aboriginal peoples understood treaties as sacred arrangements for equitably sharing the land, treaties were actually used to get Aboriginal peoples out of the way of settlement and resource extraction. Today, Canada's economy remains dependent on the richness of the earth; hydroelectricity, forestry, agriculture, and mining are major parts of Manitoba's economy. Much of this economic development continues to have devastating consequences on Aboriginal peoples, cutting them off from the wealth that surrounds them. Over the course of her lifetime, Emma Jane (see Emma Jane's Story) who lives in northern Manitoba, has seen local currencies of fish and furs replaced with money. Emma Jane recalls an elder in her community saying, "We didn't know what poverty was until welfare arrived." Today unemployment rates in her community are as high as 85% while community members are still waiting for full implementation of the promises made to compensate them for the damages brought on as a result of hydroelectric dams built in the 1970s.

Aboriginal ceremonyEconomic globalization which emphasizes corporate economic interests represents a renewed threat to Aboriginal peoples' lands. The people of the Asubpeeschoseewagong (Grassy Narrows) community of Northern Ontario have survived various assaults on their land including mercury contamination of their waters, flooding, and community relocation. Today the community is mobilizing against Asian-owned corporations intent on clear-cutting the remaining forests. On the other side of the world indigenous communities in the Philippines are also mobilizing as pollution from a Canadian-built mine continues to threaten the health of their environment and community. All over the world the rights of Aboriginal peoples to their own land continue to be sidestepped in the interests of making money.

Aboriginal women and today's economy
Despite both their tragic history and the stereotypes that surround Aboriginal peoples' experience of the economy, Aboriginal people have and continue to make tremendous economic contributions. Aboriginal women in particular are integral contributors to both the paid and unpaid economy.

The European fur trade in Western Canada (which in many ways provided the basis for Canada's monetary economy) depended on the cooperation and assistance of Aboriginal women who acted as interpreters and guides for the fur traders. Aboriginal women also participated in trading post operations such as grinding corn, making moccasins and snowshoes, washing, and chopping firewood.5

Aboriginal peoples today are involved in developing alternatives to exploitative economics, for example, Community Economic Development. In Manitoba, the principles of community economic development were first articulated within the Aboriginal community and led to the creation of Neechi Foods Community Store as well as the Payuk Inter-Tribal Co-op (a housing cooperative) and the Nee Gawn Ah Kai Day Care. Each of these businesses is located in Winnipeg's inner-city and provides badly needed employment opportunities for Aboriginal people who live in the inner-city.

Aboriginal peoples also make strong contributions to the informal economy. In his research in inner-city Winnipeg, economist John Loxley found that 17% of Aboriginal people in the inner-city earned income by making arts or crafts or engaging in auto or electrical repair and 35% sold services such as child care, cleaning, or carpentry. Loxley also found that 72% of Aboriginal people wanted full-time work and 53% would take part-time work. This evidence leads him to conclude that:

A balanced view of the Aboriginal community must recognize…not just the prevalence of poverty, but also a desire to secure paid employment…an active participation by many in informal sector activities, an unusually heavy workload in terms of household labour, contingent upon family size, and a diversified community in which many Aboriginal people are employed in reasonably well-paying jobs and in business...6

In Winnipeg in 1996, Aboriginal women were slightly more likely to be employed (48.8%) than women in the general population (47.4%).7 This is noteworthy considering the multiple obstacles that exist between them and paid employment. Not only do Aboriginal women often find themselves in a triple bind working against factors of race, class, and gender,8 but Aboriginal women bear the brunt of the social dysfunction placed on Aboriginal peoples. Their work of caring for families, communities, and the earth is done without any monetized recognition or support and often on an extremely limited budget, yet it is an essential part of economic life. Higher than average family size increases Aboriginal women's caregiving and household demands.

Multiple barriers
Aboriginal peoples' involvement in the economy comes despite formidable odds. Many Aboriginal peoples must leave their homes and communities in order to find work, something no other segment of the Canadian population is asked to do. Alice (see Alice's Story) of Ebb and Flow First Nation was forced to leave her young children behind in order to pursue training to become a Community Health Representative in her community. Alice was forced to make the excruciating choice between caring for her children and being able to feed them.

Ardyth Wilson of Manitoba's Mother of Red Nations points to another barrier Aboriginal peoples face in the typical economy, namely fitting in with white ways of doing things. That includes work. "You have to subordinate your own value system in order to be a player," Wilson explains. If Aboriginal peoples want to be economically viable, they are often forced to let go of at least part of their culture.

