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Where Some Ideas Are Stranger Than Others...

Indigenous Nations and Census Taking

Somehow, you can always sort the enumerators from the people who valiantly sell chocolates and magazines to finance school trips or collect commitments to provide empties for bottle drives. Admittedly, it could be the gigantic clipboard and the slightly harried look: being a census enumerator isn't necessarily a pleasant job. Census-taking isn't as humdrum and uncontroversial as you might expect, either. Individual reasons to refuse to participate in a census range from religious (i.e. express prohibitions by a deity) to political (i.e. belief that census-taking is too easily twisted into a tool of oppression). Then there are those who don't get to make a decision to participate or not, because the census-takers never reach them due to difficulties reaching their communities or because they are homeless. Apart from these types of reasons, Indigenous people often have additional experiences that may make them reluctant to participate in a census.

The experiences of First Nations and Inuit around censuses are probably best known. For many years, an accurate census meant that when First Nation or Inuit parents' children reached the age of six years or so, an Indian agent would arrive to round them up and take them away to residential school. If the Indian agent knew about your children, and you tried to prevent them from being taken away, you could be jailed and fined while your children were taken anyway. Many of those children never made it home, others were away from six to eight years. For the Inuit, census-taking is also tied to the experience of being arbitrarily renamed by federal officials, a topic covered in Tagging the Inuit. Métis have had a bit of a different experience again. Until the early 1900s, the Canadian government counted Métis and named them on the census forms by current federal terminology of the time (i.e. half-breed, country-born, etc.). Then the federal government deleted those terms from the census form until 1996, and complained vociferously at Métis during the ongoing court case concerning Métis land claims because it had no information on Métis population numbers for the period it wasn't counting. In western Canada a significant portion of the Métis population was officially homeless, 'squatting' on road allowances and the edges of the reserves.

This created a situation in which most First Nations and Inuit in Canada were reasonably very leery of the census, while many Métis were frustrated with being unrepresented on it. Adding even more controversy is the fact that how many Indigenous people are counted and the statistics around their personal circumstances feed directly into decisions about funding from the federal and provincial governments, which is typically on a per capita basis. For many years Status Indians (those registered with the Department of Indian and Northern Affairs) were effectively being continuously enumerated, with government officials actively predicting their numbers would fall to nothing in just another decade or two. In fact, 'Status Indians' are still continuously enumerated now; you can check out the numbers on the Department of Indian Affairs website in their database of 'First Nations Profiles.' The numbers are updated every month — it's a bit creepy and obsessive, really.

The Canadian Royal Commission on Aboriginal Peoples recommended that a separate 'Aboriginal Peoples Survey' be run after the usual pentannual census. It was first run in 1991, and collected cultural as well as socio-economic information. Unfortunately, the Survey died almost immediately after it was first run due to budget cuts. It left an impression on the main census though, in the form of the questions about 'Aboriginal heritage' now customarily included on it. Ironically, the new questions still don't seem to make life any easier if you're trying to figure out how many Indigenous people there are in Canda, where they live and what services they may need: the questions change each time the census is held. The 2006 censustakers found that at long last the Indigenous population in Canada had passed a million people, but the truth is the census vastly underestimates the Indigenous population.

Having said all that, Statistics Canada has released some interesting numbers and analysis from those censuses. Starting from the caveat that the census still undercounts, and the efforts to completely confuse everybody about who Métis are, among the interesting things StatsCan has learned about Indigenous people in Canada from the census are:

  • up to 50% of all Indigenous people in Canada live in urban areas, with a shift from net out-migration from reserves and settlements to in-migration
  • the highest numbers of people claiming both Indigenous ancestry and Indigenous identity were among the Métis and Inuit
  • the Indigenous population is growing the fastest in Canada, with official numbers already expected to exceed 5% of the total population within the next one or two decades, likely sooner
  • more Indigenous women than men pursue post-secondary studies (meaning university, college, or technical school)
  • roughly half of the Indigenous population is less than 24 years old, with generally better health than their parents
  • the three most spoken Indigenous languages in Canada are Cree, Inuktitut, and Ojibwe respectively

Now more and more Indigenous communities are taking control over administration and provision of services as part of re-establishing self-governance. As already noted, census numbers can be used to guide budget and programme decisions. Accordingly, Indigenous governments have been attempting to access the data Statistics Canada and other departments have already collected. What they have discovered is that it is no easy task for anyone to access the data. It must be specially requested, with all the paperwork and fees that implies.1 Worse yet, when they did get to see the data, they found it to be less accurate than they had hoped. So Indigenous organizations and communities have gone back to the drawing board to consider whether a census is even the right way to go in the first place to gain the knowledge they need. In the event that they do opt for a census or survey, new ways of gathering information that conform to the values and protocols of the different Nations are being developed. Even more importantly, organizations like the National Aboriginal Health Organization (NAHO) have pioneered a clear statement about who owns and controls any information gathered: the people the data comes from. So far, when surveys are run using the principles NAHO has collated with the help of its member Indigenous communities, they have higher participation and generally better outcomes.

Could it be that the problem with the usual census is a certain lack of democracy?

Copyright © C. Osborne 2017
Last Modified: Monday, August 26, 2013 23:43:17 MDT