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National Household Survey not giving full story of Canada’s Aboriginal Peoples

The systematic shortcomings of Canada’s new voluntary population survey have been a rightful topic of conversation this week, considering today marks the release of the first report from the questionable compilation.

And perhaps those shortcomings are felt strongest in questions of our aboriginal population. A population that faces troubles of poverty, overcrowding and fading traditional languages.

The newly-released 2011 National Household Survey includes a report entitled Aboriginal Peoples in Canada: First Nations People, Métis and Inuit, which outlines a community being stretched in disparate directions.

The details suggest that while Canada’s aboriginal population is increasing, their traditions and languages are draining away.

Then again, perhaps not. Significant issues face the voluntary survey, which was implemented after the Conservative government cancelled the mandatory long-form census. Statistics Canada has identified a variety of ways that results from the new survey would be less precise than the old census, none more paramount that the issue language. For one, it warns that the voluntary survey may under-represent Aboriginal Peoples.

[ Related: Aboriginal populations surge while language wanes ]

One note on the National Household Survey suggested that there were observable differences to the way Canadians answered questions about the languages spoken at home compared to the way the issue was handled on mandatory censuses.

Another note attached to the aboriginal report suggests the survey was not completed, or was interrupted, on a number of reserves, leaving those populations entirely unrepresented And while Statistics Canada tried to account for the gaps of information, they admitted they would have an impact on the results.

“Most of the people living on incompletely enumerated reserves are First Nations Registered Indians, and consequently, the impact of incomplete enumeration will be greatest on data for First Nations people and for persons registered under the Indian Act,” a statement reads.

Data regarding the Inuit population outside Inuit Nunangat was also essentially dismissed due to “lower reliability.”

[ More Brew: One in five Canadian residents were born elsewhere: survey ]

Regardless of these limitations, the survey suggests that, despite funding, focus and prideful declarations of their importance, the traditional languages of Canada's aboriginal communities appear to be falling by the wayside.

Details released on Wednesday suggest that few Canadians are able to converse in the traditional languages. According to the results, only 240,815 of the 1.4 people who identified themselves as aboriginal are able to hold a conversation in their community's traditional language. That number is 17.3 per cent of Canada's aboriginal population - a notable decline from the 21 per cent response received in the 2006 population census.

The highest response came from Inuit, where 63.7 per cent of the community said they could hold a conversation in their language, specifically Inuktitut. The proportion of traditional speakers drops to 22.4 per cent among First Nations people and as low as 2.5 per cent among Metis.

Some other quick notes on aboriginal language:

  • 14.5 per cent of the aboriginal population identified an aboriginal language as their mother tongue

  • 14 per cent said it was the language they spoke most often when at home.

If nothing else, this would suggest that those who are born to a language tend to stick with it.

It is not all doom and gloom for these traditional languages. The number of people who said they could use them in conversation was actually higher than the number of people who learned them at birth; 240,815 people said they could hold a conversation in 2011, compared to 202,495 who said it was their mother tongue.

And despite the troubles faced by their traditional languages, there is some good news for the Canada’s Aboriginal Peoples. The population appears to have increased by about 20 per cent over the last few years. There were 1.4 million aboriginals reported in the 2011 survey, an increase of 232,385 people since the 2006 census.

Canada's aboriginal population is younger than its non-aboriginal population. The median age for aboriginals is 28, compared with 41 for other populations. Children under the age of 15 account for 28 per cent of its number, whereas the same age group accounts for only 16.5 per cent of non-Aboriginals.

Of course, it is not clear how overcrowding may be limiting the hopes of aboriginal youth – an issue that has plagued many reserves, such as Attawapiskat, Ont. It is a mixed bag for Canada's Aboriginal Peoples, and our voluntary survey may not be the best way to understand the whole story.