Social conditions in many of Canada’s First Nation communities are, by expectations of a modern society, intolerable. While, on average, social conditions among those who have “gone to town” are better, they remain intolerable for many urban First Nation families. What’s to be done?

At least since the 1996 report of the Royal Commission on Aboriginal Peoples, the dominant answer among First Nation and non-Indigenous political leaders, academics and newspaper editors has been affirmation of First Nation identities via an expansive interpretation of treaty rights and emphasis on autonomous Indigenous communities separate from mainstream society. A prominent image in the RCAP report is a “birch bark canoe, for the Indian people, their laws, their customs, and their ways a ship… for the white people, their laws, their customs, and their ways … Neither of us will try to steer the other’s vessel.” Here is a somewhat fuller exposition of the RCAP goal:

Assimilation policies have done great damage, leaving a legacy of brokenness affecting Aboriginal individuals, families and communities … Yet the damage is not beyond repair. The key is to reverse the assumptions of assimilation that still shape and constrain Aboriginal life chances … To bring about this fundamental change, Canadians need to understand that Aboriginal peoples are nations … To this day, Aboriginal people’s sense of confidence and well-being remains tied to the strength of their nations. Only as members of restored nations can they reach their potential in the twenty-first century.1

A quarter-century after the RCAP publication, it is time to ask: has the agenda succeeded? Arguably, the most important criterion of success is the ability of First Nation communities to create employment for their members. By this criterion, the answer is no. There are, obviously, relevant criteria other than employment. But however important these other criteria are, they are complements to, not substitutes for, employment.

Following each census, the federal Indigenous services ministry constructs the Community Well-Being Index (CWB), a heroic attempt to assess the social well-being of more than 600 First Nation and Inuit communities across Canada. The employment rate is one element in constructing the CWB. From the first CWB iteration, based on the 1981 census, to the most recent, based on the 2016 census, the employment rate in First Nation communities remained two thirds the rate in non-Indigenous communities. At a regional level, the rate has risen in some regions, stagnated in others and declined in one region.

In this article, I aim to illustrate the relevance of employment as a factor associated with three social pathologies that have received extensive attention in government reports and academic and policy studies: suicide, alcohol abuse, and homicide. Ideally, the analysis should be conducted at the level of individual First Nation communities, but in the absence of disaggregated data, regional-level data suffice to show the existence of dramatic differences in prevalence of these pathologies associated with differences in regional employment rates.

First Nation families voting with their feet is an indication that employment matters. In the 2001 census, 49 per cent of those who had the right to live on-reserve (“registered Indians” pursuant to the Indian Act) did so; in the 2016 Census, only 40 per cent did so. Another measure of mobility is the distribution of those who identify in the census as First Nation whether or not they are “registered.” In 2001, 45 per cent lived on-reserve; in 2016 only 34 per cent did. The majority of First Nation people now live in cities, and more than a third live in large cities (population over 100,000). Probably the best explanation for this migration comes from the large-scale survey of 2,600 urban Indigenous people (Métis and Inuit as well as First Nation) undertaken for the 2010 Urban Aboriginal Peoples Study:

When asked (unprompted, without response options offered) why they first moved to their city, equal proportions cite the opportunity to be closer to family (38%), and the pursuit of education (37%) and employment opportunities (37%). Smaller proportions say they moved to their city because it offered better amenities (18%), the chance to escape a bad family situation (10%) and the opportunity for career advancement (9%).2

None of the above implies that the urban Indigenous population enjoys overall social conditions on a par with their non-Indigenous neighbours or that urban natives have abandoned their Indigenous identity. Emphasis on the RCAP agenda has obscured the extent to which Indigenous communities display social pathologies – which also afflict many in non-Indigenous communities – that can only be addressed by the overall society. A key factor underlying these pathologies is absence of employment.


A frequently cited article on suicide among the Indigenous population is Michael J. Chandler and Christopher Lalonde’s 1998 study of suicide in British Columbia.3 Chandler and Lalonde established the residence of each Aboriginal suicide in one of 29 tribal councils. Then, using an index of “cultural continuity” that each tribal council achieves (based on such measures as the percentage of children attending on-reserve schools and the extent of band control of health and other services), they found a connection between this index and suicide: the higher the tribal council’s cultural continuity, the lower the suicide rate. I do not deny that “cultural continuity” matters. The major problem with this study is the attempt to attribute suicide to a single factor.

