First Nations and the Canadian Election: 3 Takeaways for Native Americans in the US

Progressives south of the Canadian border are celebrating the sweeping victory of Prime Minister-designate Justin Trudeau and the Liberal Party in Monday’s election. With an absolute majority, the Liberals have achieved both the political mandate—and the power—to turn the tide on years of conservative policymaking and move our northern neighbors toward a more progressive future.

My family is Assiniboine—from the Carry the Kettle First Nation in Saskatchewan. Though politics drew an artificial boundary a long time ago, our people—like so many of our neighboring tribes— straddle the US-Canada border. Our families, cultures, and histories are borderless. That is part of the reason I pay a lot of attention to Canadian politics—and to what our First Nations and family to the north have to teach us.

Here are three takeaways from Canada’s election that tribes and political leaders should consider as we organize for 2016.

Close the Worst Gaps 

The differences in health, education, and well-being between Native and non-Native people on both sides of the border are stark. Last month, the Assembly of First Nations—the largest national organization representing First Nation citizens in Canada—released their priorities for the federal election. National Chief Perry Bellegarde opens the new agenda with a call to action:

“Closing the gap in the quality of life between First Nations and Canada builds a stronger, healthier country for all of us. We need change now—we must close the gap.”

The gap is indeed wide—but not just in Canada. Half of First Nations children live in poverty, a figure that is triple the national average. Here in the US, 47 percent of children on reservations live in poverty, compared to the US rate of 21.1 percent. Secondary school graduation rates are 35 percent for First Nation students, compared to 85 percent for all Canadians.  Here, Native students have a graduation rate lower than any other racial and ethnic group at 68 percent. The graduation rate for students served by the Bureau of Indian Education is only 53 percent, compared to the national graduation rate of 80 percent. Perhaps most troubling is the crisis of youth suicide on both sides of the border. First Nations youth in Canada commit suicide at five to six times the rate of non-aboriginal youth, and the Native Youth suicide rate in the US is two-and-a-half times the national rate.

Not only should our candidates in the US have clear platforms for improving the education, welfare, and health of tribes, but they should focus on closing some of the widest and most extreme gaps in outcomes between Native people and the rest of the population.

Each of the leading progressive parties in Canada had clear platforms for First Nations and policy commitments that targeted these gaps. The new Liberal government has committed to increasing funding for K-12 First Nations education by $2.6 billion.

US political candidates should use the campaign trail to meet with—and listen to—tribal leaders and their communities in order to build meaningful policy platforms.

Rock the Native Vote and Fight Voter Disenfranchisement

Strong grassroots organizing contributed to a huge Native voter turnout in the Canadian election. Polling stations in six First Nation communities ran out of ballots. Many local observers believe the shortage was due in part to the Canada elections board underestimating the turnout. The Assembly of First Nations identified 51 “ridings”—the name for local elections in Canada—where First Nations voters in particular influenced the outcome.

Organizers in the US are also helping to get Native people to the polls through initiatives like the Native Vote campaign, but they face a formidable obstacle—efforts to disenfranchise Native voters.

The situation is so bad in Jackson County, South Dakota, that the US Department of Justice has now joined in a lawsuit accusing county officials of disenfranchising Native people from the Pine Ridge reservation. This disenfranchisement occurs through a highly restrictive early voting system and polling locations that require traveling long distances. And in Buffalo County, South Dakota, members of the Crow Creek reservation make up 85 percent of the population but have very few accessible options to cast a ballot.

Candidates in the US should speak out loud and clear during the campaign about the need for a fair and accessible election system for Native people.

Listen to Young Native People 

When you look at the numbers, Native people in Canada and the US are a young and fast-growing population. This growth is clear in Canada when you consider that 54 Native people ran in this election.

Young Native people in the US were front and center in our politics this year too. Not only did President Obama meet with a group of Native youth during his trip to the Standing Rock Sioux Tribe, but he released a new Native youth agenda at the annual White House Tribal Nations conference, launched a new national leadership network called Generation Indigenous, and held the very first White House tribal youth conference this summer.

Candidates should pledge to keep this momentum going for our young people by building policy platforms that include Native children and youth. Take a cue from President Obama and his successful leadership in tribal policy.

There is no separation between the Native nations, peoples, and cultures that straddle the US-Canada border. It is colonial history and imposed political systems that necessitate advocacy for change on “both sides.”

North or South, elections still matter, and Native people deserve and need a strong voice to help determine our elected leaders and their policies.




