Federal department questioned quality of 2021 Indigenous census data, documents say
OTTAWA — Federal officials have questioned the quality of 2021 census data for Indigenous communities after collection efforts were hampered by factors including the discovery of unmarked graves at residential schools, documents show.
Briefing notes obtained by The Canadian Press through freedom of information legislation reveal Statistics Canada’s difficulty surveying more than 600 First Nations and Inuit communities.
The materials were prepared for Indigenous Services Canada – the department that funds on-reserve housing, as well as other social infrastructure and programs.
Last October, weeks after the nearly five-month census window closed on September 24, officials provided an update to the department’s deputy minister. He noted that while the overall response rate was 98%, it was only around 85% for Indigenous communities.
This figure was down from 92% in the 2016 census year.
“While the results of the data collection exceeded expectations given the circumstances, questions remain about the quality of the data,” it read.
“Lower data quality will likely limit the ability to develop a strong data base for decision-making, whether federal, provincial or Indigenous governments using 2021 census data.”
Indigenous Services Canada has not yet returned a request for comment.
In Canada, the census is taken every five years to collect population and demographic information that helps governments make funding decisions. Communities also depend on it for infrastructure planning.
Statistics Canada spokesman Peter Frayne said that in the previous two census years, the number of reserves not fully counted fell to 14 in 2016 from 36 in 2011.
In 2021, that number rose to 63, with Frayne saying the COVID-19 pandemic, combined with wildfires and heatwaves, impacted the results.
The federal agency needs permission to enter a First Nation. He reported that of the 63 communities, 25 did not allow entry.
Documents tell a more detailed story of what happened behind the scenes.
Even before data collection began, Statistics Canada, trying to figure out how to conduct a census as the pandemic raged, opted to rely more on Canadians to complete their forms online rather than through face-to-face interactions.
Efforts have been made to hire local counters for Indigenous communities, but this workforce has seen less than 1,000 of the approximately 2,200 available positions filled.
During that summer, Indigenous Services officials pointed to delayed census participation as a problem for First Nations and Inuit communities.
“Despite an unprecedented level of effort from Statistics Canada, the collection of 2021 Census data in First Nations and Inuit communities has been significantly hampered by the COVID-19 pandemic,” an update said. day in mid-August to the Deputy Minister.
“Participation rates have been further dampened by the discovery of burial sites at former residential schools, as well as the recent wildfires that have disrupted the lives of so many Indigenous families in northern Ontario and western provinces.
He goes on to say that the discovery of unmarked graves “exacerbates negative sentiment toward the federal government, potentially leading communities to reject participation in the 2021 census.”
More than 150,000 Indigenous children were forcibly removed from their families and sent to federally funded church-run boarding schools, where physical and sexual abuse was rampant.
Indigenous and non-Indigenous Canadians were confronted with this reality last May, when a First Nation in British Columbia announced that it had found what are believed to be the remains of 215 children buried in a former residential school. .
On the advice of Statistics Canada’s Indigenous Liaison Advisors, Census Director General Geoff Bowlby said the agency suspended collection for a period of time out of respect for communities.
That delay, coupled with how First Nations coped with the painful discovery, affected response levels, he said.
“It’s intangible…but it certainly would have had an impact.”
People’s willingness to fill out the census depends on trust and is tied to experiences they’ve had with governments, Bowlby said.
“There is a burden that is placed on people by the census and we have to be careful and aware of what is happening in people’s lives.”
At one point, officials saw that only 63 of the country’s more than 600 Indigenous communities had been counted, so in mid-July Statistics Canada decided to deploy travel teams to remedy the situation.
In mid-August, that figure began to rise, but officials noted that census information was still missing in some 500 communities as the window to collect it closed. The consequence of having such a large gap is “considerable on many levels”, they said.
“The sheer scale of the work remains a concern for all involved,” read a briefing note to Indigenous Services.
Census data is a “critical resource,” officials wrote, used by the ministry to track the process of closing the socioeconomic gap between Indigenous and non-Indigenous peoples.
“Efforts to ensure that this data remains of the highest quality are essential to maintaining the federal government’s ongoing commitment to transparency and results, and its dedication to advancing reconciliation with Indigenous peoples,” perhaps. we read.
With more census data missing for individual Indigenous communities than in previous years, Bowlby said the gaps can be filled by creating forecasts from 2016 figures as well as gleaning aggregate data from tax records and of the Indian Register, which is controlled by Indigenous Services Canada.
“But there’s no such thing as census data and that’s why it’s so important that we get it, and we get it right every census,” he said.
This report from The Canadian Press was first published on April 12, 2022.
Stephanie Taylor, The Canadian Press