Navigating Financial Empowerment for First Nations

February 20, 2024

Like a dry summer, early spring, or warm winter affects our plans, financial systems are beyond our control and significantly impact our lives. While organizations like the FNMHF work to support First Nations people living on reserve to own homes within these systems, individuals are challenged to live with financial realities that are not designed based on Indigenous values.

Faced with barriers to financial well-being, the power to adapt is within Indigenous communities and people. This article invites First Nations people at any point in their financial journey to engage with the financial systems that directly affect personal finances – and offers some tools and resources – to plan in a way that best aligns with their goals and values.

Money as Medicine 

Holding onto wealth is a new concept after thousands of years of living in balance and taking only what is needed. Thinking about everything money can do to care for ourselves and those we love may help us recognize money as a powerful tool in our bundle that may be carried for future use. 

The Wellness of Generations 

While many think of their actions’ impacts on many future generations, it can be hard to invest or save money when there are pressing needs right now. Financial planning can be used to honour values and goals, which may include personal needs as well as the well-being of the community.

Money and homes (assets) have joined the legacies of knowledge, culture and care that may be shared with family and community over generations. Money may also be needed when communities need more capacity to offer support in times of difficulty or the resources to care for elders in the best way. 

Credit Systems

A credit bureau is a company that collects information about the money you borrow or bills you pay and packages that information into a credit score. Credit bureaus start collecting this information the first time you open a bank account, borrow money, or, in some cases, fall behind on utilities, cell phones, cable, or internet service. They don’t know your private tax information, but they do know about any of your credit cards, bankruptcy claims, or court-ordered judgments like a lien on a car. 

✅ Credit reports are personal, so if you’re not taking on debt with someone else (like a joint loan or mortgage), their credit won’t affect yours. See nine other things on the Equifax website that won’t hurt your credit score.

❌ To check your credit score and avoid anyone misusing your information (fraud), you can request a free credit report directly from Equifax or TransUnion, the only credit bureaus in Canada.

Credit Services

Whether borrowing using a credit card, being covered by overdraft protection, or using a line of credit, there’s almost always a cost. The Money Matters Borrowing Money workbook outlines fourteen ways of borrowing, compares the costs of each, and offers tools to calculate how much your borrowing will cost.

Debt 

Debt is the amount of money you’ve borrowed and need to repay, plus any fees or interest you owe the lender. Interest is a percentage of the money borrowed; if payments are missed, there will be interest on that amount, too. This is compound interest.

❌ Payday loans are called “predatory” for a reason. These lenders take advantage of people in difficult situations and charge huge interest that can quickly balloon and make it hard to catch up.

Why Credit?

If using a credit service costs money, why use credit? Lenders use a credit score to make decisions about who is likely to pay back borrowed money and decide how much to charge for lending money based on that risk. For large purchases like cars and houses, a good score is the most important evidence that a lender should invest in you and charge you low interest. 

A credit rating offers one set of numbers instead of taking a holistic approach. Insurers, landlords, and even employers may flag a bad credit score when deciding whether to insure, rent to, or hire an applicant. 

✅ The First Nations Market Housing Fund uses a three-pillar criteria approach based on principles instead of hard rules. This makes space for Community Commitment in decision-making and allows more flexibility for how First Nations clients are evaluated for support with credit enhancement and capacity development. Learn more about what the fund does here.

Mortgages

A mortgage is a loan that may be used to buy, build, or renovate a home and, for those living off-reserve, buy land. To get a mortgage, buyers will usually need to pay at least five percent of the cost of the home upfront as a down payment.

With a traditional mortgage, the property is used to guarantee the loan’s value. However, as most reserve lands are technically Crown Land, they can’t be taken (seized) by the lender if the buyer stops paying the mortgage. 

There are some funds and programs to support access to mortgages for on-reserve housing, but having a good credit score can make the process easier.

✅ So far, the First Nations Market Housing Fund has backed over 500 loans with the goal of increasing homeownership on First Nations lands.

Building Credit

The Money Matters Borrowing Money workbook offers tools to reflect on how you’re building credit, where to improve, and tips on building a credit history lenders will like. Their recommendations include:

  • Using a credit card
  • Paying bills on time
  • Always making the minimum payment on any bill
  • Not spending more than you can pay back

✅ Lenders place a credit limit on the maximum a customer can borrow, but spending to the limit isn’t recommended. Financial blogger NerdWallet details how the portion a customer uses and pays back impacts their credit score, recommending borrowing under 35 percent of the credit limit. 

