First Nations and Assimilation in Canada: The Creation of a New Class of Poverty



As a colonised Nation, Canadian history often mirrors England’s.  Canada’s economic development is very different from England’s, however.  One difference is that the Canadian colonies were established as a way to provide resources to Europe.  While Great Britain was developing global economic power through manufacturing, Canada provided needed raw materials to England, France, and even the United States.  Canada’s role in outsourcing its natural resources has directly impacted First Nations communities.  As a result, a new class of poverty was created in Canada – often called the “fourth world”.



Historically, Indigenous people were often regarded as barriers to accessing important resources and land.  The Indian Act of 1876[1] was created in large part to remove First Nations from land needed for settlement and resource extraction.  This Act created a Reserve system, managed by the Federal government, which contained and controlled Indigenous groups. In 1884, cultural practices, such as Potlatches[2], were banned under the Indian Act. In 1927, another amendment made it illegal for First Nations to hire lawyers or seek legal counsel.  This came out of a concern that more Indigenous groups were using the courts to claim rights to contested land and resources.  This treatment of First Nations is remarkably similar to early European policies of segregating ‘undesirable’ cultural groups, such as the gypsies, Jews, and Huguenots…

Assimilation became the buzz word for any policy regarding Canada’s newly emerging ‘fourth world’.  Residential schools[3] became a primary tool for ensuring complete assimilation of First Nations’ children.  The schools were run collaboratively by churches and the government.  In keeping with the terms of the Indian Act, the government saw these schools as the best way to integrate Indigenous people into Canadian society. Churches were invested in the project, so that Indigenous people would accept Christian teachings and turn away from ‘evil’ pagan practices.  The recent Truth and Reconciliation Commission’s (TRC) report has shown irrevocable harm to First Nations groups.  Disease, death, abuse, and appalling injustices have marked the over 150 years these schools were open.  Today, it is clear these schools are responsible for horrible injustices, extreme poverty, abuse, and even genocide!



At the end of World War II, many Canadians had witnessed horrifying injustices against minority people, including Jews and Japanese.  The UN was an organisation created as a result of economic and social injustice, and many new policies were adopted in order to build economic capacity and reduce injustice.  Despite these new efforts, however, Canadian First Nations remained a people who were ‘invisible’ to global poverty reduction efforts.

In the 1960s, it was clear that First Nations communities were experiencing greater poverty, infant mortality, and lack of education than the rest of Canada.  To address this, then Prime Minister Pierre Trudeau and John Chretien (Minister of Indian Affairs) attempted to pass a comprehensive policy which addressed First Nations communities in Canada.  This policy would eliminate ‘Indian’ as a distinct legal status, and name First Nations individuals as “citizens with the same rights, opportunities and responsibilities as other Canadians.”[4] This proposal was immediately rejected by First Nations leaders, who saw the policy as inherently racial – and a deliberate attempt to erase Indigenous cultures from Canada once and for all!



In 2007, the UN created the Declaration on the Rights of Indigenous Peoples (UNDRIP).  It is important to recognize that Canada was one of four countries who voted against this declaration in 2007.  Representatives said that while they “supported the ‘spirit of the declaration, it contained elements that were ‘fundamentally incompatible with Canada’s constitutional framework’”.[5]  It was not until 2016 that Canada finally confirmed a commitment to this declaration.



Historical Canadian policies regarding First Nations communities and poverty reduction have failed.  Assimilation, marginalisation, genocide, and Residential Schools, and Reserves have created a ‘fourth world’ marked by devastating poverty and profound social injustice.  Today, many First Nations communities live in poverty conditions which are largely ignored or inadequately addressed by Canadians.  Over 60% of First Nations children are living in poverty.  Many communities lack adequate access to clean water.  Mining and logging industries threaten access to food and important cultural spaces.  Future poverty reduction efforts need to fully focus on redressing injustices which have occurred since the early 1800s.



Next week, I will discuss Canadian efforts in poverty reduction and International Development projects.  Until then, this is Spatial Integrity – Making the Invisible, Visible!






