Welcome to the 137th meeting of the Standing Committee on the Status of Women. Today, we'll continue our study on the challenges faced by senior women with a focus on the factors contributing to their poverty and vulnerability.
I am pleased to welcome, from CARP, Laura Tamblyn Watts, who is the Chief Public Policy Officer.
From Dalhousie University, we welcome Lori Weeks, Associate Professor, School of Nursing. She's here by video conference. I would just note that we're having a little difficulty with that. Lori, we're going to do our very best to make sure that we stay connected and that the questions are answered, but if there are any problems, we may lose you.
From Pauktuutit Inuit Women of Canada, we have Anita Pokiak, Board Member.
Since both Laura and Lori have already given their seven-minute introductions, we'll have Anita give her seven-minute introduction. The rest are just questions and answers today.
Anita, I'm turning the floor over to you for seven minutes.
, Madam Chair.
Ulaakut, members of Parliament, Chair, Co-Chair, guests and staff.
My name is Anita Pokiak, and I'm pleased to be here with you today on behalf of our president, Rebecca Kudloo. I am a member of Pauktuutit Inuit Women of Canada's board of directors from Tuktoyaktuk, Northwest Territories, representing the western Arctic. Pauktuutit Inuit Women of Canada, incorporated in 1984, is the national representative organization of Inuit women.
Our homeland is important to our culture, our way of life. Our population is approximately 65,000, and we mainly live in 51 communities across Inuit Nunangat. Most of our communities are small, isolated and only accessible by plane. Our elders have always played and continue to play an important role demonstrating leadership through their wisdom and knowledge. They are the keepers of our tradition, heritage, culture and language. In our culture, both men and women are recognized as elders.
We must remember that, before the 1940s, we lived out on the land. Beginning in the 1950s, we were forced to permanent settlements with promises of education, health care and housing. By 1970, those born on the land had witnessed the creation of permanent settlements without adequate conditions to ensure our well-being. Our communities continue to face a large gap due to the Government of Canada's ongoing underinvestments. We do not share the same standards of living or access to health and social services, food, housing, employment, education or socio-economic development as most other Canadians. These conditions have a distinct negative impact on our elderly and can lead to circumstances for elder abuse.
For example, because of the severe shortage of housing, extended family often have to rely on elders for housing or other financial assistance. Elders are often the leaseholders of social housing units. They can be taken advantage of by other family members who moved in and cannot contribute to household costs, including rent.
For elders, a home should be a safe environment. Living in the crowded conditions such as three families in a two-bedroom home creates significant stress for all family members. It puts everyone at risk for poor nutrition, disease and family violence, including elder abuse. It can also make it difficult for elders to receive home care services. Social housing policies prohibit retrofitting any accommodation such as ramps to suit wheelchairs.
For elders in the communities with a safe shelter, the few existing services might not be appropriate for older women. Shelters are only intended for short-term stays. When elder women need somewhere to stay long term, there is no second-stage housing available in the Inuit Nunangat.
Inuit who face the highest vulnerability to food insecurity are single mothers and elders who often rely on pension income. Even with access to social assistance, because of the extremely expensive cost of food in the north, many elders can not buy healthy food and simply struggle to have enough to eat.
There are not enough trained Inuit home care service workers to assist our elders. The need to travel for most health care services affects the quality of life for elders and their families. Communities with limited health care services may not have access to the medical technology, equipment and supplies required to meet their needs. The lack of culturally appropriate and safe palliative care in communities is a large gap.
In Nunavut, there are 25 communities with only 44 long-term beds spread between Igloolik, Gjoa Haven, Cambridge Bay, Iqaluit and Arviat. The wait-list is nearly three years.
There are no facilities in Inuit Nunangat for dementia care. As a result, elders are routinely being sent to residential care facilities thousands of kilometres away. Here in Ottawa, there are around 30 Nunavummiut elders at Embassy West Senior Living. In my region, because of the lack of long-term care facilities, our elders are being sent to facilities in Inuvik and Yellowknife, which often have long wait-lists. We should not have to send our elders out of our communities or down south for specialized care. Saying that it is challenging and expensive to provide care for Inuit Nunangat is not an excuse.
