Exploring Canada’s Fluid Aboriginal Identity Mystery

Commentary, Aboriginal Futures, William Watson

I think I’m going to start identifying as a dark-haired 35-year-old male. That’s actually what I used to be, a long time ago. I have to start identifying that way because it’s no longer my lived chronological reality, as you might say.

The verb “identify” used to indicate recognition of reality: “Yes, officer, I identify lineup person No. 3 as the man who mugged me Tuesday night.” But now it indicates the reality we choose for ourselves. And also for others. First I identify as I choose. Then I require you to accept my new reality. And will take you to the local human rights commission if you try to put quotation marks around the r-word. We are all clearly identifying as post-Enlightenment philosophers now.

“Identify” comes up in connection with a new StatCan study of the associated concept of “response mobility.” The study, by statisticians Vivian O’Donnell and Russell LaPointe, is titled “Response mobility and the growth of the Aboriginal identity population, 2006-2011 and 2011-16.” Note that we no longer say “the Aboriginal population.” We say “the Aboriginal identity population.”

The Aboriginal identity population grew 19.8 per cent between 2005 and 2011 and another 19.5 per cent from 2011 to 2016, compared with just 5.2 per cent and 4.2 per cent, respectively, over the same half-decades for the non-Aboriginal population — which I guess should really be “the non-Aboriginal identity population.”

Logically, there are two possible explanations for this rapid growth. Genuinely Aboriginal people (to use the old-fashioned concept) are growing in numbers, mainly because of higher than non-Aboriginal birth rates. But also: more and more people are identifying as Aboriginal. That’s “response mobility”: responses to the census questions are changing; responses are mobile as people move from category to category.

StatCan and others have been studying this phenomenon for a couple of decades now. In the age of Small Data you could make conclusions from sampling. In the age of Big Data you can follow everyone from census to census and see how they answered. Which is what O’Donnell and LaPointe do.

What they discover is a big inflow into the “Aboriginal identity” population. Fully 24.6 per cent of those who identified as Aboriginal in the 2016 census — basically one in four — had identified as non-Aboriginal in 2011’s “National Household Survey” (which wasn’t quite a traditional census, the Harper Conservatives having made it voluntary). This inflow repeated (almost exactly) the pattern of the previous half decade, as 24.5 per cent of those who identified as Aboriginals in the 2011 survey had identified as non-Aboriginal in the 2006 census.

Aha!, I thought, as I read this: we have our own “Pocahontas” problem, which is how Donald Trump characterizes Sen. Elizabeth Warren’s having identified as Native American while a Harvard Law School professor, presumably so she could contribute to Harvard’s diversity. In this country, too, it seems, lots of people are finding it convenient to claim or at least assert Aboriginal identity — which, incidentally, is not something you would really expect to see in a society supposedly shot through with systemic anti-Aboriginal racism.

But I read on and discovered that people have moved in the other direction, too. Thus 16.8 per cent of those who identified as Aboriginal in 2011 did not do so in 2016. (Between 2006 and 2011 this flow out had been 15.4 per cent.)

On balance in both half-decades there was a greater flow into than out of Aboriginal identity. But there was also a big flow going the other way.

What’s going on? The StatCan researchers don’t have the data to say conclusively and so — good for them — they don’t try. But they do offer some possibilities. The census questions have changed slightly over time so may elicit different answers. Different members of a household may answer the census in different years and give different answers. The exact dividing lines between “First Nations Status Indians,” “First Nations Non-Status Indians,” “Métis,” and “Inuit” may not be clear-cut. People have become more informed about their identity through Ancestry.com and the like. Social influences on how people identify may have changed. Recent court cases have given some people legal Aboriginal identify who didn’t have it before. And, finally, as the researchers put it, and an economist is bound to suspect: “Respondents may also be influenced by the perception that self-identification can lead to benefits for Aboriginal peoples in general, and for the individual personally.”

Work is underway on the characteristics of people whose declared identity did change from census to census. Until it’s complete about the only real lesson from this study is to be careful when talking about the growth rate of the Aboriginal population. Ask speakers whether they mean the growth of the Aboriginal population or of the Aboriginal identity population — also, in demographic discussions, whether they mean 35-year-olds or those identifying as 35 years old.

Republished from the Financial Times November 13, 2019