Charles Booth: Political Reform and the Spatiality of Poverty

London was in political and economic turmoil in the late 1800s.  Poverty was a major problem for Londoners, who often blamed the poor for disease, crime, and violence.  Many people wrote about these conditions in the mid-1800s. One of these people was Henry Mayhew. Mayhew wrote London Labour and the London Poor in 1840 ( Mayhew used the stories of poor street performers, vendors, prostitutes, beggars, rat catchers and thieves to create data which challenged police reports and census data of the time.


“Beer Street and Gin Lane”. Source:

Mayhew’s work profoundly influenced Charles Booth, who used many of Mayhew’s research techniques to create a series of maps and reports.  His research laid the groundwork for the framework which new welfare policies would be based on.  For a biography of Charles Booth, click on this link:

Booth’s 17-year project was designed to address two things.  First, he was concerned about the Socialist movement in England.  Riots were a serious problem in London, and many believed the socialists were responsible.  Finally, Booth did not believe the Social Democratic Federation (SDF) reports which said that 25% of Londoners were poor. Booth thought the SDF reports were deliberately inflated to encourage conflict.

Booth used Mayhew’s research methods to create a database and twelve maps which recorded 4 million people! In order to define poverty, Booth created a new ‘poverty line’.  Anyone receiving less than 18 shillings per week was ‘poor’.  Booth’s creation of a poverty line is still used in economic policy today.

Booth’s final report, Life and Labour of the People of London (1889), revealed three very important findings.  First, Booth’s idea the SDF were deliberately inflating the numbers of poor people in London was wrong.  Much to the government’s dismay, Booth’s findings showed that 30% of London was living in poverty.

Second, Booth demonstrated that drinking did not cause poverty, as many believed.  The opposite was true – poverty resulted in excessive drinking.  For perhaps the first time, crime, alcoholism and disease could be seen as a result of poverty!

Finally, Booth found that a large majority of the poor were aged.  Booth began campaigning for the government to establish an old-age pension and to abolish the workhouses.  The Old Age Pension Act was finally approved in 1908. Booth’s research, rather than creating a means to end the socialist movement in London, strengthened the power and objectives of the SDF for the future.


UNITED KINGDOM – MAY 14: Spinsters And Widows Protesting For Equity In London On May 14Th 1938 (Photo by Keystone-France/Gamma-Keystone via Getty Images) Source:

The maps of London which Booth created became very important to researchers.  They provided information that showed poverty was not just as an economic issue, but a spatial one!  Booth established seven class classifications for his maps.  These classes ranged from the lowest class (vicious criminals) to the very wealthy.  Each area of London was colour-coded to show the classes of people who lived there.



These maps are now digitized and geo-referenced.  This means that they can be compared to current maps of London in order to track important changes over time!  Maps can help people to better understand patterns of poverty in specific places.  Once we understand these patterns, it is possible to develop policies which better solve poverty problems.


Booth map of Whitechapel. Source:

In the 1800s, many people thought that the poor only lived in certain places, like along the Thames River docks.  It was possible to avoid areas where the poor congregated.  Booth’s findings showed that the poor tended to live in ‘undesirable’ areas, but also lived in the same places as the wealthy.  One example of this is in the historic Whitechapel district.  This was the area frequented by ‘Jack the Ripper’.  This space has a long and volatile history.  Today, evidence of pauper’s graves can be found alongside well-to-do businesses on ‘Petticoat Lane’ (Middlesex Street).


Petticoat Lane Market, 2006. Source:

Unfortunately, mapping poverty in London has also caused harm.  Spatial information was later used by Environmental Determinists, Eugenics societies, and colonial governments to institute ghettos, slums and segregation policies.  Fully understanding the spatial implications of poverty allowed authorities to more efficiently remove the poor from desirable spaces and contain them in less desirable places.  Rather than alleviate poverty, it became possible to plan urban areas which best controlled and policed the poor. Next week, I will examine the policies which emerged from the 1800s, and now form the foundation of the ‘poverty industry’.  Until next time, this is Spatial Integrity – making the invisible, visible!