Many of our elders who are being sent out of Inuit Nunangat to the south for care are the same elders who experienced colonization and residential schools first-hand, only this time they are being sent away and will never return. First they took our children and now they are taking our elders. Our families and communities are losing our elders. They should not be removed from their families, traditional foods, language, culture and environment. In another 50 years, will there be another payout and an apology for this? This is not reconciliation.
Inuit women are the main providers of care for family members, including elders. The federal government must take leadership in consultation with Inuit women to develop a solution to provide for dignity and better quality of life for our elders. This requires a dual investment, both in facilities that incorporate our way of life and in building capacity within our own communities so that we can take of our elders.
Thank you for listening.
Thanks so much for joining us.
My first question is for Ms. Pokiak.
Thank you for sharing testimony with us with regard to the experience of Inuit women. My question for you is with regard to respect for tradition and culture.
We had another witness who talked about the importance of women being able to hold their autonomy, their independence, their will, their strength, their power and their importance without being isolated, to be honoured and respected within their communities and to be given a place of importance, value, worth, dignity and respect.
In Inuit culture, I would imagine that some of these things would stand true or be important as well. I'm wondering if you can comment on that.
The main one that I have is that we really need to keep our elders at home. It is so hard when our people are down south. It is financially costly for people to come down here. When elders are down here, elders deteriorate very fast.
I'll give you an example. Let's say that somebody was at Embassy West here, and somebody was from Resolute Bay or even Rankin Inlet. Say your family member is going to pass away. We need you down here. We need a next of kin here. It's going to take days to get down here. Not only that, but weather is a factor up north. It is so sad that somebody should pass away. That's what's going to happen when people are placed down here. People cannot afford to come and be with family. The government pays for two family members to come down here to visit once a year. That, to me, is a real priority.
The other one is shelters in the community for women. There are no shelters in our communities, in the smaller communities. Those are real priorities: shelters for safety, facilities for elders—even independent living homes for elders are really important—and financial support.
I was the NDP housing critic for a number of years. I toured across Canada in that capacity. I went to Nunavik with my colleague, Romeo Saganash. What you described earlier, a situation where 14 people live in a two-bedroom house with mouldy bathrooms, I saw with my own eyes. I know that this is happening across Canada.
I also heard last week from chiefs in southern Ontario, one of the richest regions in Canada, that there was no drinking water in their communities because the water purification system was too old. I was stunned to hear that.
As a result, the living conditions in the north and in other places are difficult for indigenous peoples, including Inuit.
The government recently introduced a housing strategy. I think that it's the beginning of a strategy. It's still missing some things, such as an indigenous housing strategy.
Ms. Pokiak, I want to know what you and your group could recommend to the government. The government tells us that an indigenous housing strategy is forthcoming. This includes Inuit housing, of course. What could the government include in an indigenous housing strategy to lift Inuit women out of poverty?
I don't really have much experience in housing, but I'll just talk from my experience, which is that, for one, what we are really lacking in the communities for overcrowding—and for our elders to get away from an abusive situation—is a way to lessen that overcrowding. That puts a lot of stress on them. Also, we need to have homes in the communities where there's independent living, and where an elderly couple can have an apartment with their own access to the building. We also need to have another facility where there's 24-hour care for people in need. It's different from a dementia centre; they just need 24-hour care.
Some of the communities have independent living, but there is not enough. I know that a lot of the elders don't like to go into centres. They like their dignity and to be on their own. If they had an apartment for independent living with their own access and their families could have access to them without disturbing other people, I think that would work better. That would decrease the overcrowding of homes, with less stress and less abuse for the elders.
There's a serious lack of housing, first of all, and social housing. The places where I went, at least, had 95% social housing. It's clearly not enough to build one or two houses per village each year.
You said something else that struck me. When seniors are sent to live in residential facilities thousands of kilometres from home, it reminds them a great deal of residential schools. It brings back trauma.
You're asking the government to build shelters for senior women. I suppose the shelters are also for young women. In addition, you're asking the government to build facilities where seniors who want help can receive it. You're talking about 24-hour care.
In terms of women's shelters, I was thinking more along the lines of shelters for young women. We often hear that young women don't want to move to shelters far from home because they risk losing their children. However, you reminded me that senior women also need shelters adapted to their situation.
