Demand for Indigenous language, cultural programming growing along with population

The population of Indigenous people in Canada continues to increase at a faster rate than non-Indigenous people, but the pace of the growth has slowed, the 2021 Census reveals.

There were 1.8 million Indigenous people – First Nations, Métis and Inuit – living in Canada in 2021, an increase of 9.4 per cent between 2016 and 2021 which outpaced the growth of the non-Indigenous population over the same period which increased by 5.3 per cent.

The pace of growth of the Indigenous population slowed from 18.9 per cent between 2011 and 2016, the census said.

In Manitoba, there were 237,190 Indigenous people living in the province in 2021, up 9.9 per cent from 2016.

The census said higher birth rates and increasing lifespans are factors. It also said more people are responding differently to Indigenous identity questions on the census questionnaire.

“Over time, respondents who had previously not identified as Indigenous have become more likely to do so,” the census said. “This may be related to personal reflection, social factors or external factors such as changes to legislation or court rulings.”

Winnipeg has the largest urban Indigenous population with 102,080 people, followed by Edmonton at 87,600 and Vancouver at 63,345.

The population of Indigenous people in urban centres across Canada is 801,045 people, up 12.5 per cent between 2016 and 2021.

Damon Johnston, president of the Aboriginal Council of Winnipeg, said some of the issues urban Indigenous are facing around housing still exist but there has been progress due to the work of Indigenous leaders and organizations.

“That hasn’t been easy for Indigenous persons because of the colonial history,” Johnston said. “A big part of the Indian Act was focused on breaking us up and keeping us apart. We were segregated on reserves for many years.”

“There is real, better outcomes by working together, by building some consensus on better approaches to addressing some of the issues.”

Challenges persist – 16.4 per cent of Indigenous people live in a home in need of major repairs compared to 5.7 per cent of non-Indigenous people and 17.1 per cent of Indigenous people live in crowded housing.

Indigenous children make up more than half of all children in foster care but only account for 7.7 per cent of all children 14-years-old or younger. Rates are higher in Manitoba, where advocates point to an over-representation of Indigenous children in the child welfare system as a factor in many of the social issues people face.

“We have these higher incarceration rates for children in care, we have higher rates of homelessness for children in care,” said Cora Morgan, First Nations Family Advocate for the Assembly of Manitoba Chiefs. “We have higher rates of mental health issues and addictions.”

Dennis Daniels, executive director of the Manitoba Indigenous Cultural Education Centre, said he sees a correlation between population growth and increased demand from people who want to reconnect with Indigenous language and culture.

“As it grows bigger, there’s going to be more need,” Daniels said. “Kids are starting to want to learn it, too, and the elder people are getting into it.”

He and other staff, including Sharissa Neault, have been working to keep pace through the classes and programs they offer.

“We have about 80 people registered for our Anishinaabemowin language table,” Neault said. “A lot of people are beginning to see the value in our culture and returning to our ways.”

More than 237,000 people speak an Indigenous language. While the number of people who use one as their first language has been in decline, there has been growth in the number of Indigenous second-language speakers, the census said. 

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