New Mortgage Disclosure Requirements a Win for AAPIs

Last week, the Consumer Financial Protection Bureau (CFPB) released a much needed and long-anticipated rule—a milestone not only for fair housing policy and advocacy groups, but also for the nation’s growing population of Asian Americans and Pacific Islanders (AAPIs).

The new rule improves the reporting requirements of lenders under the Home Mortgage Disclosure Act (HMDA). Signed into law in in 1975, HMDA was enacted as a response to widespread urban disinvestment and redlining—the systematic exclusion of neighborhoods of color when marketing and offering home mortgage loans. Under the HMDA, mortgage lenders are required to report information about their applicants and loan decisions, including the race and ethnicity of borrowers and people who have been denied. But lenders haven’t had to disclose any data on applicant creditworthiness. As a result, the law has been severely limited in its ability to reveal discriminatory practices.

With the CFPB’s new rule in effect, there will be increased attention paid to the creditworthiness of applicants, including information on their debt-to-income ratios and credit scores—data that are key to uncovering discriminatory lending patterns and determining whether financial institutions are meeting the housing needs of the communities they serve. The new rule also requires more specificity in reporting on the ethnicity and race of applicants—a vital measure to ensure that HMDA data reflect our nation’s increasing diversity.

Prior to this new rule, while HMDA reporting requirements had been useful in shedding some light on mortgage practices in the Black and Latino communities, they have been completely inadequate for capturing the experiences of other communities of color, especially Asian Americans and Pacific Islanders. This is because HMDA data—like numerous other statistics—currently treat AAPIs as a uniform racial group, despite the fact that Asian Americans and Pacific Islanders represent more than 30 countries and ethnic groups that speak more than 100 languages.

The results of data analysis on AAPIs are therefore often misleading. For several years, HMDA data have portrayed the mortgage outcomes of the group as much better than those of other borrowers of color, thus reinforcing the “model minority” myth which asserts that people of color should follow the example of Asian Americans and Pacific Islanders. While it’s true that many hard-working AAPIs have done well in the US—getting a good education and good jobs, becoming homeowners, and building wealth—we also know that this story by no means applies to all AAPIs.

Like other people of color, many AAPIs still suffer from disparate treatment when looking for housing.

In fact, Asian Americans and Pacific Islanders are not only one of the fastest growing populations in the United States, but also one of the fastest growing populations in poverty since the Great Recession. They come from diverse socioeconomic backgrounds and therefore arrive in the US under widely different circumstances. They have a relatively high median household income compared to African Americans and Latinos, but this is largely due to the fact that AAPIs tend to have larger households and are geographically concentrated in the most expensive states—Hawaii, California, New York and New Jersey.

As a whole, the AAPI poverty rate is 12.6 percent. But if we look at individual groups within the AAPI community, we see just how misleading that figure is. Many individuals and families—especially refugees from Southeast Asia—are among the poorest people in the US. The Hmongs have a poverty rate of nearly 39 percent and Cambodians have a poverty rate of 29 percent—two percentage points above the African American poverty rate. AAPI homeowners were also hit very hard by the housing market crash. Falling housing prices, high rates of foreclosures, and low property values have resulted in a significant loss of wealth in this community. Asian Americans and Pacific Islanders have also endured the largest percentage decline in homeownership rates of any racial group.

Southeast Asians have been particularly vulnerable to foreclosures, as they have higher concentrations of workers in low-wage sectors, lower education levels, and higher rates of linguistic isolation than the broader AAPI community. The Central Valley in California—home to one of the largest concentrations of Southeast Asians—is among the areas that have been most devastated by the foreclosure crisis. Along with the Inland Empire area of Southern California, Central Valley counties feature the highest concentration of foreclosed/Real Estate Owned (REO) properties—and loans at risk of foreclosure—in the state of California. In 2010, the City of Merced had the third worst foreclosure rate in the country at 11 percent. Hmong and Lao comprise 25 percent of the residents in the Merced neighborhoods that were targeted for foreclosure programs.

Like other people of color, many AAPIs still suffer from disparate treatment when looking for housing: one in five AAPIs experience discrimination in the rental and home buying process. Addressing the barriers to housing faced by a diverse AAPI community and others is critical to ensuring that everyone has the opportunity to build wealth for their families—essentially, to achieve the American Dream.

Kudos to the CFPB for taking a powerful step in the right direction.


First Person

I went to prison at age 60. Here’s what I learned.

I was released from the Federal Correction Institution, Tallahassee one year ago. I was taken to the Greyhound bus station and given a ticket to head home to New York. For the first time in close to a year, I went unescorted to a store to buy a cup of coffee. I didn’t feel free. I felt anxious.

I am 64 years old and fearful I will end up in a shelter.