In 2017, a parliamentary committee submitted its report on “The Suicide Crisis in Indigenous Communities,” which is worth quoting at some length:

Jack Hicks noted there is a connection between “job losses, unemployment, social despair, and suicide.” Sheila North Wilson, in describing the recent loss of her cousin to suicide, noted he had trouble finding work when he returned to his home community, “How is a young man, a young father, and a young husband supposed to feel when they don’t have any jobs to provide for their family?” …

For those living in remote communities, the Committee heard there is clear connection between unemployment and hopelessness. For example, when the Weeneebakyo Area Health Authority asked a young First Nation woman why there are many suicides in her reserve she replied, “It is simple, no jobs, no future and no hope.” Will Landon explained how “a lot of suicides can be linked to low economic opportunity. They don’t feel there’s a lot for them out there. Sitting on welfare is not a great option for them and it gets depressing.”

In addition to providing a source of income to provide for their families, work can also be an important aspect of developing self-worth and confidence. For instance, Joachim Bonnetrouge from the Deh Gah Got’ie First Nation noted that about half of his community is currently unemployed and that more opportunities would substantially benefit the community, “If you have a family and a father, and they could give him a job, holy man, you’d see that would make a big difference in anybody’s life.”

This passage from the parliamentary committee report emphasizes lack of employment as the key factor associated with suicide. But like the cultural continuity cited by Chandler and Lalonde, employment is not the sole cause of high community suicide rates. In a recent Statistics Canada study that attempted to identify the role of several socioeconomic factors, Mohan B. Kumar and Michael Tjepkema conclude with respect to First Nation adults:

After adjusting for age and sex, the risk of suicide … was twice as high as that among non-Indigenous adults. Adjusting for household income resulted in a decrease in risk by 35%. After further adjusting for labour force status, level of education and marital status, First Nations adults were still at a higher risk of suicide than non-Indigenous adults. Together, these factors accounted for 66% of the excess suicide risk. Further adjusting for living on and off reserve resulted in a HR of 1.2, which was not significantly different from 1.0. Together, all these factors accounted for 78% of the excess suicide risk among First Nations adults.4

Not only are multiple socioeconomic factors relevant, but the factors are also interdependent. For example, higher education improves the probability of employment, which improves family income. It’s important to consider which socioeconomic factors are most subject to policy intervention. Employment and education stand out as obvious candidates.

That employment yields social benefits beyond the direct value of income for the worker is hardly a new idea. Historically, employment as a strategy to address poverty and social pathologies is associated with harsh poor laws in Elizabethan England. In current social policy debates, many – on both left and right – argue that whatever the excesses of poor laws and workhouses, high unemployment is a fundamental factor in explaining high rates of social pathologies. Social policy that ignores employment will not succeed.

Among those who have insisted on increasing employment among marginalized groups, William Julius Wilson figures prominently. Wilson is an American sociologist much of whose early research analyzed the role of unemployment in the context of American inner-city ghettos. Writing in 1996, he summarized:

The disappearance of work and the consequences of that disappearance for both social and cultural life are the central problems in the inner-city ghetto. To acknowledge that the ghetto still includes working people and that nearly all ghetto residents, whether employed or not, support the norms of the work ethic … should not lead one to overlook the fact that a majority of adults in many inner-city neighborhoods are jobless at any given point in time.5

Wilson’s research has inspired recent studies on the decline in employment rate and working conditions among working-class Americans over the last quarter-century. Prominent in this literature is research undertaken by the husband-wife team of Angus Deaton (winner of the 2015 Nobel economics prize) and Anne Case. In several recent publications, they have analyzed increases in U.S. age-adjusted mortality rates due to suicide, alcohol abuse and drug abuse among populations defined by race, education level and geography. These three proximate causes of premature death they label “deaths of despair.”6 Following Deaton and Case, the second pathology to discuss is alcohol.


Large-scale surveys of alcohol abuse have found that excessive alcohol consumption is more prevalent among Indigenous than non-Indigenous Canadians.7 Rather than a summary of epidemiological studies, a better introduction to the consequence of alcohol is the memoir of Harold Johnson, a First Nation lawyer who, for two decades, acted as defence counsel and crown prosecutor in northern Saskatchewan. The RCAP commissioners concluded, “The widely held belief that most Aboriginal people consume excessive amounts of alcohol on a regular basis appears to be incorrect.”8 Johnson bluntly retorts, “The Royal Commission obviously got it wrong.”

He traces the link between alcohol and employment to the disappearance over the second half of the 20th century of traditional employment opportunities in the north: logging, trapping, freshwater fishing. The disappearance of such jobs exacerbated alcohol abuse. At the core of his memoir is a harrowing description of multiple cases in which alcohol figures prominently.

Johnson advances four interpretations of alcohol abuse in First Nation communities, each of which he finds wanting because each denies the obligation of First Nation leaders to assume responsibility and address the problem.