Do you have any comments on this?
Elder abuse is an issue of gender. There's no question about it. When we look at the proportion of people who are subject to elder abuse, it's approximately two-thirds women. Similarly, the portrait of an abuser about three-quarters of the time tends to be a man, with the exception of financial abuse, which actually has a lower rate. I'm taking frauds and scams out of that conversation. I'm talking about relational elder abuse, where there is usually an expectation of trust within a relationship. Frauds and scams are to the side. We don't necessarily have demographic data on that.
I would draw your attention to the 2015 elder mistreatment study that was run chiefly by Dr. Lynn McDonald at the University of Toronto. I was part of that study as well. It looked at the experiences across the country of elder abuse on a gendered basis. That information is also available on a province and territorial basis. I would be happy to share that information with the committee, if you'd like. Overwhelmingly, when we hear qualitative research on the experiences of older women, we see the intersectional piece being so critically important in terms of their social vulnerability.
I want to speak a little bit to the piece on newcomers and sponsored immigrants, who are perhaps some of the most vulnerable in terms of the requirements for family members to take, quote, “full responsibility financially” for the older adults who may have been brought in. That sets up a dynamic of deep concern about abuse and neglect that has a gendered element to it, particularly when we see financial resources being taken away, or, alternatively, simply not being made available to them. In some cases, women will come with their jewellery and some of their portable assets, which get taken into the family and the women then won't have. There is a significant concern around dependence and social vulnerability for older women who are experiencing intersectional marginalization due to sponsorship or immigration.
Lori, we'll have to cut it there for a moment. We're having some issues with the audio. Just hold on for one moment.
Lori, we are so apologetic. We are having some technical difficulties with the audio that's coming in. It's cracking and causing great problems for the people who are working in the translation booth, so we will have to cut your testimony off. I am so sorry. I will have Kenza, who is our clerk, reach out to you to see if there are any additional options. I'm sorry about this, but we cannot take the audio in right now. We'll have to cut this part. I feel so bad.
To all the committee members, we'll be able to speak with Anita and Laura only, and not with Lori.
Financial security is one of the most important issues when we're looking at older adults broadly and in particular older women. Currently, 76% of unattached older women live in poverty.
When we look at the TFSA, we see it can be a helpful tool. I would offer that in our experience it is rarely the tool that older women think about or indeed that financial advisers are thinking about when they're thinking about older women. Typically they're looking at either public pensions or private pensions and pension security, which is a great concern. That's not to say TFSAs can't be helpful but as older adults across the life course, looking at the impact of gendered work, we see that many older women are dropping out of the workforce, if they have been in it at all, and have challenges with pension security above all things. Sometimes the ability to have enough money for a TFSA is actually the challenge.
I think it's a tool to be considered, but if I were thinking about what was most pressing, it would be things like GIS and OAS and the ability to use deferred annuities, which has been announced, and so on, that tend to be more top of mind.
When we're thinking about financial literacy, we look at a life course approach. We've seen that some tools have been created for women, and I'll point to the tools created by the FCAC for older people. But, taking a life course approach, helping women understand the roles that different financial mechanisms play across their life course, is very important.
We know that a just-in-time approach can be very helpful, as well as a planned approach. A planned approach for financial security is putting things in schools, and so on. But we know that there are points in time that older women are thinking about their finances. There are opportunities to connect with local community resources to strengthen their awareness about tools like TFSAs and other mechanisms at earlier stages, so fifty, sixty, seventy, across the board.
No, it depends on life stage issues.
I think that some of the concerns that we see are really prevalent to family caregiving norms. We have heard time and time again older women say that it just didn't occur to them, because they were too busy raising their kids or they were hoping that their Sears pension would be safe, but all of a sudden they don't have a pension anymore. Careful planning of course is important for everybody and I would offer that careful planning is even more important for single women, who are overwhelmingly the poorest cohort.
In terms of people who are doing their planning, what we know is that life stages are opportunities to support greater understanding about tools and mechanisms, whether that be having children, going back into the workforce, applying for a job, divorce, or death of a loved one.
I cannot overemphasize how important it is for us to modernize some of the rules that are holding women back from being able to have financial security across their life course, but more specifically as an older person.
