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Aboriginal Population
James BradyCanada's Aboriginal population contains three groups: First Nations (Status, Non-Status and Treaty Aboriginals), Métis and Inuit. The last available Canadian census figures from 1996 record 799,010 persons as identifying themselves as belonging to one of these three groups. This figure represents approximately 4.4 percent of the country's population. While many statistics about Canada's overall Aboriginal population are presented, the 1996 census also contains figures concerning  western Canada that offer a glimpse into the circumstance of Alberta's Aboriginal population and some of the related issues and challenges.

The Aboriginal Population in Western Canada
  • Almost two-thirds (62.9 percent) of Canada's Aboriginal population lives in the four western provinces. Of those, 63 percent are registered as status Indians, 63.5 percent identified themselves as North American Indians, 31.1 percent as Métis, and less than 1 percent as Inuit (approximately 2.9 percent said they were of multiple Aboriginal origins or another category).
  • About 6 percent of the West's population identified itself as Aboriginal compared to only 1.5 percent for the rest of the country. 
Areas of Residence
Of the 502,514 Aboriginals living in the West, 31.5 percent reside on reserves. As in the rest of Canada, many Aboriginals in Western Canada live in urban settings. Like their non-urban counterparts, they face social and economic challenges including unemployment, health concerns, poverty and family violence. However, urban areas often lack the support structure necessary to address these issues, particularly the presence of extended family. This creates significant challenges for both urban Aboriginals and the cities themselves.

Labour-Force Participation
According to the 1996 Census, there is a significant gap between the Aboriginal and total population labour-force participation in the West. The Aboriginal participation rate is more than 10 percentage points lower than the total rate and related unemployment much higher, with almost one in four members of the western Canadian Aboriginal labour force unemployed.

Income Levels
Given the low labour-force participation and high unemployment rates, the Aboriginal population has substantially lower average income levels than the general population. For all four western provinces, Aboriginal personal income levels are typically only 60 percent of provincial averageAboriginal graphs (see table below). 

The Challenge Ahead

There are a great number of challenges facing governments, businesses and the Aboriginal community in meeting the needs of the Aboriginal population. Among these are overlapping and unclear jurisdictional responsibilities among the federal, provincial, and municipal orders of government. However, only by addressing the education, employment, income and crime-rate disparities between the West's Aboriginal and non-Aboriginal populations will western Canada begin to correct these inequities and provide a positive future for Canada's First Nations people.

Excerpts reprinted from Robert Roach and Loleen Berdahl, State of the West: Western Canadian Demographic and Economic Trends (Calgary: Canada West Foundation: 2001), with permission from the Canada West Foundation.

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