He first analyzes the victim model: present problems are the consequence of colonization. Obviously, White settlers were colonizers; they expropriated land and introduced alcohol. However, argues Johnson, “If we believe that the only reasons for our problems rest with colonization, we can never fix our problems, because we cannot go back and fix colonization.”9

The second interpretation is that the psychological trauma of colonization, and of residential schools in particular, induced destructive drinking habits. This, he concludes, is a variant of the first interpretation: “Many people who attended residential schools were severely traumatized. But traumatic events did not end when the residential schools were closed. Alcohol creates its own trauma. More often than not, the trauma our relatives experience occurs as a result of excessive drinking.”

He is equally dissatisfied with the medical model, which treats alcoholism as a disease similar to others, such as smallpox or tuberculosis. Once again, he concludes, the medical interpretation denies any responsibility within Indigenous communities to introduce social reforms.

The fourth interpretation is reliance on the law to resolve problems arising from abuse of alcohol:

On the northern court circuit, the judge and the prosecutor and the defence lawyer … fly into remote communities once or twice a month … We hold court all day and often late into the evening … After a day in court, after doing what the Law Enforcement Model requires, after hearing over and over again that, “when he’s sober, he’s a good guy; it was just the alcohol”, we are driven back out to the airplane by the RCMP.

Reliance on the law, concludes Johnson, is “insane.” Asking judges to weigh partial conflicting evidence presented by defence counsel and prosecutor requires that judges choose one side or the other and ignore complex reality:

Law can never solve our problem with alcohol in our communities and the devastation it causes, because law is not rational. It refuses to look at the whole of the problem, even though alcohol and its aftermath are the primary matters that the courts deal with every day, all day long. In its deliberate blindness, law is actually quite insane.

His tentative short-term solution turns around “sober houses”:

If you have a sober house, if you are one of the 35% of our people who never use alcohol, you put a Sober House sign on your door and people will know that you welcome sober people to come and join you … A safe place, a cup of tea, someone to talk to, some who understand: the experience of what a healthy life and a healthy home look like would be, for many of our relatives, something superior to any treatment centre.

Sober houses may be a weak reed on which to rely. Johnson has much to say about cultural revival of Indigenous values and employment as means to restore community health.


The causes of homicide are similar in many ways to those of the three deaths of despair analyzed by Case and Deaton. The recent report on murdered and missing Indigenous women (MMIW) is the most prominent official acknowledgment in Canada of the high homicide rate among the Indigenous population. Like the RCAP analysis of alcohol, the MMIW analysis of homicide is woefully inadequate. The report notes that in recent years nearly one quarter of female homicide victims have been Indigenous, a share far higher than the Indigenous share of the Canadian female population. The explanation for this state of affairs, MMIW concludes, is straightforward: White settler colonialism and continued White racism:

*Rate: annual average per 100,000 in the relevant population. Source: data in Tables 1-3 are author’s calculations from Homicide in Canada (Statistics Canada). various issues. Note: Indigenous includes both those identifying as First Nation and as Métis.

The violence the National Inquiry heard amounts to a race-based genocide of Indigenous Peoples, including First Nations, Inuit and Métis, which especially targets women, girls, and 2SLGBTQQIA people. This genocide has been empowered by colonial structures evidenced notably by the Indian Act, the Sixties Scoop, residential schools and breaches of human and Indigenous rights, leading directly to the current increased rates of violence, death, and suicide in Indigenous populations.10

If past colonialism and allegedly persistent White racist attitudes are the only relevant factors to explain contemporary pathologies, perhaps the RCAP agenda of parallel societies is the only option to pursue. However, there is a great deal missing from the MMIW report – beginning with the absence of any discussion of homicide among Indigenous men, both as perpetrators and victims (see tables 1–3). Here is a summary of recent statistics11:

While a quarter of female homicide victims are Indigenous, male Indigenous homicide victims are also a quarter of all male homicide victims (table 1). Since the total male homicide victim rate is much higher than the female rate, three quarters of Indigenous homicide victims are male.

In terms of perpetrators of homicide, the overall rate is much higher among males than among females, and the rate is much higher among Indigenous males than among non-Indigenous males (table 2).

*Rate: annual average per 100,000 in the relevant population. Source: data in Tables 1-3 are author’s calculations from Homicide in Canada (Statistics Canada). various issues. Note: Indigenous includes both those identifying as First Nation and as Métis.

The distributions of relationships between perpetrators of homicide and their victims are similar among Indigenous and non-Indigenous victims (table 3). In both cases, the relationship is overwhelmingly one of spouses, family members, intimate nonfamily members and friends. In the case of Indigenous homicide victims, only 10 per cent of perpetrators are strangers to the victim.