I have been in prison twice. The first time, I was 60 years old, and I was convicted on three felony counts of tax evasion and one count of mail fraud. I was released when my case was overturned as two of the tax charges were deemed legally insufficient based upon the evidence presented by the government. I then went to prison a second time at age 63 when one of the tax evasion charges was retried. Prior to both trials, I was offered plea bargains with no jail time, but I was innocent so I fought the charges.

Prior to my arrest, I worked for decades. I had a home, family, extended family, and friends. And while I was awaiting trial—a period that lasted 12 years—my father was my greatest supporter. He wanted me to be close to family so he offered me an apartment in New Jersey. He supported me financially by covering my health insurance, electric bills, phone, and car payments. But after I moved there, he passed away unexpectedly.

After my father died, I had my apartment but no money. I lost my attorney. I was hungry and would go to Sam’s Club to eat their samples for dinner. And, after I was convicted and went to prison, my apartment was rented out. I had lived there for more than ten years while I awaited trial following my arrest.


After I lost my first trial, I was sent to a federal prison camp that was difficult for an older person. The prison camp was divided into an upper compound, which contained the housing units, health center, library, chapel, and recreation buildings; and a lower compound, which consisted of the dining hall, laundry, education center, and commissary. The return trip from the lower compound to the housing unit was over a mile and up a steep hill. I had balance problems—on rainy or snowy days I walked slowly because I feared falling. I had to stop every ten feet or so to catch my breath. The weather—severe heat in the summer and arctic cold in the winter—the terrain, and the physically tough environment of the prison were hard for older women. The stress of surviving was added pressure.

The second time I lost at trial I was sent to a higher security prison in Florida. One Physician’s Assistant (PA) there was notorious for telling every woman he examined that aches and pains were due to fat. He told me the same thing he told the others, “You are fat. You need to walk on the track and drink water.” Once, one Latina woman went to him complaining of severe stomach pains. He gave her the fat speech and several weeks later she died when her gallbladder burst. When I heard this story, I wrote about it. I sent the story via email for a friend to post on my website. Correctional officers read our emails and when they saw an officer was mentioned, I was arrested, handcuffed, and taken to solitary—the Segregated Housing Unit (SHU). The officers told me I was being punished for writing about an officer.

I was held in solitary for seven weeks. Immediately I started suffering migraines, which were soon joined by vertigo and high blood pressure. I requested medical attention but was denied. The freezing temperatures added to my physical suffering; I asked for and did not receive an extra blanket.

I also repeatedly asked the prison staff to check my blood pressure—my family had a history of heart disease. Two weeks went by before they checked it. It was 200 over 100—stroke territory. I asked the PA, “Are you going to take me to the hospital to be checked?” No, he said, and I knew my life was in jeopardy. The migraines, vertigo and high blood pressure conditions are still a problem today, and I believe the stress—the physical and mental challenge of being in solitary—caused me permanent damage.

Finally, at an age when most of my friends were preparing for retirement, I was released from the higher-security prison as a homeless, financially broke, convicted, and aging woman. I had nothing to call my own and my legal bills had consumed a lifetime of savings. I was full of fear and anxiety. I came home an orphan with a living family.


After I arrived back in New York, I had to report to a residential reentry center (RRC aka a halfway house). Under current law, RRC placements can last up to one year. However, I was permitted to stay only six weeks—a very short amount of time for reentry, especially given that I was 63, homeless, and penniless.

On top of that, this halfway house’s rules were borderline Kafkaesque. Phones were prohibited within the house. There was no Internet. Permission to leave the house was limited and often unattainable. If you managed to get permission to go somewhere that had a computer, you could apply for a job online. However, since there was no way for an employer to call you, the effort was futile. Even if you got an email response, you might not get permission to go to the job site for an interview.

Because I couldn’t demonstrate proof of employment on an application for housing or pass a background check, the only choice I had after the halfway house was a homeless shelter, aka the last place I wanted to live. And so, I arranged to join a three-quarter house, which are unlicensed facilities that rent shared rooms to people leaving mental hospitals, drug treatment programs, and prisons or jails. It’s a profitable business. This one was run by a purported feminist who claimed to care about the women she was housing.

It was a frightening sight. Eleven women were crowded into a few rooms. One working bathroom was available. I lived in a space half the size of my prison cell. My roommate and I could not stand in the room at the same time. One of us had to stay on the bed for the other to get her clothes.

I had nothing to call my own and my legal bills had consumed a lifetime of savings.

