Digging through census data is hardly a fun way to spend a few days. But if you think, as I do, that raw numbers might reveal much about people and communities, then mining recently-released data from the 2006 census is at least productive. I did just that recently in order to get a numerical grasp on Canada’s Aboriginal population, including those who prosper and those who fail, and with possible clues as to why.
Start with how the census punctures the notion that most Aboriginals live on reserve. Out of almost 1.2 million Canadians who identify themselves as Aboriginal, just over 26 per cent live on a reserve; the rest do not.
It’s useful to drill down into that statistic. The Aboriginal group most likely to live on reserve are categorized as “North American Indian” by Statistics Canada, or First Nations by others. As a Canada-wide average for reserves, almost nine of out every ten people will be an “Indian,” with Métis, Inuit, those with multiple Aboriginal identities, or a non-Native filling the lone non-“Indian” spot.
But even among North American Indians, 57 per cent do not live on a reserve. And a comparison here is useful: The percentage living off reserve is up from 2001 when just over 55 per cent of North American Indians chose to live somewhere else other than reserves.
It would be technically incorrect to say Aboriginal Canadians are leaving the reserve with their feet—reserve and non-reserve Aboriginal populations are both growing. It would be correct to say that a greater proportion of such Canadians choose not to live on reserve compared with the 2001 census.
As to why, break down the census data and some obvious reasons appear. They should give Aboriginal leaders and policymakers in Ottawa pause, especially because their political influence, power and massive budgets can do much good or harm to Canada’s Aboriginal population.
As a nationwide average, when on-reserve North American Indians are compared to their counterparts off-reserve on earnings, the median for males who worked full-time was $30,045 on-reserve compared to $41,984 off-reserve—an almost $12,000 difference. Similarly, women do better away from the reserve: their median was $28,012 on reserve but $32,862 off the reserve, or an almost $5,000 advantage in the latter category.
There are multiple ways to measure the economic success or plight of Canadians, Aboriginal or otherwise. One way to compare whether reserves are an economically pleasant place to live is to compare education, income, earnings, labour participation rates, and unemployment between reserves and a nearby city.
For example, on the Kahnawake reserve with nearby Montreal, median earnings for everyone over the age of 15 (i.e.—the median when factoring in all who work, the unemployed, or who are retired) amounts to just $15,744. The figure for Aboriginals who live in Montreal is 41 per cent higher at $22,269. That’s not as high as the median for all Montrealers (at $26,731), but it beats the Kahnawake reserve. Also, Aboriginals in Montreal show a higher level of educational achievement, a higher participation rate in the labour force, and unemployment and government transfers which are lower when compared to the reserve.
In Alberta, it’s the same story in Calgary and the nearby Stoney First Nation reserve. In Stoney First Nation, the unemployment rate is 37 per cent. In Calgary, Aboriginals have an unemployment rate of just over seven per cent. The Kahnawake-Montreal and Stoney-Calgary comparison can be and regrettably are the norm in many city-reserve comparisons across the country.
Happily, there are exceptions. A notable one is a set of positive earnings, education and labour statistics in the case of Westbank First Nations when compared with Kelowna, which sits just opposite the reserve across Okanagan Lake.
But the exceptions are just that. Kelowna, along with another successful First Nation, Osoyoos, both sit in BC’s desirable wine country and both are well-managed. The first is a rarity for most reserves and will never change; a northern Saskatchewan native reserve is not likely to ever have the same location advantage unless oil is struck. In the case of the second factor, management of a reserve might be improved, but in many cases, the isolation and remoteness work against even that goal.
Thus, it’s no secret as to why many reserves and the inhabitants thereon suffer: many of Canada’s reserves are far from large urban centres where educational and career opportunities abound, to say nothing of other rural disadvantages.
Simply put, for most of Canada’s Aboriginal population, life is better in the cities. That might just explain why a majority of Aboriginal Canadians, including North American Indians, do not live on reserves.