Consistent with the data on relationships between Indigenous victims and homicide perpetrators, over a third of all homicide perpetrators are Indigenous (table 2), which implies that a large majority of homicides of Indigenous women are perpetrated by Indigenous men. Which brings us back to the discussion of pathologies associated with low employment.

Source: data in Tables 1-3 are author’s calculations from Homicide in Canada (Statistics Canada). various issues. Note: Indigenous includes both those identifying as First Nation and as Métis.
The link between “deaths of despair” and employment

What is the relevance of employment to this discussion of suicide, alcoholism and homicide?

In Canada, there has been no detailed linking of community-level First Nation employment conditions and “deaths of despair” comparable to the research undertaken in the United States by Case and Deaton and others. However, fragmentary evidence does exist. The Statistics Canada study discussed above reaches a firm conclusion that “labour force status” is a significant socioeconomic factor associated with high suicide rates among First Nations. I introduced the Community Well-Being Index (CWB), constructed from four subindices (per capita income, housing quality, education level, labour force status).12 The community employment rate is a second-order statistic that enters into calculation of the labour force status subindex.

Since the initial CWB based on 1981 census results, the employment rate in First Nation communities has remained at two thirds the rate in non-Indigenous communities. Regional employment rates, however, have diverged. In Atlantic Canada, Quebec and the Territories (one fifth of the total First Nation population), 2016 employment rates are higher than in 1981 by over 10 percentage points. In Ontario and B.C. (over one third the total), rates have risen at rates similar to those of the non-Indigenous population. In the Prairies (nearly half the total), employment rates in 2016 are either the same as in 1981 or slightly lower (see Figure 1).

Correlation is a crude measure to assess causality. But, in the absence of more detailed evidence, correlation conclusions should be addressed. The Statistics Canada study quoted above reports provincial-level statistics on suicides, in the form of ratios of First Nation to non-Indigenous suicide rates. Nationally, the ratio over the years 2011–16 is 3:1 (First Nation 24.3/100,000 vs. non-Indigenous 8.0/100,000). At the provincial level, the range of ratios is from 1.9 to 4.6. The three highest ratios are in Manitoba (ratio 4.6), Saskatchewan (4.5) and Alberta (3.5). There is a negative correlation between regional First Nation / non-Indigenous suicide ratios (highest in Prairies) and First Nation regional employment rates (lowest in Prairies).

There is also an obvious negative correlation between Indigenous homicide rates, for both victims and perpetrators (highest in Prairies) and First Nation regional employment rates (lowest in Prairies). Over the years 2016–18, two thirds of all Indigenous homicide victims and Indigenous homicide perpetrators were in the Prairie provinces. Indigenous homicide rates in the Prairies, for victims and perpetrators, are roughly three times comparable Indigenous homicide rates elsewhere in Canada (tables 1 and 2).

Strenthening employment and education

If past colonial relations and present White racism suffice to explain the incidence of suicide, alcoholism and homicide among the Indigenous, why are there such dramatic regional differences? If we exclude the Prairies, the Indigenous homicide rates (as victims and perpetrators) and suicide rate are approximately three times the respective non-Indigenous national rates. In the Prairie provinces, the Indigenous homicide and suicide rates are approximately three times the respective Indigenous rates elsewhere in Canada. This is strong evidence that addressing social pathologies requires addressing low employment among many Indigenous communities.

First Nation families that want to live in their First Nation communities should be able to do so with reasonable employment prospects. That is seldom the case at present. For it to be feasible, successful out-migration must become an option for those who want to “go to town.” At present, those living in a First Nation community with weak education outcomes face severely limited employment options – whether in their community or “in town.” Hence, many stay on-reserve and on welfare.

In the medium term, successful out-migration requires K–12 education outcomes that are similar to those among non-Indigenous children. Historically, on-reserve band-controlled schools have not performed well. The core obstacle is not inadequate government school financing. With honourable exceptions, First Nation leaders have not made sufficient commitment to strengthening student outcomes in their schools – which does not excuse provincial education ministries. Most First Nation secondary school students attend provincial schools and provincial governments vary widely in terms of the priority attached to successful First Nation student outcomes.13

For a small minority of First Nation communities, the RCAP agenda is succeeding in the creation of jobs. Thanks to the courts having strengthened treaty rights, communities with rights bearing on resource projects are now able to strike beneficial partnerships with resource companies, which generate income and employment for community members. We can get a picture of where these more successful communities stand by looking at the top decile, in terms of employment rate, among the more than 600 First Nation communities included in the CWB. It is well above the First Nation average, but still six percentage points below the average rate for non-Indigenous communities. In other words, fewer than 60 First Nation communities enjoy employment rates above or reasonably close to the non-Indigenous average.14

