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Women, poverty and housing : some consequences of hinterland status for a coast Salish Indian reserve in metropolitan Canada Mitchell, Marjorie Ruth

Abstract

A perspective that focusses upon the development of a British Columbia Indian reserve as a dependent hinterland within the Canadian metropolis is used as a framework for an ethnographic description of reserve poverty. The results of Euro-Canadian economic intrusion upon a Coast Salish village that was comparatively self-sufficient prior to contact are viewed in terms of the native inhabitants' diminishing access to traditional resources, their increasing reliance upon wages and metropolitan government transfer payments, and their irreversible descent into poverty. Ethnographic fieldwork in 1971-72 is supplemented with ethnohistorical documentation to provide an account of the transition from autonomy to dependency and to describe the present satellite position of the reserve. Early Indian Affairs administration is seen as a series of expropriative measures by colonial and, later, federal and provincial governments to relieve native people of their traditional subsistence territory and residential sites and of their rights to self-definition as well as to self-determination. An assessment is made of the imposition of the Indian Act and other government policy upon the lives of reserve residents, especially women. The economic position of native Indian women is compared with that of their male counterparts on the reserve and with non-Indian populations in selected census areas. Examination of unemployment patterns, employment alternatives, and income levels reveals that Indian women suffer more severe economic hardships than virtually any other segment of Canadian society. Both native women and men are largely dependent upon seasonal or irregular employment in unskilled, low-paying positions, but for women, employment alternatives are even more restricted and wages more unreliable. Self-generated employment by women is a major source of supplementary income. In addition, female-centred, or matrifocal, households on the reserve are shown to have substantially lower per capita and median incomes than male-centred, or patrifocal, households, to be more dependent upon inadequate government transfer payments, and to be almost entirely below standard poverty lines established for all Canadian households. Because of their vulnerable legal identity as registered Indians and as members of Indian bands, reserve women are discovered to be particularly subject to economic hardships, not only in terms of employment and income but also of acquiring adequate reserve housing for themselves and their children. The ways in which women manoeuvre to obtain the best possible living accommodation for themselves and their families are described from the perspective of establishing claims to share housing with kin or to occupy abandoned dwellings. Shifting residential patterns that constantly rearrange the composition of certain households are seen as the outcome of a severe housing shortage on the reserve and of overcrowding that permeates nearly every house. A poorly-financed federal government programme to build new houses on the reserve is shown to be totally inadequate for meeting the housing needs of a growing population. Consequently, new or improved houses are regarded by reserve inhabitants as a social resource, in scarce supply and high demand. Child care arrangements, in the case of marriage breakdown, are shown to be the result of careful decisions that native Indian mothers make to ensure the best possible housing for their children, in a situation of limited economic resources and only a narrow range of options for providing security for the offspring of their marriage.

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