Education levels of Aboriginal peoples tend to be much lower than those of the general population. In Winnipeg, three quarters of the Aboriginal population has less than a grade eleven education and the education system is not doing a good job of providing for the needs of Aboriginal students.9 Lower education levels restrict Aboriginal peoples to low-wage jobs with few opportunities for advancement. Many Aboriginal people coming from First Nations also lack previous work experience, creating an additional barrier to securing employment. Traditionally, government training programs have failed to reach the Aboriginal population and information about jobs is often unavailable to members of the Aboriginal community.

Racism is another key factor working against aboriginal employment. One report describes the "subtle yet powerful attitudes of bias and racism toward Aboriginal people…at all levels of the [educational] system…"10 But racism is not limited to education systems. Audrey (see Audrey's Story) who is of mixed race, recalls being told, "You're just a touch too brown." Ursula who lives in Dauphin sometimes sees people leave the restaurant where she works because they don't want to be "served by an Indian." Many employers are prejudiced against hiring Aboriginal people, reflecting the racism that pervades much of our shared life in this country, both personal and systemic.11

Two Aboriginal childrenThe higher rates of single parenthood (especially single mothers) within the Aboriginal community means that the lack of adequate child care in this country affects Aboriginal women more than their non-Aboriginal counterparts. Coupled with their over-representation in low-skilled jobs, child care costs are an often insurmountable barrier to participating in the wage economy.12

Making money off our suffering
Most of the non-Aboriginal population of Canada is ill-informed of the barriers faced by Aboriginal peoples in their attempts to gain economic security. Instead, a common perception of Aboriginal peoples is that they are a drain on the system. "As Aboriginal people, we're always seen as problematic," explains community activist Mary Richard. However, there are significant ways in which Canadian society is structured to benefit economically from the poverty and injustice experienced by Aboriginal peoples.

Poverty is particularly big business providing jobs for social workers, police officers, health care workers, policy makers, community workers, social assistance workers, foster parents, adult educators, drug and alcohol counselors, consultants, researchers, prison staff, and lawyers. Millions of dollars are spent on 'industries' addressing poverty, the vast majority of which does not reach those who are living in poverty but rather provides incomes for middle-class service providers and government policy-makers and researchers. As Leslie Spillett of Mother of Red Nations sums up, "They're making millions off our suffering."

A significant percentage of the billions spent by Canada's Department of Indian Affairs simply pays for a largely non-Aboriginal bureaucracy, never reaching actual Aboriginal peoples. Community-based solutions to poverty, which show the best hope for real solutions to poverty, remain underfunded.13 Lawyers and consultants (many of whom are non-Aboriginal) also make many millions of dollars off of aboriginal land claims and law suits arising from residential school abuses. In contrast, Aboriginal peoples who work for their own communities often receive no monetary reimbursement.14 Rita who lives in northern Manitoba, spent a decade advocating for her community before she began to be paid for her work.

Despite the economic gains of some, Canada's 1996 Royal Commission on Aboriginal Peoples estimated the costs associated with the economic marginalization of Aboriginal peoples to be $7.5 billion in 1996 - $5.8 billion for foregone production because Aboriginal people are not able to fully participate in the economy and $1.7 billion to cope with social problems. Economic marginalization of Aboriginal peoples is a tremendous loss to all Canadian society.

Beautiful sunsetWays forward
Aboriginal peoples are blamed for taxing the system yet the de facto taxes they have paid and continue to pay through the appropriation of their lands and extraction of resources to which they have treaty rights continue to be ignored. Canadians need to recognize that treaties signed between the Canadian government and Aboriginal peoples were in fact between two parties and that only one of these parties has had its treaty rights recognized: the Canadian government. Recognizing First Nations as the nations they are and negotiating with them as the Canadian government negotiates with nations outside of Canada, would be a first step to moving towards a more equitable sharing of land and resources in this country.

Canadians must also recognize that our education system does not accurately reflect the experience of Aboriginal peoples. Because the history we learn in school is distorted at best, it becomes our own responsibility to re-educate ourselves with a more accurate portrayal of history. We can do this through the formal education system as well as through non-formal storytelling between Aboriginal and non-Aboriginal neighbours.

