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The Population Boom of the Self-Identified Indigenous and Our Dwindling Nationhood

StatsCan’s story about the “Indigenous population boom” is really the story of the need for Indigenous self-determination.

CONTENT WARNING: This article contains terminology that may be painful to see for some. It is used to illustrate the complicated histories of Indigenous Identity and legal framework. It is used self-referentially and not directed at anyone other than the author.

Despite the splashy headlines, the Indigenous population of Canada isn’t growing to the extent that StatsCan is telling you. The much-hyped census numbers recently released by the national statistical agency, which show the Indigenous population in Canada growing by a whopping 9.4 per cent, is more of a reflection on the way StatsCan gathers statistics – and the way capitalism and colonialism continue to function, at least among settler society and institutions, as arbiters of Indigenous identity – than it reflects actual growth in Indigenous communities.

Indigenous identity has, at least for the entirety of my life, been a contentious issue. When I was young, I was often told by other First Nations folk that I am not a real Indian because I’m a “half-breed,” while simultaneously being told by the Canadian government that I have “full status.”

Hiy hiy, my name is Eagleclaw Bunnie Thom and I am, at least according to the federal government, a full Treaty Status Indian. On reserve and in community, I am considered a half-breed to some and full-blood to others.

This identity reflects both my actual family history and legislative changes made by colonial governments. My father was every inch a Saulteaux Indian and my mother was a melanin-deficient, self-proclaimed “Hudson’s Bay Half-breed.” I was born pre-1985, a significant year for Indigenous identity. In the spring of 1985, Bill C-31, an amendment to the Indian Act, was passed in parliament and we (Treaty Indians) were no longer considered property of the state, and hence the Queen’s Indians. It was a good year, and even my 5-year-old self could recognize the importance of that. That year I also became the head of my own household, at least according to Indian and Northern Affairs Canada (INAC), as they issued me a new treaty number that had the holy grail of Indigenous identity attached to it: a 10-digit number with the glorified “01” at the end.

For those that don’t know, the “01”, or the more modern term 6(1), at the end of a treaty number means that regardless of who I choose to have children with, those children will be “Treaty/Status Indians.” If, like my own children, you are assigned “02,” or 6(2), at the end of your Treaty number, that means that your children will only be considered “Treaty/Status Indians” if they have both parents with treaty status either 6(1) or 6(2). These designations, which determine whether you or your children will be entitled to certain benefits and services provided (often grudgingly) by the federal government, don’t reflect Indigenous concepts of identity and nationhood, but rather the way the Canadian government legislates Indigenous identity.

It sounds complicated, doesn’t it? And it can get more complicated if I start including 60’s Scoop, First Nations women who married non-Indigenous men prior to 1951 and were subsequently banished from reserve, First Nations men who chose to enfranchise, people of the Métis Nation who were forced into the road allowance and were neither Canadian nor of their own nationnon-treaty women who married a treaty man prior to 1985, et cetera. It’s a messy and convoluted system that not only causes administrative headaches for Indigenous people and the government, it denies Indigenous Nations one of the most fundamental rights that a nation can have: the right to determine who belongs to them.

In recent years the complications of Indigenous identity have only grown. In 2006 the genetic testing company “23 and me” was founded, promising that for the low price of $129 and a swab of your saliva, they would reveal to you your “ancestry composition.” That same year, the government of Canada did a census. It showed that the number of Indigenous people in Canada was growing, although not nearly at the exponential rate we’ve seen in more recent years. There were still self-identified First Nations people, self-identified Métis, and self-identified Inuit (Inuk) – self-identified meaning that they had indicated in the census that they claimed these identities but were not necessarily registered or claimed by a particular community – but being self-identified was less fashionable at the time and didn’t really come with many perks (also known as Treaty obligations, UNDRIP legislation, and legal obligations).

Five years later, the 2011 census saw a drastic increase in who, among themselves in the Canadian population, considered themselves Indigenous in some form or other. There headlines were splashy and exuberant, as though Canada were celebrating an achievement.