I worked a $9.00 an hour job at Old Navy for the Christmas season. Standing on my feet seven hours a day was painful, and I couldn’t straighten out my back and needed to sleep to endure the next full day of work. And, although I was assigned evening hours, the house curfew was at 11:00. Women who didn’t get home on time found their belongings in garbage bags on the street. The so-called-feminist found it easy to throw women out, and I had to call her when I arrived at the house from work each night to get back in after hours.

My struggles to obtain housing in New York City haven’t ended as I don’t have credit or a job. In one telling instance, I had three in-person interviews in one week with an agency whose work focused on the formerly incarcerated. Although I was hired, the job offer was retracted only two days later. I was—and I still am—stunned by the lack of interest in employing formerly incarcerated returning citizens.

In short, I’m writing this story because I believe in coming out as a convicted felon. I believe in disclosing my history to employers, friends, and practically everyone. And as there are as many as 100 million Americans with a criminal record, if everyone “came out as a criminal,” most people would know someone. We would see increased momentum for reform on jobs, housing, and criminal justice reform more broadly. And we could build an elder justice movement that works for alternatives to incarceration for the elderly; the release of incarcerated elders; and responsible reentry specifically focused on the needs of the elderly who are returning home.

But right now I have no job and no housing. I am 64 years old and fearful I will end up in a shelter. I have fought every day to jumpstart my life, but I feel I am losing the battle.

Editor’s Note: The Federal Bureau of Prisons did not respond to TalkPoverty’s request for comment at the time of publication.


First Person

VIDEO: Citizens Tell Congress about Hunger in America

Following Bill O’Reilly’s ludicrous claim that child hunger is a “myth,” eight citizens—including a television executive—visited Congress to tell lawmakers about their experiences with nutrition assistance programs and explain that we must strengthen them to further protect the health and well-being of children and improve their long-term outcomes.

Three of these advocates share their stories here.

Whatever Bill O’Reilly thinks, child hunger is real and an issue Congress needs to tackle.

Posted by on Wednesday, October 14, 2015

Editor’s note: Tell Congress to Protect and Strengthen Vital Nutrition Assistance Programs Now.


First Person

I’m Homeless. I’m Sorry You Feel Helpless

You’re angry with me. I can see that. You see me sitting on the sidewalk counting change and looking up at the door to a McDonald’s. I’m dirty and I smell, and nothing about that is your fault.

You’re angry with me, I can tell. Not because I did anything wrong, but because of the way I make you feel. I make you feel helpless. You know that there is nothing that you can do to make me not homeless. I make you feel afraid that this might be you someday. I make you feel disgusted that anyone could live this way, and none of that is your fault.

You’re angry with me. I can tell. Not because of what I’m doing, but because of what I’m not doing. You’re angry that I’m not trying to change. You’re angry that I’m sleeping on the streets; that I spend all day begging for change and not trying to change. You’re angry with me because now I have somehow made this your problem.

You're angry with me, I can tell. Not because I did anything wrong, but because of the way I make you feel.

I’m sorry you see me sitting on the sidewalk counting change and looking up at the door to a McDonald’s. I’m sorry I’m dirty and I smell, and nothing about that is your fault. I’m sorry – not because I did anything wrong, but because of the way I make you feel. I’m sorry I make you feel helpless. I’m sorry that you know that there is nothing that you can do to make me not homeless. I’m sorry I make you feel afraid that this might be you someday. I’m sorry I make you feel disgusted that anyone could live this way, and none of that is your fault. I’m sorry that I’m sleeping on the streets, that I spend all day begging for change. I’m sorry that now I have somehow made this your problem.

I forgive you for being angry with me. Please forgive me for being homeless.


He’s not there again today. He has been there every day for years. You’re actually worried. Why? He is just a homeless guy. He’s not there again today. For months you passed him by without a thought. One day you figured, what the heck I’ll give him a buck. He smiles and says thank you and god bless you, and he means it. He’s not there again today.

You started carrying a couple of extra bucks just for him. A couple of times you even brought him coffee. Just a routine, barely a second thought. Doing something nice, giving back, helping out. He’s not there again today.

Do you ask around? Do you put up flyers? Do you call the hospitals or the police? Where did he go? Is he okay? He’s not there again today.

Does he know that you’re worried? Does he know that you care? Before he was gone you had no clue how much he meant to you. He’s no longer just some homeless guy. He’s not there again today.

You knew his face, his smile, his way. His dirty coat, old and frayed. You never even knew his name. Why is he not there? Why did he go away? All you know is, he’s not there again today…


We must stand together and speak as one. Let our message spread through the streets like a flood, so that every ear shall hear and every mouth shall speak: We will not be ignored any longer.