In the short term, affirmative action is justifiable. There should be no illusions: there is a long history of mixed results from past affirmative action initiatives. One avenue is decentralization of relevant federal administrative offices from major cities to small towns, which would increase the probability of Indigenous employment. Another avenue is to further strengthen treaty rights that engender sustainable employment, such as First Nation fishing and logging rights. An important, highly controversial precedent is the 1974 Boldt decision (named after the trial judge) in Washington state. It awarded American Indian tribes along the Columbia River the right to half the allowable salmon catch, a share far more generous than the equivalent allocation among First Nations in B.C. Over the decades, Washington state tribes have developed significant employment in processing salmon and managing an intertribal regulatory regime.15 Other controversial quota options exist: Ottawa could impose quotas regulating the minimum number of First Nation workers to be hired by firms wanting to hire temporary foreign workers.

None of this will happen as long as the dominant discourse is one of colonialism and White settler guilt.


1 Canada, Royal Commission on Aboriginal Peoples, People to People, Nation to Nation: Highlights from the Report of the Royal Commission on Aboriginal Peoples (Ottawa: Author, 1996).

2 Environics Institute, Urban Aboriginal Peoples Study (2010).

3 Michael J. Chandler and Christopher Lalonde, “Cultural Continuity as a Hedge against Suicide in Canada’s First Nations,” Transcultural Psychiatry, Vol. 35, No. 2 (1998), pp. 191–219.

4 Mohan B. Kumar and Michael Tjepkema, Suicide among First Nations People, Métis and Inuit (2011–2016): Findings from the 2011 Canadian Census Health and Environment Cohort (Ottawa: Statistics Canada, 2019).

5 William Julius Wilson, When Work Disappears: The World of the New Urban Poor (New York: Vintage, 1996).

6 Anne Case and Angus Deaton, Deaths of Despair and the Future of Capitalism (Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press, 2020).

7 Among the off-reserve Indigenous sample, 22.6 per cent were heavy drinkers, among the non-Indigenous sample 16.1 per cent. Heavy drinking was measured by asking respondents the number of times they had consumed five or more alcoholic drinks on one occasion in the past 12 months. Those who answered once a month or more often were classified as heavy drinkers (Michael Tjepkema, The Health of the Off-Reserve Aboriginal Population, Supplement to Health Reports, Vol. 13, Cat. No. 82-003 , pp. 4, 8).

8 Canada, Royal Commission on Aboriginal Peoples, Report, Vol. 3: Gathering Strength (Ottawa: Author, 1996), p. 147.

9 All quotes from Harold Johnson come from his Firewater: How Alcohol is Killing my People (and Yours) (Regina, SK: University of Regina Press, 2016), chapters 8, 24.

10 Canada, National Inquiry into Missing and Murdered Indigenous Women and Girls, Reclaiming Power and Place: The Final Report of the National Inquiry into Missing and Murdered Indigenous Women and Girls, Vol. 1a (Ottawa: Author, 2019), p. 50.

11 Jean-Denis David, Homicide in Canada, 2016; Sara Beattie, Jean-Denis and Joel Roy, Homicide in Canada, 2017; Joel Roy and Sharon Marcellus, Homicide in Canada, 2018, Cat. no. 85-002-X (Ottawa: Statistics Canada, 2017–19).

12 The most recent iteration of the CWB is based on the 2016 census: Canada, Indigenous Services Canada, The Community Well-Being Index (2019). For further detail on the CWB see John Richards, No Easy Answers: Insights into Community Well-being among First Nations, E-brief 304 (Toronto: C.D. Howe Institute, 2020).

13 Scott Haldane, George E. Lafond and Caroline Krause, Nurturing the Learning Spirit of First Nation Students: The Report of the National Panel on First Nation Elementary and Secondary Education for Students on Reserve (Ottawa: Aboriginal Affairs and Northern Development Canada and Assembly of First Nations, 2012); Barry Anderson and John Richards, “If we had 300 Million Dollars”: Funding for Reserve Schools, Verbatim (Toronto: C.D. Howe Institute, 2016); John Richards, Pursuing Reconciliation: The Case for an Urban Off-Reserve Agenda, Commentary 526 (Toronto: C.D. Howe Institute, 2018).

14 Richards, No Easy Answers, Table A1.

15 Peter Knutsen, The Unintended Consequences of the Boldt Decision, Cultural Survival, June 1987.