Aboriginal Urbanization in Canada:
Challenges in Measurement and Interpretation

There are some unique challenges associated with using census data on Aboriginal people. Changing questions, interpretations, coding and survey administration affect the comparability of data for different time periods. The following sections summarize patterns and interpretive challenges.

Aboriginal Urbanization Processes and Patterns
Urban Aboriginal Population Growth Trends
Challenges of Defining Aboriginal Populations
Changes in Census Questions and Administration
Patterns of Self-identification
Changing the Legal Requirement to Complete the Long Form Census
Changing Geographies
Glossary of Terms

Aboriginal Urbanization Processes and Patterns

Table 1 describes changes in urbanization between 1996 and 2011 for individuals who identified as Aboriginal in response to census questions. It shows that different legal categories of Aboriginal people vary in their urbanization rates. With respect to First Nations, it is important to note that for several census periods a number of reserves have refused to participate in census taking, with the result that the number and proportion of First Nations people, and especially registered Indians, living on reserves are underestimated. Norris and Clatworthy (2003: 54) suggested that if un-enumerated reserve populations had been included in 1996, approximately 60 per cent of registered Indians would be living on reserves.

Table 1: Total Aboriginal Identity 1996-2011
*The total Aboriginal identity population includes persons who reported more than one Aboriginal identity group and those who reported being a registered Indian and/or band member without reporting an Aboriginal identity
**The counts for Métis, First Nations, and Inuit were based on single responses to census questions about Aboriginal identity. Some individuals identifying as Aboriginal claimed more than one Aboriginal identity.

Sources: Statistics Canada (2003, 2006, 2013).
  Total Aboriginal Idenity* Métis** First Nations Inuit Registered Indian
Total Population, 1996 1,101,960 204,115 529,040 40,220 488,040
Total Population, 2006 1,172,790 389,780 698,025 50,480 623,780
Total Population, 2011 1,400,690 451,795 851,560 59,440 697,510
On reserve, 1996 (%) 32.8 1.5 47.4 46.0
On reserve, 2006 (%) 26.3 1.1 43.1 0.9 48.1
On reserve, 2011 (%) 23.2 0.7 37.6 0.4 45.3
Urban,1996 (%) 46.8 67.1 40.0 28.0 41.0
Urban,2006 (%) 53.2 69.4 44.7 37.6 40.6

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Urban Aboriginal Population Growth Trends

Table 2 documents changes in census counts of Aboriginal people in major metropolitan centres between 1951 and 2011. Recognizing challenges with comparability between censuses (see below), the numbers suggest that Aboriginal populations in urban areas have increased substantially over the last six decades.

Table 2: Aboriginal People in Major Metropolitan Centres, 1951-2011
Department of Indian Affairs and Northern Development (DIAND) Customized Data, 1981 Census (Ottawa: Indian Affairs Branch 1985). Statistics Canada, Perspective Canada (Ottawa: Information Canada1974) 244. http://www.statcan.ca/english/Pgdb/demo43b.htm Accessed January 2003. http://www12.statcan.ca/english/census06/dataprofiles/aboriginal/index.cfm?Lang=E. Accessed July 2008. Statistic Canada 2013
  1951 1961 1971 1981 1991ii 2001 2006 2011
Montreal 296 507 3,215 14,450 6,775 11.275 17,865 26,285
Ottawa-Hulliii -- -- -- 4,370 6,915 13,695 20,590 30,565
Toronto 805 1,196 2,990 13,495 14,205 20,595 26,575 36,990
Winnipeg 210 1,082 4,940 16,570 35,150 55,970 68,385 78,420
Regina 160 539 2,860 6,575 11,020 15,790 17,110 19,785
Saskatoon 48 207 1,070 4,350 11,920 20,455 21,535 23,895
Calgary 62 335 2,265 7,310 14,075 22,110 26,570 33,370
Edmonton 616 995 4,260 13,750 29,235 41,295 52,100 61,765
Vancouver 239 530 3000 16,080 25,030 37,265 40,310 52,375

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Challenges of Defining Aboriginal Populations

There are some important challenges associated with using census data to describe Aboriginal settlement patterns in cities. One challenge has to do with the fact that the contemporary Census employs a variety of definitions of the term “Aboriginal.” The populations defined by these terms have different total numbers and different socio-economic characteristics (Guimond 2003, Siggner and Hagey 2003). Another challenge has to do with changes in census questions and the administration of the census, and patterns of self-identification. This means that even when the definition remains constant, the census captures different population groups. Finally, for the 2011 census the legal requirement to fill in census forms was lifted, changing patterns of response. The following paragraphs describe each of these challenges and their implications for research on urban Aboriginal populations.

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Changes in Census Questions and Administration

Early population counts of Aboriginal peoples in cities were based on ethnic origin data based on answers to questions about an individual’s ancestry. Only patrilinial descent was counted from 1951 to 1971, and the Métis were not included. Beginning in 1981 ambilineal descent (both parents) and Métis populations were counted (Goldmann 1993; Goldmann and Siggner 1995).

Until 1981, only one ancestral origin was tabulated. In 1981, multiple ancestral origins were tabulated, if they were written in. In 1991, multiple responses were encouraged because the census questionnaire form provided lists of options that respondents could check off. Encouraging multiple responses was one of the factors contributing to the phenomenal growth in the number of Aboriginal people since the early 1970s (Kerr 2002).

