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Aboriginal walkers make their way to Parliament Hill on March 25, 2013, in Ottawa in support of better conditions for aboriginal people. (Dave Chan For The Globe and Mail)
Aboriginal walkers make their way to Parliament Hill on March 25, 2013, in Ottawa in support of better conditions for aboriginal people. (Dave Chan For The Globe and Mail)

JOHN RICHARDS

Aboriginals and the census: Time for a closer look at definitions Add to ...

The most important social policy agenda facing Canada is to relieve the poverty and social distress among Aboriginals. And the old joke remains relevant: If you don’t know where you are, you’re not likely to get where you want to go. The census is crucial in learning “where we are.”

According to the National Household Survey (NHS) data released Wednesday, 1.4 million Canadians identified in 2011 as Aboriginal, 61 per cent as Indian/First Nation, 32 per cent as Métis and 4 per cent as Inuit.

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The Aboriginal population is much younger than the non-Aboriginal population and its fertility is higher. Forty-six percent of the Aboriginal population is under age 24, as opposed to only 30 per cent of the non-Aboriginal population. As a result, the Aboriginal share of the total population is rising – from 3.8 per cent in 2006 to 4.3 per cent in 2011.

The majority of the population in Northwest Territories and Nunavut are Aboriginal, but nine in 10 Aboriginals live in one of the six provinces, from Quebec to British Columbia. In Manitoba and Saskatchewan, approximately one in six identify as Aboriginal. Among those under age 20 in these two provinces, nearly one in three are Aboriginal.

Aboriginal children are much more likely to live in single-parent or other “non-standard” families than other Canadians. Exactly 50 per cent of Aboriginal children (age 14 and under) live with both parents. This statistic is somewhat lower among Indian/First Nation and higher among Métis. The comparable statistic among non-Aboriginals is 76 per cent.

As with all issues of identity in the modern world, definitions are debatable. The census defines Aboriginal in several ways. The most widely used relies on self-identification. Individuals can self-identify as belonging to one of three Aboriginal groups: North American Indian or First Nation (Mohawk, Ojibwa, Cree, and so on), Métis (descendents of communities formed from the intermarriage of Indians and coureurs de bois engaged in the fur trade), or Arctic Inuit.

Another census definition is based on Aboriginal ancestry. A third definition is an individual indicating that he or she is a “registered Indian” under the Indian Act, a statute dating from the late 19th century. According to the NHS, three quarters of those who self-identify as Indian/First Nation are also registered Indians. But only half those who report being registered Indians actually live on a reserve.

Increasingly, the Aboriginal population is urban. The Canadian city with the largest Aboriginal population is Winnipeg, home to 72,000 Aboriginals.

The 2006 Aboriginal data came from the 20 per cent random sample of Canadians required to complete the “long form.” Since participation was mandatory among those selected, the results were as accurate as a census could provide. For the 2011 census the government made the controversial decision to abolish mandatory participation in a “long-form” sample and substituted voluntary participation in a larger 35 per cent sample, the basis for NHS results. While the sample was larger, those who rely on census Aboriginal data have expressed serious concerns about bias. Statistics Canada has done its best to eliminate potential bias but the Aboriginal response rate may well have been lower than in 2006, and those Aboriginals who chose not to respond may well have been poorer and/or more alienated from mainstream society than those in a representative sample.

John Richards teaches in the Graduate School of Public Policy at Simon Fraser University and is a fellow at the C.D. Howe Institute.

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