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Aboriginal peoples in Canada’s urban area – Narrowing the education gap

Demographics of the urban Aboriginal population
Educational attainment
Postsecondary education greatly improves employment prospects

The Aboriginal population of Canada has a strong presence in urban areas. While just over half of the 976,000 Aboriginal people enumerated in Canada’s 2001 Census lived on Indian reserves and other rural non-reserve areas (including the Far North), the other half resided in urban areas. Recent research by Statistics Canada researchers, Andrew Siggner and Rosalinda Costa, provides new information on the demographic structure of the Aboriginal population living in eleven large cities and on trends in the educational attainment of that population.

That authors conclude that, with respect to education, “… there is some cautious good news.”1 The shares of Aboriginal youth acquiring higher levels of schooling in selected census metropolitan areas (CMAs) increased between 1981 and 2001; school attendance among Aboriginal youth in the 15-24 year age group increased substantially over the 20-year period; and the share of Aboriginal young adults aged 25-34 years who completed postsecondary education increased as well, though that increase was much more dramatic for females than for males.


Siggner and Costa examined the demographic and socio-economic characteristics of the Aboriginal population residing in selected CMAs over the 1981 to 2001 period. These are CMAs where at least 7,000 Aboriginal people resided in 2001 or where the Aboriginal population accounted for at least 5% of the total CMA population. CMAs included in the study include: Montréal, Ottawa–Hull (now known as Ottawa–Gatineau), Toronto, Sudbury, Thunder Bay, Winnipeg, Regina, Saskatoon, Calgary, Edmonton and Vancouver.

Two sources provided data for their analysis: the Census of Canada (1981, 1996 and 2001) and the 2001 Aboriginal Peoples Survey. The latter was a special survey of Aboriginal peoples conducted after the 2001 Census. The analysis focused on the census years of 1981 and 2001, examining changes in selected indicators between these points in time.

Demographics of the urban Aboriginal population

Almost three of ten Aboriginal people (28%) lived in CMAs in 2001. The growth in these urban areas has been substantial. The Aboriginal population more than doubled in most CMAs and in many cases more than tripled.

Winnipeg had the largest Aboriginal population in both 1981 and 2001, Edmonton moved from third to second place over the period, and Saskatoon ranked sixth in 2001, showing the fastest growth rate over the period. Saskatoon, Regina and Winnipeg had the largest shares of their population accounted for by Aboriginal peoples, at 8% to 9% of their populations.

The age structure of the Aboriginal population in CMAs is much younger than that of the non-Aboriginal population, although differences in this respect have diminished since 1981.

At the national level, one-third of the Aboriginal population was 0 to 14 years of age in 2001 and 17% was aged 15 to 24. In short, one-half of the Aboriginal population was under the age of 25. In contrast, about one-third of the non-Aboriginal population was under the age of 25 (19% aged 0 to 14 years and 13% aged 15 to 24). The share of the Aboriginal population comprised of children (aged 0 to 14) was greatest in Regina and Saskatoon. Youth (15-24) shares were largest in Saskatoon, Edmonton and Regina.

Although decreases have been evident in the fertility rates of Aboriginal women and children account for a declining share of the Aboriginal population, the increase in the absolute number of Aboriginal children and youth in urban areas is an important consideration from an education planning and service delivery perspective. The absolute numbers of Aboriginal children have increased several fold in most CMAs and Aboriginal children aged 0 to 14 account for about 30% to 40% of the Aboriginal population in most Western CMAs. Furthermore, the size of the youth population (15-24 years) in all CMAs from Sudbury west more than doubled between 1981 and 2001 and increased nearly five times in Saskatoon. In 2001, Aboriginal children under age 15 accounted for 14% to over 16% of all children in the CMAs of Winnipeg, Regina and Saskatoon.

The absolute numbers of Aboriginal children and youth in some CMAs and their size relative to the non-Aboriginal population pose special challenges for the delivery of education services in those cities. Taking a longer-term perspective, this group will be a significant factor when they enter the labour force in large numbers over the next 15 years. Their ability to do so successfully hinges in large part on increasing the rates of high school completion and participation in postsecondary education.

