Indigenous

New report finds critical gap in data about Toronto's urban Indigenous community

Our Health Counts Toronto is an compilation of four years of research and data about Toronto’s urban Indigenous communities.

Our Health Counts report compiles 4 years of research and data about Toronto’s urban Indigenous communities

Dr. Janet Smylie, left, and Sara Wolfe, right, were the lead researchers on the Our Health Counts Toronto study, which aims to provide new insights into the health and health services needs of urban Indigenous people. (Rhiannon Johnson/CBC)

A report released Wednesday collects four years worth of research in what its authors say is the largest-ever urban Indigenous population health study in Canada, and one they hope will provide new insights into the health and health services needs of urban Indigenous people.

One of those insights is a significant gap between the number of Indigenous people Statistics Canada has found live in Toronto, and the number the new study reports.

The report, titled Our Health Counts Toronto, compiles research and data about Toronto's urban Indigenous communities. It was funded by a nearly $1-million, four-year grant from the Canadian Institutes of Health Research, Canada's federal funding agency for health research.

"The stories that we're telling are stories that are already familiar to our community already to our service providers in the community, our agencies and Indigenous organizations," said Sara Wolfe, one of the lead researchers on the project.

Data sets that more accurately show the experience of urban Indigenous people can be an important part of shaping policy to help communities to begin overcoming systemic barriers revealed in the study, the report's authors say.

Wolfe is an Anishinawbe registered midwife and nurse and a founding partner of Seventh Generation Midwives Toronto, a group of widwives who offer maternity care to women, particularly those from Toronto's downtown area and from the Indigenous community.

Key findings

The report found that there are two to four times more Indigenous people within the city than Statistics Canada counted in 2011.

Statistics Canada's 2011 National Household Survey found Toronto had an Indigenous population of 19,265. The Our Health Counts study's interim 2016 estimate was a population of between 34,000 and 69,000.

That figure reveals disparity in the census collection system, said Dr. Janet Smylie, the other lead on the project.

Smylie is a researcher at the Centre of Urban Health Solutions at St. Michael's Hospital and one of Canada's first ​Métis physicians.

"We think because only 14 per cent of adults are answering the census that the adults who would answer the census, [which] works by household enumeration, would be the ones that are more stable houses, likely better educated," Smylie said.

"I think that's where there's a systematic bias in the census."

Dr. Janet Smylie is a researcher at the Centre of Urban Health Solutions at St. Michael's Hospital and one of Canada's first ​Métis physicians. (CBC)

The report also found that more than a quarter of Indigenous adults living in Toronto have had a close friend or relative go missing, and one in three have had a close friend die as a result of violence caused by another person.

Fifty-nine per cent said they had a relative who went to residential school.

"We have Indigenous-specific determinants of health as well — destruction of our families, residential school child protection agencies services, racism — and again, we found a very high burden of these challenges," said Smylie.

Despite the findings on challenges facing Indigenous people, the study also found that people feel balanced in their lives.

"We have strong social networks in the cities," said Smylie.

Resiliency revealed

The report's look at social determinants also found strength and resiliency in Indigenous communities, Smylie said.

"People pretend that we lose our sense of Indigenous identity, we lose our cultures in the city. We don't," she said.

"We have amazing retention of language given what we've experienced and all the … disruption that we see, and the high portion of our population that has gone to residential school or has a relative [who was] in residential school."

Sara Wolfe said the Indigenous-led and community-driven study found 'high numbers of people that want to continue that preservation of our language, culture and teachings.' (CBC)

Wolfe also noted the study found "high numbers of people that want to continue that preservation of our language, culture and teachings as well. The majority of our population wants to maintain those things."

Research was conducted by Indigenous people, for 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.

Instead of having researchers actively trying to sample and interview respondents, this method creates a more organic process in the data gathering process, the researchers say.

Both Smylie and Wolfe hope the data collected can be used to help influence policy surrounding Indigenous health and well-being.