20.1% Growth in Aboriginal Population! Fastest Growing Population in Canada!”

This year when StatsCan released their population numbers, there was a similar story about the growth rate of Indigenous populations, although the spike wasn’t nearly as great as it had been between 2006 to 2011 and 2011 to 2016. And while Indigenous populations have been growing, it’s not necessarily a story of high birth rates or an indicator of the success of reconciliation. Treaty/Status Indians also enjoy the highest mortality rate, highest rate of SIDS, highest wage disparity, highest incarceration rate, highest rate of child apprehension, and highest unemployment rate, all factors that serve to mitigate population growth in the community.

A major factor in the exponential growth of the Indigenous population can actually be attributed to issues of legislation – that is, to the Canadian government’s decisions and policies as they relate to Indigenous identity – and to the proliferation of DNA ancestry companies, which have given new license to people who previously had no connection to Indigenous identity to self-declare as Indigenous.

When you look more closely at the numbers, they’re telling quite a different story when it comes to reconciliation – not a story of growth and youthful vibrance, but one of poverty, inequality, housing insecurity, and disparities that cleave in a troubling way along the line between those who are registered and those who self-declare. If we look solely at low-income status, for the sake of brevity, StatsCan is claiming that the number of Indigenous people living in low-income households was much lower in 2021 than in 2016 (18.8 percent versus 28.1 per cent). But these numbers show a disturbing trend when you break apart the self-identified population. 31.4 per cent of Treaty/status Indians are in the low-income status bracket versus 21.5 per cent of people who self-identify as First Nations. Similarly, 19.7 per cent of Registered Métis are in the low-income status bracket and 16.2 per cent of non-registered Métis are in the low-income status bracket. This is in comparison to the 10.7 per cent of the non-Indigenous population who are in the low-income status bracket. Notice a trend? The greater your distance from the Canadian government’s official, legislative determination of Indigenous identity, the greater your chances are of living above the poverty line.

In fact, when it comes to the growth in population shown in the StatsCan data, most of the growth is coming from self-identified Indigenous people. Among those with Treaty/Status, the growth rate is actually a little less than 1 per cent – not the 9.7 per cent being touted by the government. And it is within the self-identified group – which includes anyone who ticks the box indicating Indigenous ancestry – that the majority of the much-hyped financial gains have occurred.

This is not to say that every person who self-identifies as Indigenous, Métis or Inuk is doing so because a DNA test told them they could. Even outside of the legal, colonial framework of Indigenous identity and nationhood, the topic of self-identification is fraught. Survivors of the 60’s Scoop and the Millennial Scoop often struggle to find the nation to which they belong. Urban Indigenous people and other off-reserve populations grapple with the complexities of Indigeneity in urban colonial communities. But we can’t discount the impact that Canadian government-led projects like Qalipu First Nation in Newfoundland – a landless reserve that saw, upon completion in 2011, roughly 100,000 applicants – not all of whom are Indigenous but all of whom can self-identify, which skews StatsCan’s numbers in the government favour.

This is part of the reason it’s so critical for First Nations and Indigenous communities to have the legal right to determine for themselves who belongs to their community.

The right to self-determination is foundational to UNDRIP, a declaration to which Canada is a signatory. It is a right that has, since the creation of the Indian registry, been taken out of the control of our Nations, and handed over to the government of Canada, which has wielded it brutally, without consideration for Indigenous autonomy or identity. The struggles and challenges of Indigenous people and communities trying to find their identity and their community in the context of mass displacement are ones that cannot be solved by legislation handed down by the Canadian state. Only self-determination can begin to grapple with this problem, for the betterment of all people, everywhere.

Eagleclaw Bunnie Thom
Eagleclaw Bunnie Thom

Eagleclaw is a self-proclaimed Treaty 4 Half-Breed, Full Status Indian and is the Digital Campaigns Officer for the Council of Canadians.