Demography in the Balance

Is Native population growth on the prairies a positive or negative thing?

Canada’s west is booming in a way that has not been seen in at least a generation, and there is every indication that this shift in economic clout will be with us for a number of years to come. It may even be true that the balance of political power is changing from east to west on a long-term basis, as more and more people move to Alberta, British Columbia and now even Saskatchewan in search of jobs and business opportunities. Stephen Harper entered the Prime Minister’s Office under the motto “The West Wants In,” and it seems that he and his supporters have gotten their wish, at least for the time being. But now that the West is indeed “in,” it is time to look more closely at who is still being left out in the cold: the region’s growing population of aboriginal people.

It is well established that the birth rate of Native people in Canada has far exceeded that of the general population in recent years, and despite the fact that Native people on average die much younger than other Canadians, their numbers have still been increasing dramatically since the middle of the 20th century. For example, census data indicate that from 1996 to 2001, the Native population of Canada grew by 22 percent, which was nearly seven times the growth rate of the general populaion. In 2001, one third of the Native population was under the age of 14, compared to 19 percent of the general population. Data on aboriginal populations in the 2006 census have not yet been released, but there are several indications that this trend of growing Native population has increased and will continue to increase in the coming years. This demographic change is much more visible in the West, where the majority of Native people already live. While the other Canadian provinces have Native populations ranging from 1 percent to 5 percent, Saskatchewan’s and Manitoba’s are each at about 14 percent, with demographers predicting that these two provinces will see the most dramatic gains in coming years.

A visit to virtually any Native community in the West will show one of the most noticeable realities behind the statistics: there are many children on reserves and in non-status Native communities these days. Schools are often overflowing. Opportunities for sports, recreation and extracurricular education are difficult to come by. Yet in my experience, the children in Native communities in the West are a wonderfully energetic and imaginative group, as full of potential and ingenuity as any group of children I have seen anywhere in the world. At the same time, the threat of despair lurks not too far in the background for many Canadian Native children, as the recent epidemic of suicides among them has shown.

Another visible aspect of this demographic change in western Canada is the increasing urbanization of Native people. Almost half of the nation’s aboriginal people live in cities, and geographer Evelyn Peters has shown that the cities of Saskatchewan and Manitoba have particularly distinct Native neighbourhoods. Winnipeg’s north end is a very good example of this: a neighbourhood that was once racialized as Jewish, or as an immigrant zone, has now become identified as an aboriginal space. In the north end, there are now funeral homes that cater to Native families, there are shops where one can buy moccasins and dream catchers, and there are various social service and healthcare agencies that focus on Native issues. There is a great deal of poverty, but there are also many urban Native people who are proud to be taking part in what is clearly a cultural renaissance there. Native artists, musicians and writers have been gathering in Winnipeg for many years now, and the result is an extraordinarily vital arts scene.

Still, the increasing visibility of the city’s Native population provokes ambivalent reactions. Since I moved to Winnipeg in 2000, I have heard several people refer to the city as “the biggest Indian reserve in the world.” Some have said this with pride; others have said it with an edge of fear.

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At the same time as Western Canada’s Native population is growing, the latest census reports indicate that the average birth rate in Canada has fallen to a historic, and perhaps unsustainable, low. Commentators immediately saw this as a dire warning sign, an indication that Canada’s current economic prosperity is at risk if we are not able to find some way of encouraging our citizens to have children. In this context, it might seem that the increase in our Native population, especially in the West, would be regarded as positive news. But Native population trends are, in fact, consistently represented as a problem, not a solution. I have repeatedly heard the sentiment (expressed somewhat obliquely by politicians and more blatantly by individuals in conversation) that a growing aboriginal population in the West will mean an increase in social problems, poverty and dependence.

This fear has been manifested in the reaction to a series of demographic projections that predict when the Native populations of Manitoba and Saskatchewan will reach a certain threshold—usually 30 percent. A 2004 Government of Saskatchewan document projected that the aboriginal population of that province will reach 33 percent by 2045.1 Soon after, a Government of Manitoba publication predicted that Manitoba’s Native population will be 19 percent by 2026.2 Both of these projections provoked a flurry of media comments and public discussions, many of which consisted largely of hand wringing and catastrophizing about the future viability of these provinces.

The prospect that Native people will constitute such a large and growing block of citizens certainly has political implications for Manitoba and Saskatchewan, but it seems that the economic and psychological implications are the ones that are foremost in non-Native people’s minds. In fact, this population-based anxiety bears a very strong resemblance to the phenomenon of “white flight,” which has been observed in North American cities since the 1950s. In white flight, the perception that the “other” community has reached a particular racial threshold triggers the sudden exodus of white people from a neighbourhood. This race-based panic has played a role in much of the urban decay and neglect in North American cities, because the flight of any group of citizens from an area creates an economic vacuum, which can in turn lead to a self-fulfilling prophecy of ruin.

This sense of Malthusian doom is so strong in certain parts of the Canadian West that I have heard several non-Native people suggest that eventually much of the region—even the entire province of Saskatchewan—will have to be “given over” to the Native people in order to appease the apparently unstoppable juggernaut of their population growth. This is clearly the rhetoric of white flight, and its racist underpinnings are obvious. It is also patently ridiculous in light of the West’s current economic expansion. As the Native population has grown, the West’s prosperity has also grown, but no one seems to pay attention to this correlation. When it comes to representing Native communities’ growth, non-Natives generally prefer to focus on the gloom rather than the boom.