Poverty, Vagrancy, and Criminality: The Problem of the Poor in Public Policy



“Are there no prisons?”
Plenty of prisons…
“And the Union workhouses.” demanded Scrooge. “Are they still in operation?”
Both very busy, sir…
“Those who are badly off must go there.”
Many can’t go there; and many would rather die.
“If they would rather die,” said Scrooge, “they had better do it, and decrease the surplus population.”

 Poverty means different things to different people. Policies which address poverty in our communities are based on how we measure and understand poverty.  In North America, our policies and laws began in British and European history. By understanding historic perceptions of the poor, we can better understand our policies today.  The way we see the poor in our own community is the way we will see the poor in other countries.



Tudor England was especially interested in the poverty problem.  There were so many poor peasants that it was important to keep them happy and avoid unpleasant revolts.  The government divided the poor into three groups: the “helpless poor”, the “able-bodied poor”, and “rogues and vagabonds”.  Rogues and vagabonds were the most dangerous, since they were considered criminals who were most likely to overthrow the government.  Laws were passed which allowed this group to be flogged and put to death if they were caught begging.  Eventually, this third group extended to ‘undesirables’ like Gypsies, Jews, and even Huguenots (French Protestants).



The Poor Relief Act was established in 1662.  This Act made local Parishes responsible for the poor living within their specific jurisdiction.  Anyone who received charity from the church had to have documents which proved they lived in that Parish.  If they could not prove they lived there, they were forced to leave, jailed, or killed.  In short, this made the Church and not the government responsible for the poor.  It also made it possible to keep ‘undesirables’ from settling in England.



In the early 1800s, people’s ideas about the poor shifted.  Industrial growth was understood as the means to create wealthy nations.  National wealth meant greater power and influence.  Colonial control of places like Africa, South America, India and Asia became more important than ever.  Welfare and care for the poor became an obstacle to achieving National wealth and power.  People like Thomas Malthus ( made it clear that the poor were to blame for a country’s failure to grow economically.

Malthus opposed the poor laws of the time, which were established to provide food and money to people in poverty.  He believed that providing food to the poor would only serve to increase the poor populations and that they would live in a “greater degree of misery and vice.  Likewise, higher wages would only encourage the poor to have larger families, which would result in decreased National wealth.  These were the ideas that led to the establishment of debtor’s prisons and workhouses.  It was these ideas that Dickens decried in A Christmas Carol, when Scrooge delivers his famous line about poor houses and the poor…

The ‘misery of the poor’ soon extended to the polluted and dilapidated places the poor had to live in.  These places became linked to disease and death.  These were places of fear – where thieves, cut-throats and murderers stalked the streets.  These were the dark alleyways frequented by “Jack the Ripper” and Robert Louis Stevenson’s fictional Mr. Hyde.  Death, in the form of cholera, diphtheria, and scrofula became synonymous with poverty.  The poor were shunned more than ever!


Despite these perceptions, established ideas of the poor being simply ‘lazy’, ‘criminals’, ‘vagrants’, ‘drunkards’, and ‘simple-minded’ became challenged by the late 1880s.  The Industrial Revolution brought many changes to society.  People who had previously enjoyed relative economic security were becoming unemployed. Perhaps there was more to the poverty problem than a lack of willingness to work and contribute to society…

Important events, such as the Lancashire Cotton Famine (, a series of violent labour riots in the 1880s, and the growing power of Trade Unions for the working poor forced the authorities to acknowledge that poverty problem was more complex that previously understood.  Lack of viable work, infrastructure, gender, access to legal assistance, and access to adequate health care also played a part in poverty.  If Britain was to continue to grow as a global economic power, it became clear that policy changes were necessary.


“Bloody Sunday, 1887. Source:

Some of the policies that came out of this period of English history still shape International Development policies today.  Policies focusing on ‘lifting people out of poverty’ and increasing the economic capacity of women mark many of today’s programs and projects in developing nations.  Even more importantly, poverty was increasingly understood as institutional and spatial issue.  An important contributor to these understandings is Charles Booth.  Next week, I will discuss Booth’s research and mapping project in the late 1800s.  Until next time, this is Spatial Integrity – making the invisible, visible!