When we look at what's top of mind, If I could make a recommendation, it would be to eliminate 71 as a mandatory age for RRIF withdrawals. You have RRSPs until 65 and then those convert to RRIFs. At 71 right now we're required to withdraw that money. Very many people wish to continue to work, or indeed need to work. There's a challenge with the taxation process that doesn't need to be there. When 71 was established, we died at about 73 or 74. CARP is calling for that number to be eradicated and let people earn across their life course.
The second piece I would offer is to focus on the question of pension protection. We've seen with Sears and many other equally traumatic cases that if older people can't rely on their pensions, then we know they're going to be less interested in saving in a pension. We need to support greater confidence in pension protection.
By that, we would offer two pieces, which would have the benefit, as we know, of supporting older women specifically. The first is to create a superpriority in the case of an insolvency, by which they would be first in the line to get their own assets back out of the company before they're divested to other foreign entities that are creditors. Right now they're back of the line. Second is to create a mandatory insurance fund for the gap between the pension...maybe a fund of up to 70% or 80%. We'd like to see that be ensured.
Those two pieces would make a huge difference in the lives of women across the board.
Ms. Pokiak, I had the opportunity to visit Nunavut in March 2018, about a year ago. During my time there, I had the opportunity and privilege to visit 11 communities in nine days. I went as far north as Grise Fiord and it was an incredible experience. I had the opportunity to be in small communities throughout the region, to sit with people in their homes, radio stations and hotels, and to talk with them about their lived experience.
I took away many observations and a deep appreciation for the way I saw life being lived and for the culture, the heritage, the tradition, the history and the power of story.
One of my observations was that the traditional way of life is slowly eroding. I had the opportunity to talk with a number of people who are fishers and to chat with them about what they used to know and what they know now, in terms of being able to exercise their rights to hunt and fish.
One community that I had the opportunity to visit was Pangnirtung. In this community, the week before I arrived, there were more than a handful of suicide attempts—in one week. Upon arrival, I had the opportunity to sit with a group of about 12 young people from the community and to hear their stories and their reflections on what was going on in their village.
One of the things they shared with me was that they felt their traditional way of life was being robbed from them. They didn't have the opportunity to do the things their elders talked to them about having done during their childhoods. There was a sadness there, a sorrow and a grieving that was taking place. One used the word “bored” to describe his life. Another was just very, very sad. She expressed a lot of sorrow with regard to the place she was at in life and her family as a whole.
I also had the opportunity to talk to a number of elders within this same community. They shared with me their deep concern for the rising generation and what they were inheriting. They were very concerned about the fact that their way of life was being threatened.
I share this because my experience there has stuck with me and very much informed my appreciation for Inuit and for your way of life.
Elders play a very key role, and it's one that I would say the rest of Canada doesn't have the same appreciation for. Can you comment a bit on the impact that women in particular play with regard to helping give meaning to others within the community? In other words, there's an impartation of identity that takes place from the older generation down to the other generation. That seems to be somewhat lost, or under threat, I'll say.
Is that true? Can you comment on that?
Yes, that's very true. It's all about respect. We were the teachers of our children in everything. Our men taught our boys and our women taught the girls. We were teachers of everything—sewing, way of life, how to raise a family and how to hunt—everything.
When families off the land were placed into settlements, that all started with the taking away of our children. Everything was to be taught in the schools or by the missionaries. All that was taken away from the elders. Today, our kids are getting educated and they're losing their respect for everything, for our culture, for the land and for the animals.
We have to get that back. That's why it's really important that we get our elders into the schools, because they're not getting the teachings at home anymore. We have to put our culture and language into the schools so that we gain that respect back. It's all about respect for our people, for our land and for our animals.
My question is for Ms. Tamblyn Watts.
As you know, I'm replacing Irene Mathyssen today. A few years ago, Ms. Mathyssen proposed a national seniors strategy. Her proposals and the proposals in your report entitled “The FACES of Canada's Seniors” have a great deal in common with regard to financial security, violence prevention, health care and housing.
However, I don't know whether your report contains one of Ms. Mathyssen's specific proposals, which was to create a seniors advocate position. In this proposal in your report? If not, would this be a good recommendation for the committee?
Seniors, especially single women, often don't know whom to approach.