Data on Aboriginal identity were first published in 1991, with information collected through the Aboriginal People’s Survey (APS), a post-censal survey of individuals who indicated they had some Aboriginal ancestry. The APS asked individuals with Aboriginal ancestry whether they identified with an Aboriginal group, had band membership, or had legal Indian status. Some researchers have argued that the identity population more accurately captures the essence of a “core Aboriginal population” (Goldmann and Siggner 1995) because it indicated an individual’s “feelings, allegiances or association” with Aboriginal culture (Goldmann 1994:11).

In 1981 the census ethnic origin question included a column that allowed respondents to check the categories “Inuit,” Status or registered Indian,” Non-Status Indian,” or “Métis Using an intercensal cohort survival method, Kerr et al (1996) found that the populations identified by the 1981 Native Peoples ethnic origin question and the 1991 question on Aboriginal identity appeared to be sufficiently similar to support a comparison of some characteristics.

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Patterns of Self-identification

The Aboriginal population of Canada has grown very rapidly over the past two decades. Goldman and Siggner (1995) noted that the number of persons reporting Aboriginal origins was dramatically higher in 1991 than expected purely on the basis of previous census counts. The generally younger Aboriginal population means that fertility rates are higher than the non-Aboriginal population, but Guimond et al’s (2009) analysis shows that demographic factors alone – differences between fertility and mortality, and migration – cannot account for growth of the Aboriginal population. Legislation in 1985 allowed some individuals to regain the legal status they had lost under the Indian Act. Attitudes toward Aboriginal people may also have encouraged Aboriginal respondents to identify as Aboriginal in response to census questionnaires (Siggner 2003). This phenomenon makes it difficult to analyze change, particularly among urban Aboriginal populations. If there were more Aboriginal people in one area in 2006 than there were in 1991, was it because Aboriginal people were moving into that area, or because some of the people who lived there in 1991 and did not identify as Aboriginal, were now identifying?

Some preliminary analysis suggests that newly identifying Aboriginal people are likely to have higher socio-economic status (Siggner and Hagey 2003). As a result, it is risky to base conclusions about socio-economic status and residential mobility on comparisons of time series data.

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Changing the Legal Requirement to Complete the Long Form Census

For the 2011 census the legal requirement to complete the long form census was abolished. As a result response rates dropped dramatically. Researchers feel that marginalized groups are less likely to have completed the long form census and it is likely that Aboriginal people are under-represented in collected data. Statistics Canada has warned users that the 2011 data are not comparable to data collected in previous censuses. In some urban areas Statistics Canada has not released data for some central city census tracts where response rates were too low (fewer than 53% of residents returned the form). We present the census tract level data for 2011 here, but caution users that these data may not accurately reflect Aboriginal settlement patterns. Data suppression makes it impossible to calculate dissemination area data

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Changing Geographies

As city boundaries shift, they may include areas with large numbers of Aboriginal people (for example First nations reserves). There has been no analysis of this on urban Aboriginal populations.

The maps in this atlas show city rather than Census Metropolitan Area (CMA) boundaries. Our focus on cities is based on the fact that many Aboriginal people live in more central areas in cities, and mapping CMAs would mean that the details of these areas would be lost in the larger map.

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Glossary of Terms

Aboriginal Identity refers to those persons who reported identifying with at least one Aboriginal group, i.e. North American Indian, Métis or Inuit (Eskimo), and/or those who reported being a Treaty Indian or a Registered Indian as defined by the Indian Act of Canada and/or who were members of an Indian Band or First Nation.

The terms North American Indian, Métis, and Inuit are the terms used in the Aboriginal identity question on the Census form. These terms allow the individual respondent to report the specific Aboriginal group with which they self-identify. There are no official definitions provided in the Census for these terms. They do derive from the terms used in the Canadian Constitution in relation to Aboriginal peoples.

The term North American Indian is used for those persons who self-identify as such, and generally refers to persons who consider themselves as part of the First Nations in Canada. Métis generally refers to people who are identify with the Métis Nation in western Canada, or who are of mixed Aboriginal and non-Aboriginal ancestries and who self-identify as Métis. The Inuit are Aboriginal people who originally lived north of the tree line in Canada, and who self-identify as such.

Aboriginal Origin/Ancestry refers to those persons who reported at least one Aboriginal origin in answer to the ethnic origin question (North American Indian, Métis or Inuit). Ethnic origin refers to the ethnic or cultural group(s) to which the respondent’s ancestors belong.

Registered, Status or Treaty Indian refers to those persons who reported they were registered under the Indian Act of Canada. Treaty Indians are persons who are registered under the Indian Act and can prove descent from a Band that signed a treaty.

Member of Indian Band or First Nation refers to those persons who reported being a member of an Indian Band or a First Nation of Canada.

Single Ethnic Origins is a census variable that shows those persons who indicate one and only one Aboriginal ancestry.

Multiple Ethnic Origins is a census variable that shows the number of persons who among all their ancestries report at least one Aboriginal ancestry and at least one non-Aboriginal ancestry.

Total Ethnic Origins is a census variable that includes all persons who indicated at least one Aboriginal ancestry in their response to the ethnic origins question.

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