Indigenous people in Toronto are poorly underestimated by the census, but experts are hoping for change

Although the native population of Toronto has historically been drastically underestimated in official Statistics Canada data, community members and advocates say they are hopeful that a shift has begun that will make more people feel comfortable participating. in the census and could potentially help influence political change.

Although Statistics Canada says it is committed to working with indigenous communities to ensure its data is as accurate and relevant as possible, experts say the agency still has a way to capture the size of this population in Toronto properly.

Sara Wolfe was one of the leading researchers on Our Health Counts Toronto Survey, published in 2018, which aimed to provide new insights into the indigenous peoples’ need for health services.

She told CBC News that counts can be “inherently flawed” because they are not designed by the communities they are meant to count.

“For a very long time, indigenous peoples have been underestimated by [these] formal mechanisms, “she said.

“Data informs everything we do – and if we don’t have accurate data, what we make decisions about becomes deficient.”

The 2016 Canadian Census placed the original population of the city at just over 23,000, but data from Our Health Counts estimated this number at 65,832.

Rosary Spence and Lena Recollet participate in the Every Child Matters Walk on Canada Day in downtown Toronto. Experts say increased activism for indigenous issues may contribute to an increase in people identifying themselves as natives of the federal census. (Christopher Katsarov / The Canadian Press)

In contrast to the usual census methodology, the group’s research was conducted by indigenous peoples using respondent-driven sampling.

Twenty members of the indigenous community in Toronto were identified as “seeds” to complete the survey and were then given five coded coupons to offer other indigenous peoples in their social network. The process will then repeat itself, and researchers say it created a more organic data collection process.

The city of Toronto’s website shows the number of natives in the city as probably around 70,000, but it may even be closer to 100,000, said Selina Young, director of the city’s original affairs.

“If we do not have accurate figures, we may not meet the needs of society,” Young said.

“Counting can lead to the community not receiving the services it deserves. It can lead to a community being discounted or deposed. It only exacerbates the invisibility that many First Nations, Inuit and Métis feel in the city.”

Why the discrepancy?

Undercounting happens for various reasons. In an email to CBC News, Statistics Canada spokeswoman Kossi Djani said that because the long census is being sent for a sample of private homes, indigenous people experiencing homelessness may be underrepresented in the data. Counts are also based on the concept of a “usual residence,” meaning people living temporarily in urban areas may be missed, he said.

Djani also said it is important to note that information on native identity for the census is based on self-identification. This means that societal and legislative changes that prioritize original issues can lead to changes in how people respond if they feel more confident about doing so.

“Research conducted by Statistics Canada has shown that respondents have been more likely to identify themselves as natives in recent census periods,” he said. “This phenomenon, known as response mobility, has contributed to the growth of the indigenous population between the recent census periods.”

The City of Toronto website shows the number of natives in the city as probably around 70,000, but an official with the city’s native affairs suspects that the actual number may be significantly higher. (Talia Ricci / CBC)

These populations are rising. In the 2011 census, there were 19,270 indigenous people who reported living in Toronto, up from 23,065 in 2016.

Wolfe said she suspects the number will rise again when the results of the 2021 census are published because “it is safer [today] to identify themselves as natives than it has ever been in the last many decades. “

She said things like the rise of social media and more widespread indigenous activism are contributing to the removal of a kind of “self-shame” that indigenous peoples have forced them to do.

“There is a recovery of our pride in our identity and our history and an ability to use our voices in ways that were often silenced before,” she said.

First time participation

Young, who is Métis, said she took part in the census for the first time in 2016 – although it was not with much consolation in the process. Both she and Wolfe say there is an ingrained distrust of the government of some indigenous peoples, along with concerns about how data will be interpreted and used by non-indigenous people who lack an understanding of crucial context around it.

“It was with discomfort that I thought I had to speak, speak for future generations, so hopefully we do not have to feel invisible, that First Nations, Inuit and Métis will feel represented where they live, with available services that they need, “she said. “Participation was part of my journey and identified an opportunity I could take to help other metis people.

“I still feel nervous about how the data will be used, but I took the leap in the hope that it would affect change. First Nations, Inuit and Métis live here; we need programs and services that meet our distinct needs. . “

Djani says Statistics Canada is “committed to engaging with indigenous governments and organizations” to ensure that its census data is as relevant as possible. The agency expects to release new data on indigenous peoples from the 2021 census in September next year.

Wolfe, for her part, said she hopes data collection and implementation in comprehensive, non-tokenized ways will continue to improve along with a growing awareness of the needs of the urban community in the city.

“There are a growing mass of people who understand why it is so important to understand and work for and keep striving to change and change and improve.”

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