Magazine article Literary Review of Canada

Demography in the Balance: Is Native Population Growth on the Prairies a Positive or Negative Thing?

Magazine article Literary Review of Canada

Demography in the Balance: Is Native Population Growth on the Prairies a Positive or Negative Thing?

Article excerpt

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.

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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 population. 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. …

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