Canada's aboriginal population surged past the million mark for the first time on a Canadian census, a spike of 45 per cent from a decade earlier.

Statistics Canada, which released new data Tuesday from the 2006 census on Canada's aboriginal population, counted 1,172,790 Indian, Métis and Inuit people — 3.8 per cent of Canada's total population.

This was an increase from 3.3 per cent in 2001 and 2.8 per cent in 1996, with the aboriginal population growing six times faster than the non-aboriginal population. Fewer than 800,000 people called themselves aboriginal in the 1996 census.

First Nations people accounted for the majority of aboriginal people (60 per cent) followed by Métis (33 per cent) and Inuit (four per cent).

Rosemary Bender, of Statistics Canada, said part of the reason for the increase is that more people are identifying themselves as belonging to one of the three aboriginal groups.

"We do find that an increasing number are reporting to us that they do have an aboriginal background," Bender told CBC News.

In the past, many more First Nations, Métis or Inuit people would refuse to participate in the government's enumeration surveys.

Another reason for the increase is the higher birth rates among aboriginal people compared to the non-aboriginal population, according to Statistics Canada.

About 1.7 million Canadians reported having at least some aboriginal ancestry. Statistics Canada defines "aboriginal ancestry" as the ethnic or cultural origin of a person's ancestors, usually more distant than a grandparent.

The census also found that more than half the country's 1.2 million aboriginal people are living off reserve. More than half of those who identify as aboriginal — 54 per cent — now call urban areas home, up from 50 per cent in 1996.

In comparison, 81 per cent of non-aboriginal people were urban dwellers in 2006.

The census also found an improvement in housing conditions with an overall decline in overcrowding. In 2006, 11 per cent of aboriginal people lived in homes with more than one person per room, down from 17 per cent in 1996.

But aboriginal people were almost four times as likely as non-aboriginal people to live in a crowded dwelling and were three times as likely to live in a dwelling in need of major repairs.

In terms of living arrangements, the census found that for aboriginal children under the age of 14, over half are living in a family with two parents. One-third are living with a lone parent — twice the rate for the non-aboriginal population.

Seven per cent are living with a grandparent or another relative, compared to one per cent in the non-aboriginal population.

Among other highlights:

  • The reported Métis population — those of mixed Indian and European ancestry — has almost doubled since the 1996 census.
  • Fifty-one per cent of the status Indian population lives off reserve, up from 50 per cent in 1996.
  • Eight in every 10 aboriginal people lived either in Ontario or in the four western provinces in 2006.
  • The aboriginal population in Canada is much younger than the non-aboriginal population, with a median age of 27 compared to 40. Almost half (48 per cent) of the aboriginal population is under the age of 25.
With files from the Canadian Press