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Iqaluit in 2015.The Canadian Press

Federal officials questioned the quality of the 2021 census data for Indigenous communities after collection efforts were hampered by factors including the discovery of unmarked residential school graves, documents show.

Briefing notes obtained by The Canadian Press through access-to-information legislation reveal Statistics Canada’s struggle to survey more than 600 First Nation and Inuit communities.

The documents were prepared for Indigenous Services Canada – the department that funds housing on reserves, along with other infrastructure and social programs.

Last October, weeks after the nearly five-month census window closed on Sept. 24, officials provided an update to the department’s deputy minister. It noted while the overall response rate was 98 per cent, it was only around 85 per cent for Indigenous communities.

That was down from 92 per cent in the 2016 census year.

“While data collection results have surpassed expectations given the circumstances, questions remain about the quality of data,” it read.

“Lower data quality will likely limit the ability to develop a sound evidence base for decision-making whether it be federal, provincial or Indigenous governments using the 2021 census data.”

Indigenous Services Canada has not yet returned a request for comment.

In Canada, the census is done every five years to collect population and demographic information that assists governments in making funding decisions. Communities also rely on it for infrastructure planning.

Statistics Canada spokesman Peter Frayne said in the previous two census years, the number of reserves not fully counted had fallen to 14 in 2016, down from 36 in 2011.

In 2021, that figure shot up to 63, with Frayne saying the COVID-19 pandemic, combined with forest fires and heat waves, impacted results.

The federal agency needs permission to enter a First Nation. It reported that out of the 63 communities, 25 did not allow entry.

Documents tell a more detailed story of what went on behind the scenes.

Before data collection even began, Statistics Canada, trying to sort out how to conduct a census as the pandemic raged, opted to rely more heavily on Canadians filling out their forms online rather than through face-to-face interactions.

Efforts were made to hire local counters for Indigenous communities, but that work force saw fewer than 1,000 out of some 2,200 available positions filled.

Over that summer, Indigenous Services officials flagged lagging census participation as an issue for First Nations and Inuit communities.

“Despite an unprecedented level of effort by Statistics Canada, the 2021 census data collection in First Nations and Inuit communities has been significantly hampered by the COVID-19 pandemic,” reads a mid-August update to the deputy minister.

“Participation rates have further been dampened by the uncovering of burial sites at former Indigenous residential schools, as well as the recent forest fires which have disrupted the lives of so many Indigenous families in northern Ontario and western provinces.”

It goes on to say the discovery of unmarked graves “is exacerbating negative sentiment towards the federal government, potentially leading communities to reject participation in the 2021 census.”

More than 150,000 Indigenous children were forcibly removed from their families and sent to federally funded church-run residential schools, where physical and sexual abuse was rampant.

Indigenous and non-Indigenous Canadians were confronted with that reality last May, when a British Columbia First Nation announced it had found what are believed to be the remains of 215 children buried at a former residential school.

On the advice of Statistics Canada’s Indigenous liaison advisers, census director general Geoff Bowlby said the agency suspended collection for a period of time of out respect for communities.

That delay, coupled with how First Nations grappled with the painful discovery, affected response levels, he said.

“It’s intangible but it would have had some impact for sure.”

How willing people are to fill out the census comes down to trust, and is tied to what experiences they have had with governments, said Bowlby.

“There’s a burden that is placed upon people by the census and we have to be careful and aware of what is going on in people’s lives.”

At one point, officials saw only 63 out of the country’s more than 600 Indigenous communities had been counted, so by mid-July Statistics Canada decided to deploy travel teams to help the situation.

By mid-August, that figure began to increase, but officials noted census information was still missing from some 500 communities while the window to collect it was closing. The consequence of having such a large gap is “considerable at many levels,” they said.

“The sheer magnitude of the work remains a concern for all involved,” a briefing note to Indigenous Services read.

Census data is a “critical resource,” officials wrote, used by the department to track process on closing the socio-economic gap between Indigenous and non-Indigenous people.

“Efforts to ensure that this data remain of the highest quality are key to maintaining the federal government’s ongoing commitment to transparency and results, and its dedication to advancing reconciliation with Indigenous Peoples,” it read.

With more census data missing for individual Indigenous communities than previous years, Bowlby said gaps can be filled by creating forecasts from 2016 numbers as well as gleaning aggregate data from tax records and the Indian register, which is controlled by Indigenous Services Canada.

“But there’s nothing like the census data and that’s why it’s so important that we get it, and we get it right with each census,” he said.

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