I suspect that the real root of this fear is connected to colonial Canada’s notion of its own legitimacy. It is ironic that the entire project of colonialism in North America was predicated upon a very different population prediction: a belief that Native peoples of this continent would inevitably die out when they were faced with the putative superiority of European civilization. The fact that North America’s Native people are not dying out, then, creates a crisis in western culture’s idea of itself. If the Indians are still here, and are even increasing in number, then what does that mean for the legal and moral legitimacy of a colonial culture that has displaced them from their land? I believe this question is behind much of the population panic that has broken out from time to time in the West.

The issue of legitimacy is an important one that needs to be addressed more deeply in Canada, regardless of population trends. However, the crisis mentality about Native populations is itself a big part of the current problem, because it deflects attention away from the real actions that need to be undertaken in order to ensure that our aboriginal people are, in a real sense, allowed into the West. It seems to me that the crisis will only come if Native people are not afforded the opportunities that other Canadians enjoy, and if they are not offered adequate redress for the humiliations and injustices that they have suffered at the hands of colonial governments. If non-Native Canadians do not make these issues a priority, then the increasing Native population will likely demand—either through protest or through electoral politics—that they become a priority. And they will be very well justified in doing so.

The growth of the Native population in the West is only a practical impetus to encourage governments to do what they should always have done: treat Native people with respect and recognize them as part of our regional and national community rather than seeing them as marginal, dwindling “problem” figures who will eventually fade away. This is one reason why I see this population growth as an opportunity—an opportunity to make structural changes in our racially divided society, so that the inequities of the past are not perpetuated into the future. The other reason it is an opportunity is that western Canada needs workers. If aboriginal people can be welcomed as participants in the new economy of the West, then it seems likely that everyone will benefit.

I recently visited the Dene community of La Loche in northwestern Saskatchewan, not far from the massive oil sands developments in Fort McMurray, which now form the epicentre of western Canada’s oil boom. Despite this proximity to such enormous wealth, La Loche had remained a remote community because there was no easy way to travel to Fort McMurray. But this was about to change, because a road was being built across the muskeg that would connect the two communities for the first time.

I came to La Loche expecting a place of despair. I had heard stories in the 1970s and ’80s about the rampant unemployment there, and the problems with addictions and crime. But what I found when I finally visited the place was something altogether different: a community filled with children. The population statistics for aboriginal communities were given physical presence in the volume of laughter that I heard in the schoolground when I went to give a reading at the school. But what cannot be shown in the statistics is the overwhelming sense of promise, of potential, that this group of children brought to me. As I read my stories about growing up in a place further south, they watched me with wry humour, and they asked all kinds of wonderful and unpredictable questions about how I had come to be who I was.

These were the future citizens of a place I had imagined to be burdened by hopelessness, yet they were overflowing with wonder and energy and community spirit. They all spoke Dene, and they even corrected their teachers’ pronunciation of the language at times. They had a pride in their heritage that I had rarely seen in any group of people, at any age. I left the village thinking that someone had done something right in La Loche: the community leaders, and the educators, and possibly even the federal and provincial politicians. Perhaps it is no coincidence that Native candidates have been successful in northern Saskatchewan in several recent elections. The aboriginal population is large enough in the region that Native issues are of paramount importance for any candidate’s platform.

I think about La Loche often these days. The road to Fort McMurray was supposed to open last winter, and I wonder what effect it has had on the community. I like to think that those kids will do very well for themselves when they finish school, that they and their community will be given the opportunities that they deserve, and that Fort McMurray will also benefit from the contributions of workers from Native communities in northern Saskatchewan. I like to imagine that the West’s new prosperity and the West’s increasing Native population will complement each other, and will lead to a new era of cooperation among different cultures in the region. Ieven dare to hope that oil sands companies will listen to their neighbouring Native communities when they express environmental or cultural concerns about the developments.

Perhaps optimism is not entirely realistic under the circumstances, but I am infected by the spirit of those children in La Loche. Anyone who could hear their laughter would feel the same way.


  1. Saskatchewan (2004), “Saskatchewan First Nations and Métis Demographic Data” <br /><a target="_blank" href="http://www.fnmr.gov.sk.ca/html/demographics">http://www.fnmr.gov.sk.ca/html/demographics</a&gt;. The document indicates that all of its data are “derived from the 2001 Statistics Canada Census,” but does not cite a particular source for the population projection.  

  2. Manitoba (2005), “Manitoba’s Aboriginal Community: A 2001 to 2026 Population and Demographic Profile” <a target="_blank" href="http://www.gov.mb.ca/ana/publications/2001-2026_population_demographic_profile.pdf">http://www.gov.mb.ca/ana/publications/2001-2026_population_demographic_profile.pdf</a&gt;. Like the Saskatchewan publication, this one is based on 2001 Census data, but it also contains a caveat that “projections are not forecasts but are based on what would occur if the stated assumptions hold true.”