The marginalization of Aboriginal people is perpetuated through racist employment and consumptive practices which need to be changed. Approximately 12% of the Manitoba population is Aboriginal. In a fair world this would mean that 12% of employees, employers, and community leaders in workplaces and community organizations across the province should also be Aboriginal. We need to do what we can to make sure that this is a reality. We also need to find ways to support Aboriginal economic development by making a point of supporting Aboriginal businesses. Neechi Foods in Winnipeg's North End is an aboriginal grocery store committed to community economic development in their neighbourhood. Wa Wa Taik Building Supplies at the Brokenhead Ojibway First Nation is a supply store jointly owned by nine First Nations in southeastern Manitoba. These are just two of many Aboriginal-owned businesses in Manitoba. The Manitoba Government is making efforts towards supporting Aboriginal businesses through the Aboriginal Procurement Initiative adopted by Cabinet on May 22, 2002.

Logging forest Given Aboriginal peoples' past and present experiences within the typical market and wage-based economy, it's clear that a so-called healthy economy won't necessarily benefit Aboriginal peoples. But perhaps the experience of Aboriginal peoples within the economy can be used as a platform from which to move towards more comprehensive models of economy, models that benefit all peoples and the earth, models based on sustainability rather than exploitation. It's up to all of us to make this happen.

Acknowledgments
Many thanks to those whose ideas and stories became part of this article including Audrey Logan, Alice Mancheese, Dorothy Settee, Leslie Spillett and Ardyth Wilson of Mother of Red Nations (MORN), Mary Richard of Thunder Bird House, Cross Lake Women's Council, Rita Monias, Eileen Woodhouse of the Burntwood Regional Health Authority, Sharon McLeod of Treaty and Aboriginal Rights Research Centre of Manitoba (TARR), Emma Jane Crate of the Cross Lake Education Authority (CLEA), and Asubpeeschoseewagong community members of all ages. Acknowledgments also to John Loxley of the University of Manitoba Department of Economics for his work on "Aboriginal Economic Development in Winnipeg," published in Solutions that Work: Fighting Poverty in Winnipeg.

Photos by Jennifer deGroot and Will Braun. Special thanks to Pimicikamak (Cross Lake) Cree Nation and Asubpeeschoseewagong (Grassy Narrows) First Nation.


1 Women, Income, and Health in Manitoba: An Overview and Ideas for Action. Revised January 2002. Available here. Statistics Canada data.
2 Marika Morris. Women and Poverty: A Fact Sheet for CRIAW. Updated March 2002. Available here.
3 Ardyth Wilson. Mother of Red Nations. Personal Interview. April 16/02.
4 Chief Walter Monias addressing Indian Affairs Minister Jean Chrétien, 1974.
5 Sylvia VanKirk. Many Tender Ties: Women in Fur Trade Society in Western Canada, 1670-1870. Winnipeg: Watson & Dwyer, 1980.
6 John Loxley. "Aboriginal Economic Development in Winnipeg" Solutions that Work. Ed. Jim Silver. Winnipeg: Canadian Centre for Policy Alternatives, 2000.
7 John Loxley. "Aboriginal Economic Development in Winnipeg" Solutions that Work. Ed. Jim Silver. Winnipeg: Canadian Centre for Policy Alternatives, 2000.
8 Ardyth Wilson. Mother of Red Nations. Personal Interview. April 16/02.
9 John Loxley. "Aboriginal Economic Development in Winnipeg" Solutions that Work. Ed. Jim Silver. Winnipeg: Canadian Centre for Policy Alternatives, 2000. See also "Aboriginal Education in Winnipeg Inner City High Schools." Canadian Centre for Policy Alternatives, 2002. Available here.
10 Manitoba government internal report quoted in "Solutions That Work: Fighting Poverty in Winnipeg's Inner City." by Jim Silver in Solutions That Work: Fighting Poverty in Winnipeg. Ed. Jim Silver. Winnipeg: Canadian Centre for Policy Alternatives, 2000.
11 Systemic racism is highlighted by statistics on how much the federal government spends in welcoming Aboriginal peoples to urban centres. While federal immigrant settlement and transition spending in 1996-97 was $247 per person who immigrated from another country in the previous five years, the government's contribution to Native Friendship Centres (which assist aboriginal peoples in the transition from reserve to urban life) was 1/5 that at $34 per urban Aboriginal person. See Western Landscapes. Summer 2001. Available here.
12 John Loxley. "Aboriginal Economic Development in Winnipeg" Solutions that Work. Ed. Jim Silver. Winnipeg: Canadian Centre for Policy Alternatives, 2000.
13 Jim Silver et al. Solutions that Work: Fighting Poverty in Winnipeg. Winnipeg: Canadian Centre for Policy Alternatives, 2000.
14 Mary Richard. Personal conversation. March 27, 2002.

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