Four systems changes to reduce poverty in Canada

Posted on March 16, 2022
By Natasha Pei

This resource is also available in French. Click here to access the landing page for the French version.


Canada’s National Advisory Council on Poverty’s second Annual Report, Understanding Systems, is the first report to provide a glimpse into poverty since COVID-19.

Based on community engagements with Canadians and provinces/territories over the last year, the Council has recommended five broad strategies to reduce poverty in Canada.kelly-sikkema-dad

The pillars of the strategy are as follows:

  1. Indigenous prosperity
  2. Equity
  3. Dignity
  4. Prevention and early intervention
  5. Income from employment and government benefits

In a recent webinar, three Council members shared what strategies can make the greatest impact. The following are key takeaways from the discussion.

Takeaway 1: Target the Justice and Child Welfare systems to build Indigenous prosperity

The first recommendation of the Council is to implement the existing recommendations of the Truth and Reconciliation Commission (TRC) and Report on Murdered and Missing Indigenous Women and Girls.

Both reports call for similar systems changes, as Indigenous people are over-represented in deficit-based systems (e.g., homelessness) and under-represented in strengths-based systems (e.g., education).

The TRC explains the impact that removing children to Residential Schools or non-Indigenous foster homes has had, including the lack of positive parental role models and disconnect from their culture, reinforcing a cycle of child abuse and/or neglect with their future children.

The TRC begins by recommending changes to the Child Welfare system. These recommendations include the following, to name just a few:

  • Keeping Aboriginal families together
  • Keeping children in a culturally appropriate environment
  • Resourcing Aboriginal child welfare agencies to provide culturally appropriate services
  • Fully implementing Jordan’s Principle

Cheryl Whiskeyjack, a member of the National Advisory Council on Poverty, also points out that the largest chunk of the 94 calls to action (Calls 25-42) are focused on the justice system, as many Indigenous children in the welfare system age out and become involved in the justice system.

These systems changes must be accompanied by others, such as education and health care. However, targeting the child welfare and justice systems are two of the highest-impact domains that could benefit many Indigenous people.


Takeaway 2: Focus on quality, not just affordability

“Child poverty is first the poverty of their families … and, because of this, the poverty of children is also the poverty of their future families.”

– Sylvie Veilleux, Advisory Council member

Advisory Council member Sylvie Veilleux shares that her work with Quebec’s first garderie populaire revealed how critical high-quality childcare could be for families. They worked with children and families from many different backgrounds. The staff also worked with social and health care workers, so they had early interaction with the children, and built trusting relationships with parents while providing them with referrals to other resources.

Now, years after the government has scaled this program as affordable daycare throughout Quebec, Sylvie reports they are amongst nations with the highest female workforce and are seeing:

  • a rise in family income;
  • single-parent families overcoming poverty; and
  • an increase in women’s income over their entire working lives due to fewer financial interruptions in their careers.

The recommendation to implement the $10/day national childcare plan will likely produce similar results for parents across Canada. However, we should learn from Quebec’s experience and plan for ensuring children who are most vulnerable are able to access the spaces. In addition, this strategy highlighted the need to provide good wages and working conditions at centres in order to retain staff and provide high quality care.


Takeaway 3: Poverty is a map of “isms”

Poverty is sexist, ableist and racist and we need good data to track how marginalized populations are doing in order to make informed decisions.

“Poverty is the individual experience of systemic inequality,” says Scott MacAfee, Chair of the National Council on Poverty, “not a character flaw.” Poverty has been reduced for many who were hovering just below the poverty line, but now we must prioritize the furthest behind people.

However, there is a lack of good data to make informed decisions. Scott shares that available data shows Canada’s poverty rate dropped significantly in the last four years and is now at 10.1%. However, the current poverty rate is still three times higher for people of Middle Eastern decent (33%) and twice as high for black Canadians (23%), people with disabilities (19%) and Indigenous people living off-reserve (18%). There is no data available about First Nations people on-reserve or people who identify as LGBTQIA2+.

Canada’s Poverty Reduction Strategy and other related strategies should commit to specific goals benefitting marginalized groups. They must gather good data on those populations to remain accountable and help inform decisions.


Takeaway 4: Poverty, inequality and systems change are everyone’s responsibility

“If we have a poverty rate of 1 in 10, poverty does not belong to the 1 person living in poverty, it belongs to all 10 to figure out what to do about it.” – Scott MacAfee, Chair of the National Council on Poverty

The Advisory Council’s recommendations target actions to be taken by the federal government, but the principles apply to every person and institution. Individuals can educate themselves on the issues to be ready to vote at election time or educate others.

As an individual, you can also investigate the many grassroots movements to see what levers might be available to you that you hadn’t considered before. For instance, businesses may explore living wages.


Generally speaking, we will get closer to ending poverty if we…

Are curious and empathetic.

Find common ground.

Show care for our neighbours.


Take your learning further

Natasha Pei, Poverty Reduction Strategy, CRP Blogs, Homepage Blog

Natasha Pei

By Natasha Pei

Natasha Pei brings online content to life and engages our members in the Vibrant Communities learning centre for poverty reduction. Natasha's involvement with Tamarack began with the Communities First: Impacts of Community Engagement (CFICE) project, where she worked as a Research Assistant in the Poverty Reduction Hub, studying effective ways community-campus engagement can be undertaken to have real benefits for the community.

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