Making a Budget

Essentially, a budget lets you track where your money is going. It’s also a tool to figure out how much you’ll need to save and for how long to buy a home.

This budgeting workbook offers familiar examples of real-life costs and situations to help build a budget that measures the money that’s coming in (income from doing a job or receiving financial support) and the money that’s being spent (expenses like childcare or food). Building a personal budget lays out what money must be spent from a monthly perspective so that you can predict how much you’ll need from month to month and see how costs that may seem small add up over time. 

Because the workbook is designed for future Indigenous women entrepreneurs, it’s helpful if you want to start your own business and need to budget for materials, equipment, or gas to provide a service or make something. 

Managing Windfalls

Inheritances, settlements, or other lump-sum cash payments can seem large before calculating how much is essential to cover basic needs. Needs may include paying off debts, doing car and truck maintenance, making repairs, upgrading old machines or equipment, or investing in materials or equipment for a home business that will bring in more cash. It might also be needed to cover groceries and bills for a while.

Spending a little on a treat before planning how best to use the funds offers a balance of celebration and future benefits. Seeing how far the money can go towards the future may inspire choices like looking for gently used furniture instead of buying new – or make it clear that the money is already spent.

Sudden Wealth Syndrome can affect those who suddenly come into large sums of money, causing intense anxiety, isolation, guilt, or fear of losing money. The Aboriginal Healing Foundation has recommended learning about managing money to ease this burden.  

Financial abuse is the most common form of elder abuse in Canada, and many settlements are being paid to survivors of residential schools and the Sixties Scoop. The First Nations Health Authority has written about financial elder abuse in First Nations communities, and this booklet offers support to recognize and prevent financial elder abuse.

✅ Many Indigenous advisors are licensed to help their communities do financial planning. Your band, bank, or network of friends and family may have a recommendation for someone who specializes in understanding First Nations, Inuit, and Métis finances. 

Saving for a Home

 At the very least, owning a home is a way to invest in meeting the basic need for shelter. At most, it is a valuable asset that gains more value over time, a legacy for future generations, and a safe home you can rely on for a lifetime. It can also be a rental property that brings in income over time.

This article has covered how building credit is essential to getting a mortgage and how budgeting is a tool to figure out how to save money for a down payment. The investment part of this financial series for Indigenous people introduces how investing can build on savings to reach those goals. 

Below are more resources created for Indigenous people, often by Indigenous authors. You may recognize the names of people from your community who believe in Indigenous Peoples’ economic rights and want to see First Nations people thrive.

Resources 

NACCA Financial Capability Workbooks

Source: The Native Women’s Association of Canada’s (NWAC) Be The Drum program, National Aboriginal Capital Corporations Association (NACCA)

Description: These three workbooks are designed to support Indigenous women in improving their financial skills and abilities and managing their money. Although the workbooks are geared towards applying those skills to entrepreneurship, they help set goals and make decisions because they help users map out what’s important to them and use familiar examples of real-life costs and situations.

Money Matters for Indigenous Peoples

Source: Money Matters

Description: The authors of Money Matters describe their tools as organized around the values of respect, responsibility, reciprocity, and relationships. They cover the basics of budgeting and invite users to think about how their relationship with money affects their loved ones. If you learn best in a group and like to ask questions, the free online courses may be a great fit.

Financial Literacy for Indigenous Peoples

Source: RBC, RBC Royal Eagles (a fellowship of Indigenous and non-Indigenous RBC employees)

Description: Based on the recommendation of the Aboriginal Healing Foundation to support financial literacy training for First Nations people receiving lump-sum payments, this 2-hour course goes into depth about how to manage a sudden windfall. 

It’s My Life

Source: Aboriginal Financial Officers Association (AFOA)

Description: The It’s My Life PowerPoint, made by Indigenous finance professionals for people receiving a settlement from the Sixties Scoop, covers Sudden Wealth Syndrome and other useful information for anyone receiving a large settlement. The workbook is a planning tool that encourages dreaming big and investing in well-being.