Indigenous people in Toronto badly undercounted by census, but experts hopeful for change

Though the Indigenous population in Toronto has been drastically undercounted in official Statistics Canada data, community members and advocates say they are hopeful a shift has begun that will change things.

Previous census listed Indigenous population in city at just over 23,000, but real number is much higher

Sara Wolfe was one of the lead researchers on the Our Health Counts Toronto study, which said it was the largest urban Indigenous population health study conducted in Canada. (CBC)

Though the Indigenous population in Toronto has historically been drastically undercounted in official Statistics Canada data, community members and advocates say they are hopeful that a shift has begun that will lead to more people feeling comfortable enough to participate in the census and potentially help influence policy changes.

While Statistics Canada says it is committed to working with Indigenous communities to ensure its data is as accurate and relevant as possible, experts say the agency still has a ways to go to properly capture the scope of this population in Toronto.

Sara Wolfe was one of the lead researchers on the Our Health Counts Toronto study, released in 2018, which aimed to provide new insights into the health services needs of urban Indigenous people. 

She told CBC News that census counts can be "inherently flawed" because they aren't designed by the communities they are meant to be counting.

"For a really long time, Indigenous people have been undercounted by [these] formal mechanisms," she said.

"Data informs everything that we do — and if we don't have accurate data, what we make decisions about is going to be flawed."

The 2016 Canadian census placed the Indigenous population in the city at just over 23,000, but Our Health Counts data estimated that number at 65,832.

Rosary Spence and Lena Recollet participate in the Every Child Matters Walk on Canada Day in downtown Toronto. Experts say increased activism for Indigenous issues could be contributing to a rise in people who self-identify as Indigenous for the federal census. (Christopher Katsarov/The Canadian Press)

Unlike the usual census methodology, the group's research was conducted by Indigenous people using respondent-driven sampling.

Twenty members of the Indigenous community in Toronto were identified as "seeds" to complete the survey, then given five coded coupons to offer to other Indigenous people in their social network. The process would then repeat, and researchers say it created a more organic data-gathering process.

The City of Toronto's website lists the number of Indigenous people in the city as likely around 70,000, but it could even be closer to 100,000, said Selina Young, director of the city's Indigenous Affairs Office.

"If we don't have accurate numbers, we may not be meeting the needs of the community," Young said.

"Undercounting can lead to the community not receiving the services it deserves. It can lead to a community being discounted or set aside. It only exacerbates the invisibility many First Nations, Inuit and Métis feel in the city."

Why the discrepancy?

Undercounting happens for a variety of reasons. In an email to CBC News, Statistics Canada spokesperson Kossi Djani said that because the long-form census is sent to a sample of private dwellings, Indigenous people experiencing homelessness may be underrepresented in the data. Census counts are also based on the concept of a "usual place of residence," meaning people who are temporarily living in urban areas might be missed, he said.

Djani also said it's important to note that information on Indigenous identity for the census is based on self-identification. That means societal and legislative changes that prioritize Indigenous issues can lead to changes in how people respond, should they feel more comfortable to do so.

"Research conducted at Statistics Canada has shown that respondents have been more likely to identify as Indigenous in recent census periods," he said. "This phenomenon, known as response mobility, has contributed to the growth of the Indigenous population between recent census periods."

The City of Toronto's website lists the number of Indigenous people in the city as likely around 70,000, but an official with the city's Indigenous Affairs Office suspects the actual number could be significantly higher. (Talia Ricci/CBC)

Those population numbers are rising. In the 2011 census, there were 19,270 Indigenous people who reported living in Toronto, compared to 23,065 in 2016.

Wolfe said she suspects that number will increase again when the results of the 2021 census are released, because "it's safer [today] to identify as Indigenous than it has ever been for the last many decades."

She said things like the rise of social media and more widespread Indigenous activism are contributing to the removal of a kind of "self shame" Indigenous people have had forced upon them.

"There's a reclamation of our pride in our identity and our history and a capacity to use our voices in ways that were often silenced before," she said.

First-time participation

Young, who is Métis, said she participated in the census for the first time in 2016 — though it wasn't with great comfort in the process. Both she and Wolfe say an ingrained distrust in government exists for some Indigenous people, alongside concerns about how data will be interpreted and used by people who aren't Indigenous and who lack understanding of crucial context around it.

"It was with discomfort that I thought I needed to speak up, speak up for future generations so that hopefully we won't have to feel invisible, that First Nations, Inuit and Métis will feel represented where they live with services available that they need," she said. "Participating was part of my journey, identifying an opportunity I could take to try and help other Métis people.

"I still feel nervous about how the data will be used, but I took the leap in the hopes that it would influence change. First Nations, Inuit and Métis live here; we need programs and services that meet our distinct needs."

Djani says Statistics Canada is "committed to engage with Indigenous governments and organizations" to ensure its census data is as relevant as possible. The agency expects to release new data on Indigenous populations from the 2021 census in September of next year.

Wolfe, for her part, said she is hopeful that data collection and implementation in fulsome, non-tokenized ways will continue to improve alongside an increasing awareness of the needs of the Indigenous community in the city.

"There's an increasing mass of people who do understand why this is so important to understand and to work for and to keep striving to shift and to change and to improve."

With files from Rhiannon Johnson