Poverty and Social Justice: An Introduction to the ‘Poverty Problem’


“And there won’t be snow in Africa this Christmas time
The greatest gift they’ll get this year is life
Where nothing ever grows, no rain nor rivers flow
Do they know it’s Christmas time at all?”
~Band Aid1984

 Inequality.  Resource Conflicts.  Poverty.  These are global problems facing all of us today!  In every community, there are ‘invisible’ people – people who have no access to the things they need. Things need to improve, and they need to happen NOW!

In 2014, the United Nations (UN) made a list of 17 Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs).  Number one on the list is, “End poverty in all its forms everywhere”.  This SDG calls for an elimination of extreme poverty by 2030. Is this a realistic goal?  How can we make this goal a reality?



Last week, I watched the documentary Poverty Inc with my family ( It was an eye-opening expose´ of how many efforts to address global poverty have failed.

The film introduced the concept of the “poverty industry”.  The poverty industry is a form of capitalism which makes it possible to make money by ‘helping’ the poor. Social entrepreneur-ship and celebrity-led aid programs are examples of this. These programs often cause more problems for the poor than they fix!  Band Aid 1984 was one of these programs.  Celebrity musicians collectively produced a hit single which raised money for Africans.  The music and lyrics tugged at our collective heart-strings, and encouraged privileged North Americans to open their wallets and give freely to poverty-stricken people in Africa.


The lyrics of “Do they know it’s Christmas” paint a picture of helpless Africans, who live “Where nothing ever grows; no rain nor rivers flow”.  Does this actually mean there is no food or water in Africa?! The song evokes an image of people who will never experience beauty and celebration in their lives.  Life must be so sad and desperate for people such as this!


This is “poverty porn”!  Wikipedia defines poverty porn as:

“Any type of media, be it written, photographed or filmed, which exploits the poor’s condition in order to generate the necessary sympathy for selling newspapers or increasing charitable donations or support for a given cause.”

Poverty porn is the foundation of the poverty industry. It keeps the poor, poor.  Celebrities are an integral part of the poverty industry.  They are unwitting marketers and sales people for development agendas which sell the idea of the poor as helpless, needy, and incapable.

We need to understand that the poor are not an ‘agenda’ – they are people who need to be engaged through story, dialogue and reflexive listening! A greater focus on partnerships with the poor is needed.  They need to be thought of as equals, partners, and colleagues. Current development practices often treat poverty as an issue which is addressed through institutions.



 Poverty Inc argues that the poor are “Bonsai People”.  This implies that they are poor because they often lack adequate space, land, access to jobs and resources, and legal power.  However, current development policies are based on the idea of the poor as lazy and uneducated.  These understandings of poor people have resulted in charity and humanitarian aid programs which can do far more harm than good.

The system is clearly not working!  Humanitarian aid keeps the poor in poverty.  As a result, the gaps between ‘have’ and ‘have-nots’ are widening.  Marginalised groups are finding themselves increasingly excluded from land and resources. Conflicts are increasing globally. #IdleNoMore and #BlackLivesMatter are examples of the desperation Indigenous groups, black communities, and people of colour are feeling. Social justice programs initiated by well-meaning privileged white European organisations are feeding increased injustices across the world.



 Things need to change, and they need to change NOW!  The elimination of poverty, as called out by the UN SDGs, will never occur by 2030 if we stay on the same track we are travelling.

We need to better understand where our policies have come from, in order to plan for a better future for everyone.  Because of this, I am starting an 8-part blog series on poverty and social justice.  Beginning next week, I will examine the history of social programs in Europe and North America.  This history has created many of the ways we view the poor, and how we have decided to eliminate poverty. This blog series will conclude with discussions of how we can address poverty for the future.  Until next time, this is Spatial Integrity – making the invisible, visible!