Over 1.8 million people reported having an Aboriginal ancestry, or ancestors with an Aboriginal identity in Canada in 2011. More than 1.4 million people (over 4 per cent of the total population in Canada) identified themselves as an Aboriginal person. Aboriginal peoples in Canada are defined in the Constitution Act, 1982 as Indian (more commonly referred to as First Nations), Métis, and Inuit.

In 2010, the Aboriginal population in Canada included 615 First Nation communities and more than 50 nations; eight Métis settlements; and 53 Inuit communities. In 2011, there were more than 60 Aboriginal languages reported in Canada.

Historical Population Estimates

With regards to the population of Aboriginal people in what would become Canada at the beginning of sustained European contact in the early 16th century, estimates vary. Anthropologists and historians have, however, given a tentative range of between 350,000 and 500,000 people, with some estimates as high as two million. By 1867, it is thought that between 100,000 and 125,000 First Nations people remained in what is now Canada, along with approximately 10,000 Métis in Manitoba and 2,000 Inuit in the Arctic. The Aboriginal population of Canada continued to decline until the early 20th century. This dramatic population decline is attributed to disease, starvation and warfare directly stemming from European settlement and practices (see Indigenous People, Health; Indigenous-European Relations; Smallpox; Tuberculosis).

Since that time, the Aboriginal population has increased at a rate faster than that of the general Canadian population. Between 1996 and 2006, the Aboriginal population grew by 45 per cent, compared with 8 per cent for the non-Aboriginal population. Between 2006 and 2011, the Aboriginal population further increased by 232,385 people, or by 20.1 per cent. By comparison, the non-Aboriginal population grew by just 5.2 per cent during that same time period.

Population Measurement

Estimates of the Aboriginal population in Canada vary depending on whether the numbers are reported from the Indian Register administered by Indigenous and Northern Affairs Canada (INAC), the Canadian census as published by Statistics Canada, or the National Household Survey (NHS) also published by Statistics Canada. The Indian Register consists of individuals who are registered under the Indian Act, while figures reported by Statistics Canada comprise all persons who self-identify as having Aboriginal ancestry and/or Aboriginal identity, though registered status is recorded separately. Consequently, population estimates by Statistics Canada are significantly larger than the number reported in the register. Funding for health care, housing, education and other provincial and federal programs and services are based on population forecasts. Therefore, it is critically important to identify which populations were used to create projections. Demographic projections based on Indian Register data have been used by INAC to support its programs and to plan for the registered Aboriginal population.

Caution must be taken when comparing data on Aboriginal peoples across time and data sources because of amendments to the Indian Act. Prior to the 1985 enactment of Bill C-31, An Act to Amend the Indian Act, many people were disqualified from ‘Indian status’ and any related rights through forcible enfranchisement (see Indigenous Women's Issues; Enfranchisement). Disqualified groups included Aboriginal women that married non-Aboriginal men or non-status Aboriginal men (“marrying out” rule) and Aboriginal persons who obtained a university degree and/or professional employment (e.g., doctor, lawyer). Once a person lost his or her status, his or her children were no longer status-eligible. Bill C-31 restored status to those who were forcibly enfranchised and terminated status to non-Aboriginal people that acquired it through marriage (rather than ancestry). Membership in an Indian band also no longer required Indian status. This amendment restored status for 127,000 people and terminated status for 106,000 people. However, there remained a “second generation cut-off” where children of women that had “married out” were now eligible for status, but could not pass status onto their children. On 31 January 2011, Bill C-3, the Gender Equity in Indian Registration Act, came into force. This act entitles eligible grandchildren of women who “married out” to registration (estimated at 45,000 persons).

Changes in data collection methods also impact population measurement. This is particularly true when comparing 2011 data to data previously obtained from the long-form Census questionnaire. The long-form census questionnaire, which was mandatory for 20 per cent of the Canadian population, was cancelled in 2010 and replaced in 2011 by the voluntary National Household Survey (NHS) delivered to 30 per cent of private dwellings in Canada. In addition to the voluntary nature of the NHS, differences exist in wording and format of questions relating to Aboriginal peoples in Canada and the definitions of reserves.

Current Population

According to Statistics Canada, approximately 799,010 people, or 3 per cent of Canada's population, identified themselves as having an Aboriginal identity in 1996. Ten years later, the census reported 1,172,790 people, or 4 per cent of the population. The proportion of people reporting an Aboriginal identity continues to grow, according to the most recent data. The 2011 NHS reported 1,400,685 people, or 4.3 per cent of the population, identified themselves as Aboriginal persons. Approximately 97 per cent of those who identified themselves as Aboriginal persons identified as First Nations (851,560 people or 60.8 per cent), Métis (451,795 people or 32.3 per cent), or Inuit (59,445 people or 4.2 per cent), with just under 3 per cent reporting other Aboriginal identities or more than one Aboriginal identity.

In 2011, 697,505 people reported registered Indian status (registered under the Indian Act of Canada). Over 90 per cent of persons with registered Indian status identified as First Nations people. This represents an increase of close to 14 per cent from 2006, while the number of First Nations people without registered Indian status increased 61.3 per cent over the same time period. In 2011, 25 per cent of all First Nations people were not registered under the Indian Act. Close to 5 per cent of persons with registered Indian status identified as Métis, with the remaining not identifying with an Aboriginal identity or identifying with more than one Aboriginal identity. Statistics show that the Aboriginal population is younger than the non-Aboriginal population in Canada. Almost 50 per cent of the total Aboriginal population is aged 24 and under, compared to less than 30 per cent of the non-Aboriginal population. Conversely, the population of non-Aboriginal peoples aged 65 or older is more than twice the same population of Aboriginal peoples. This is attributed to higher fertility rates and shorter life expectancy for Aboriginal peoples compared to the rest of the population in Canada.

