Alberta's Indigenous population outpacing non-Indigenous growth

Alberta's Indigenous population is growing rapidly, but one expert says it's unlikely the growth is the result of a baby boom.

More people identifying as Indigenous, expert says

A photo from Orange Shirt Day in Edmonton on Sept. 29, 2017. The event honours residential school survivors. (Peter Evans/CBC)

Alberta's Indigenous population is growing rapidly, but one expert says it's unlikely the growth is the result of a baby boom.

Alberta's First Nation, Métis and Inuit populations collectively increased by 37.1 per cent from 2006 to 2016, while the non-Indigenous population grew by 22.3 per cent, according to Alberta's Office of Statistics and Information report based on census data.

Chris Andersen, dean of the University of Alberta's Faculty of Native Studies, says more people are identifying as Indigenous. (Rupertsland Institute)

Chris Andersen, professor and dean of the University of Alberta's Faculty of Native Studies, said the Indigenous population is increasing partially because more people are identifying as Indigenous.

He noted some self-reported Indigenous people don't necessarily have official status under the Indian Act.

"There's this growing what [demographers] have been calling 'ethnic mobility,' whereby people who didn't formally identify as Indigenous in the past have begun to do so now. And they might be the first person in their family to identify as Indigenous in one or two or sometimes even more generations," said Andersen, whose research focuses on the Métis population.

"There's probably very little doubt that Indigenous people have higher fertility rates than non-Indigenous people for the most part, but I think a lot of what we're seeing in terms of the growth is from ethnic mobility rather than simply from fertility and a lack of mortality."

With about 258,640 residents identifying as Indigenous in 2016, Alberta has the third largest Indigenous population among the provinces in Canada, following Ontario and B.C., according to the government report.

Edmonton has the largest number of Indigenous residents in Alberta, with about 83,750 people in 2016 — 32.4 per cent of the total Indigenous population in the province.

(Government of Alberta)

Andersen said there's several reasons why more people are identifying as First Nations, Métis or Inuit.

"The reconciliation era that we live in now has certainly provided a different kind of Canadian consciousness that may make people feel more safe to self-identify," he said.

There hasn't been much research into why people self-identify, Andersen said. He's not opposed to the practice, but noted that not everyone who self-identifies does so with the best intentions.

In the Maritimes, for example, Andersen said membership of Mé​tis organizations has increased dramatically.

He highlighted controversy surrounding certain groups in the east, including an organization accused of encouraging members to get tax breaks by illegally using their "Métis cards."

"Those kind of things where there's a more or less ... push to get benefits is something that causes a lot of head-scratching among people," Andersen said, noting people can ethically self-identify by reconnecting with their extended family and Indigenous communities.

Era of reconciliation

Del Anderson, a program co-ordinator and cultural adviser at the Canadian Native Friendship Centre in northeast Edmonton, has observed the trend of self-identification.

"[Following] the residential school apology and now the Sixties Scoop [apology], what we're finding is a lot of people are coming from foster care and they're finding that they have Aboriginal roots and history," Anderson said, noting a significant number of people have come to the friendship centre, seeking knowledge about their ancestry.

The growing self-identified population is a positive thing, he said, as people are becoming more educated about Indigenous history and culture.

However, he said it puts additional stress on programs and services at the friendship centre geared toward Indigenous people.

"We don't have the resources, or sometimes the financial capacity, to meet the people's needs," Anderson said.

Province prepared for expanding population

Alberta Indigenous Relations Minister Richard Feehan says the province has developed a housing program to help respond to Alberta's growing Indigenous population. (CBC)

Alberta Indigenous Relations Minister Richard Feehan said he wouldn't speculate on the reason behind the expanding population, but noted the government has prepared for the growth.

"Absolutely it is a reality that the Indigenous population is growing. We are a very young province, we are a fast growing province and Indigenous people are just part of that," Feehan said.

"It means that we really need to pay attention to the needs of the people in those communities."

One of the government's main focuses is on housing, Feehan said, highlighting a $120-million program geared toward providing affordable homes for Indigenous people across the province.

About the Author

Anna McMillan


Anna McMillan is a reporter at CBC Edmonton. You can reach her at anna.mcmillan@cbc.ca