The 2011 census documents a sharp increase in Canada’s Aboriginal population

New Statistics Canada data published May 8 reveals substantial population growth among the country’s First Nations, Inuit and Métis, making Aboriginals the fastest-growing and youngest ethnic category in Canada.

Three figures in StatsCan’s National Household Survey (NHS) stand out: almost half of all foster children under 14 are Aboriginal; less than 20% of Aboriginals said they were capable of conversing in their ancestral language; and close to three-quarters of Quebec’s 141,915 Aboriginal residents live off reserve.

Compared with the 2006 census, Canada’s Aboriginal population has grown four times faster than the non-Aboriginal population. However, only 60% of the 1,400,685 enumerated Aboriginals say they are a member of a recognized First Nations community.  Of that group, only three-quarters are recognized as status Indians. Atlantic provinces show a higher-than-average percentage of First Nations members without official designation as status Indians. In Newfoundland and Labrador, six of 10 Aboriginals do not have registered status.

Quebec’s Aboriginal population increased by 32,000 over the last five years, with much of the growth coming from the Métis and First Nations communities. In fact, since 2006 the number of Métis has grown from 28,000 to 41,000.

“The population growth is, in part, due to much higher fertility rates for Aboriginal people but it’s not the only factor we’ve seen,” said André Cyr, an analyst with Statistics Canada.

More Canadians are becoming aware of and willing to acknowledge their ancestral heritage. “Much of the change isn’t so much growth as people changing their identity status,” said Cyr.

Rapid population growth in Native communities is putting a strain on chronically underfunded social services. Adding to the problem, the federal government is budgeting for a $1.2 billion cut to the Aboriginal Affairs budget by the 2015 fiscal year.

The lack of support for housing projects and community development is forcing many young people to leave their traditional communities. “When they leave, they lose their language, they lose their culture and it hits them really hard,” stated Bill Namagoose, executive director of the Grand Council of the Crees. “But what choice do they have?”

Displacement, culture shock and lack of culturally appropriate services combine to diminish First Nations traditions and language skills in urban environments. However, the NHS also shows that more Natives have acquired an Aboriginal language, with close to 50,000 reporting a Native tongue as their second language. In Quebec, one in five First Nations members speak an Aboriginal language as a mother tongue.

The big news is that youth now comprise 46% of the total Aboriginal population. Despite representing slightly less than 5% of the entire population of Canada, Aboriginal youth under 14 are vastly overrepresented in foster care. In the Northwest Territories, Aboriginals make up a staggering 95% of children placed in foster care. In total, almost 15,000 First Nations, Métis and Inuit youths are now wards of the state.