More than 76,000 people in the Edmonton region identify as First Nations, Inuit or Métis, once again making it home to Canada’s second-largest Indigenous population.
Between 2006 and 2016, metro Edmonton’s Indigenous population rose to 76,205 people from 52,000, census data released Wednesday shows, an increase of nearly 50 per cent that Statistics Canada attributes to natural growth and a rise in the number of people who identify as Indigenous.
Around six per cent of the Edmonton area’s population claimed an Indigenous identity in 2016. Winnipeg is the only census area with more Indigenous people (92,810), while the Edmonton region is ranked seventh among census areas in terms of the proportion of people claiming an Indigenous background.
Over half of Canada’s Indigenous population now lives in a metropolitan area with at least 30,000 people, the census found.
Urban Indigenous populations have been growing for decades — a trend often misunderstood “simply as the movement by First Nations people away from reserves and into cities,” the census notes.
In fact, “we’re seeing growth all over,” said Pamela Best with Statistics Canada’s Social and Aboriginal Statistics Division. “We’re seeing growth in urban populations (and) we’re seeing growth in the on-reserve population.”
Higher fertility rates, longer life expectancy
One factor contributing to above-average growth in the Indigenous population is increased life expectancy and relatively high fertility rates.
“The demographics in my tribe have been getting much younger,” said Desmond Bull, a councillor at the Louis Bull Tribe in Maskwacis, around 100 km south of Edmonton and just outside the city’s census area. “Our population is starting families at a much younger age.”
Many families in the community are multi-generational, as young families lean on their parents as they learn to raise a child, Bull said.
He estimates the community of 2,200 doubled its population in recent decades. But it doesn’t have the resources municipalities do to provide high-quality infrastructure, including housing, water, lighting and roads. Young people who pursue post-secondary education or training don’t often return to communities due to shortages of jobs and housing.
“A lot of First Nations (people) are going to those urban centres to look for those types of opportunities,” he said.
From 2006 to 2016, the Edmonton region’s off-reserve First Nations population — specifically those with registered Indian status — grew 49.6 per cent.
The census region also contains four First Nations reserves. In those communities, First Nations population growth was less pronounced, rising 26 per cent.
Overall, Canada’s on-reserve First Nations population grew 12.8 per cent, while the off-reserve population grew 49.1 per cent — more than four times the growth rate of the non-Indigenous population.
Canada now has 1.6 million people claiming Indigenous identity. Statistics Canada expects that number to rise to 2.5 million over the next two decades.
More people identifying as Indigenous — including Métis
The other reason for Indigenous population growth is a rise in the number of people “newly identifying” as Métis, First Nations or Inuit, Statistics Canada said.
Métis populations, for example, grew 42.6 per cent between 2006 and 2016, which Métis Nation of Alberta president Audrey Poitras attributed to recent court rulings and government decisions recognizing Métis people. The nation, which has 36,000 members, is also doing more to help people establish their genealogy and register as Métis.
“All of those things have helped people who in the past have just hung back and not bothered, they definitely are now speaking out (to say) ‘We’re Métis.’ ”
Bent Arrow Traditional Healing Society director Cheryl Whiskeyjack, whose organization works with Edmonton’s Urban Indigenous population, said the census shows how difficult it can be to define Indigenous identity.
“We get it at Bent Arrow: people will say ‘I don’t know if I can take this program because I don’t know if I’m Indigenous enough,’ ” she said. “I say, ‘If you’re coming in here even asking that question, you are.’ ”
By the numbers
92,810 people in the Winnipeg region reported an Indigenous identity — the largest Indigenous population of Canada’s census areas.
Thunder Bay had the highest proportion of Indigenous people of Canada’s census areas, at 12.7 per cent.
First Nations people in the Edmonton region reported a median personal income of $28,322 compared, to $44,453 for non-Indigenous people. Inuit and Métis people reported median incomes of $32,453 and $38,786, respectively.
Aboriginal people make up 4.9 of Canada’s population, up from 3.8 per cent in 2006 and 2.8 per cent in 1996.
Between 2006 and 2016, Canada’s Indigenous population grew 42.5 per cent—more than four times the growth rate of the non-Indigenous population.