Population changes may reflect legislative amendments to registration criteria, modifications of self-identification and reporting (whether someone identifies as an Aboriginal person and which identity or identities they report), and data collection methods in addition to natural increase (the difference between births and death). Moreover, the figures from the 2011 National Household Survey have been adjusted for incomplete enumeration of reserves and settlements and for census under-coverage.

Population Projections

The number of individuals identifying as First Nations people has increased by almost 25 per cent between 2006 and 2011, while those identifying as Métis and Inuit increased by 16.3 per cent and 18.1 per cent, respectively. Projections developed by Statistics Canada in 2011 for the Aboriginal identity population indicate that depending on the demographic scenario assumed (i.e., change in fertility, mortality, migration, and intergenerational ethnic mobility — the transmission of Aboriginal identity from one generation to the next), the population could reach between 1.7 million and 2.2 million in 2031. The registry component would likely account for a large part of this growth in Aboriginal population, from the combined effects of natural increase (the difference between births and deaths; see Indigenous People, Health), and from reinstatement of non-status Aboriginal people to registered status under the provisions of Bill C-31 and Bill C-3. The number of First Nations people with registered status increased by 13.7 per cent between 2006 and 2011. In addition to natural population growth and legislative changes, other factors that partially account for the significant growth of the Aboriginal population are higher fertility rates, a younger population (which is more conducive to births and less conducive to deaths), and more accurate enumeration on reserves. More accurate enumeration is itself not an indicator of population growth as much as it is perceived growth (i.e., those who may not have been previously are now being counted.)

Provincial/Territorial Distribution

The western provinces are home to the largest proportion of the Aboriginal population in Canada. In 2011, close to 60 per cent of Aboriginal persons lived in British Columbia (16.6 per cent), Alberta (15.8 per cent), Manitoba (14 per cent) and Saskatchewan (11.3 per cent). The single province with the highest percentage of people reporting an Aboriginal identity is Ontario, with 301,425 people or 21.5 per cent of the Aboriginal population. While the provinces are home to the largest proportion of the total Aboriginal population in Canada, Aboriginal peoples represent the largest proportion of the total population in the territories. Aboriginal peoples represent over 86 per cent of the total population of Nunavut, more than 50 per cent of the population of the Northwest Territories, and close to 25 per cent of the population of Yukon. The provinces with the highest percentage of people reporting an Aboriginal identity as compared to the total provincial population are Manitoba (16.7 per cent) and Saskatchewan (15.6 per cent).

The provincial/territorial distribution of the proportion of Aboriginal peoples and the proportion of Aboriginal peoples as a percentage of the total population vary according to Aboriginal identity. Ontario is the home to the greatest proportion of First Nations peoples in Canada (201,100 people or 23.6 per cent), while First Nations people represented the largest percentage (close to one-third) of the total population of the Northwest Territories. The province with the highest proportion of all Métis in Canada is Alberta (21.4 per cent), while Northwest Territories is also home to the largest proportion of Métis as a percentage of provincial/territorial population at 8 per cent. Approximately three-quarters (73.1 per cent) of Inuit in Canada live in Inuit Nunangat, which comprises four regions: Nunatsiavut (Labrador), Nunavik (Québec), Nunavut and the Inuvialuit region (Northwest Territories). Nunavut has the largest population of Inuit (45.5 per cent) and the largest proportion of Inuit as total population (85.4 per cent).

A little less than half (45.3 per cent) of all persons with registered Indian status in Canada lived on a reserve or settlement in 2011, while more than half (54.7 per cent) lived off reserve. Québec had the highest proportion of First Nations people living on-reserve (72 per cent), while the Northwest Territories had the highest proportion of First Nations people living off-reserve. There are no reserves or settlements in the Yukon or Nunavut.

Population Migration

From the mid-1960s to the mid-1980s, there was a significant out-migration of Aboriginal people away from reserves or home communities, usually to urban centres. As urban Aboriginal communities become more salient, the trend for urban migration is expected to grow. This migration stems primarily from the lack of economic opportunity in or near reserves and more remote Aboriginal communities. After the 1985 enactment of Bill C-31, and the restoration of status for many Aboriginal peoples, many returned to their reserves, however urban migration has continued (see Indigenous People, Urban Migration).

Many Aboriginal people in Canada live in the large metropolitan areas such as Toronto, Vancouver and Montréal. However, the 2011 NHS indicated that among the major metropolitan areas, Winnipeg (78,415), followed by Edmonton (61,770) have the largest Aboriginal identity populations. In each of these two cities, the Aboriginal people represent 11 and 5.4 per cent of the total, respectively. Regina and Saskatoon have sizable Aboriginal populations as well (9.5 and 9.3 per cent, respectively). On a strictly proportionate basis however, the largest proportions of Aboriginal identity population are in the considerably smaller cities of Yellowknife (25.4 per cent) and Whitehorse (16 per cent).