The recent Statistics Canada release of the 2006 national census data on Aboriginal peoples garnered a great deal of media and public attention. In the following days, attention was turned to the controversy surrounding some of the numbers.
But first, let’s look at some of the positive findings. The census pegs the “Aboriginal” population (Aboriginal includes Métis, Inuit and First Nations people) at more than a million, further noting that the Aboriginal population is growing more than 3.5 times faster than the non-Aboriginal population.
It also reaffirms what many of us already know: our population is young, with more than half of our people under the age of 25.
The sheer numbers of Aboriginal people – more than a million strong – coupled with a young and booming demographic, represent a tremendous opportunity for Canada. As the rest of Canada’s population is ageing and reaching retirement, we have a ready and able pool of talent that can be educated and trained as the workforce of tomorrow. Now, more than ever before, it is in all our interests to reach out to First Nations people and seize the opportunity for education and investment.
Now, having said that, there are some real problems and real confusion with Statistics Canada’s numbers, particularly as they relate to First Nations (or “Indians” or “North American Indians,” to use the Stats Can term).
The problems start with confusion over the term “Aboriginal.” Aboriginal refers to the Inuit, Indians and Métis. This is an important distinction, especially when we’re talking about the on- and off-reserve population. If you talk “Aboriginal” people living off-reserve, you’re including the Métis and Inuit. This is wrong and should not be done because Métis and Inuit never had reserves and therefore never would have resided on-reserve. It’s kind of like saying “most Italian Canadians do not live on-reserves,” or “most Asian Canadians do not reside on reserve.” What we really want to look at is: how many status Indians – those entitled to live on-reserves – actually live on- and off-reserve?
The reality, according to both Indian Affairs and Statistics Canada, is that more than half of the status Indian population live on-reserve. And the on-reserve population is growing.
There are also problems with Statistics Canada’s own numbers, problems which they acknowledge. Their figure for the on-reserve population undercounts by at least 200,000, compared to the official federal Indian Registry. Twenty-two reserves don’t take part in the census, and these include some of Canada’s largest reserves. As well, at least one-quarter of residents weren’t counted on 166 reserves.
Add to this Statistics Canada’s self-created confusion over terms like “Aboriginal identity” and “Aboriginal ancestry.” Individuals who do not have Indian status but claim “Aboriginal Identity” are rolled in with the First Nations population, while those who claim “Aboriginal Ancestry” are excluded. There is no rationale for this decision. All it does is create a wonderful state of what Bob Dylan called, in an early recording, “Mixed-up Confusion.”
So, what are the real numbers? The best estimate, based on Indian and Northern Affairs registry, is that there were 763,555 status Indians in Canada in 2006, 58% were living on reserve, and those numbers climbed steeply in 2007.
This misleading picture created by Statistics Canada has real world implications. If, for example, the government is going to take a truly progressive step and, say, invest in First Nations education, it needs real numbers to identify where the investments should go. For that reason, the AFN is meeting with Statistics Canada and hopes to work with them to create a more accurate and informed picture of Canada’s first peoples.