Educational attainment

High school completion is considered a minimum requirement for most jobs in an urban economy. Aboriginal youth aged 20-24 in the selected CMAs were less likely to have completed high school than non-Aboriginal youth. Furthermore, while the shares of Aboriginal youth without high school completion declined between 1981 and 2001 in all the CMAs studied, the shares of non-Aboriginal youth without high school completion decreased even more. Consequently, the gap between Aboriginal and non-Aboriginal youth widened. Finally, Aboriginal males fell further behind their Aboriginal female counterparts in terms of high school completion between 1981 and 2001. Exceptions to this were found in Regina and Thunder Bay.

Between 1981 and 2001, there was a large increase in the shares of Aboriginal male youth who completed high school in several CMAs, such as Toronto, Sudbury, Winnipeg, Regina, and Calgary. In these CMAs, the share of Aboriginal male youth who had not completed high school declined by 20 to 28 percentage points. Smaller decreases were evident in Montréal, Ottawa–Hull, Thunder Bay, Saskatoon, Edmonton and Vancouver.

In the 2001 Aboriginal Peoples Survey, the main reason given by Aboriginal male youth for dropping out of high school was boredom (cited by 25%). This reason was cited by 19% of other Canadian males who had dropped out of high school. For Aboriginal female youth, the main reason cited for dropping out of high school was pregnancy or looking after children (cited by 25%). This reason was cited by 16% of their female counterparts in the general population.

As noted previously, in Saskatoon, one out of six children under age 15 was Aboriginal. Keeping Aboriginal children in school to complete their high school will likely be essential to the urban economy, especially in those cities with large proportions of Aboriginal people. Nevertheless, it is important to note that the high school non-completion rate among Aboriginal 20-24 year olds was going in the right direction, namely, down.

Postsecondary education is often demanded for jobs in diverse and technically complex urban economies. Over the 1981 to 2001 period, most of the selected CMAs witnessed a large growth in the shares of young Aboriginal adults who were out of school and who had a postsecondary degree or diploma.

In Canada overall, the share of Aboriginal males aged 25 to 34 years who had completed postsecondary education increased from 22% to 27%. The exceptions were Regina, Montréal and Edmonton, where the share of Aboriginal males aged 25 to 34 years with postsecondary educational credentials decreased.

In Regina, part of the decline could be explained by the rapid overall growth of the total Aboriginal population aged 25-34 years in the CMA between 1981 and 2001. Specifically, in-migration could be contributing to the growth in the overall population base of Aboriginal people while the growth in the numbers with postsecondary completions was not as large. It is also possible that many of the Aboriginal students attending the Aboriginal postsecondary institutions in Regina leave the city once they have graduated. This appears to be the case for the males, as their share of the out-of-school population actually declined. It was their female counterparts who saw an increase in postsecondary completions between 1981 and 2001. All the other CMAs saw both male and female young adults increase their shares in postsecondary completions over the twenty years.

The range among CMAs in overall school attendance for non-Aboriginal youth aged 15-24 years was approximately 60% to 70% in 2001, while for Aboriginal youth, it generally ranged from just under 50% to 66%. However, school attendance rates among young Aboriginal people increased over the period. In 1981, it was generally in the 30% to 46% range within CMAs. Between 1981 and 2001, the gap in school attendance between Aboriginal and non-Aboriginal youth narrowed in some CMAs, such as Montréal, Sudbury and Winnipeg, but widened in others, such as Toronto, Regina, Calgary and Vancouver.

Figure 1. School attendance rates of Aboriginal persons aged 15-24, in selected cities, 1981 and 2001

Figure 1. School attendance rates of Aboriginal persons aged 15-24, in selected cities, 1981 and 2001
Source: Andrew J. Siggner and Rosalinda Costa. 2005. Aboriginal Conditions in Census Metropolitan Areas, 1981-2001. Statistics Canada Catalogue number 89-613-MIE – Number 008, Table 5.

Postsecondary education greatly improves employment prospects

A large cohort of Aboriginal youth is due to enter the labour market in the next 10 to 15 years, especially in the Prairie CMAs. At the same time, high school completion rates have risen for young Aboriginal people. Employment prospects for this group can be assessed by looking at the employment rate for Aboriginal people with different levels of schooling. As is the case for the Canadian population as a whole, employment rates are higher for individuals who have completed university or college than they are for those with only high school and those who have not completed high school.

These findings bring home the point that, when they have completed higher levels of schooling, Aboriginal people can reach employment levels on par with their non-Aboriginal counterparts, allowing them to compete in a diverse economy. In some CMAs, employment rates among Aboriginal people with a university degree are even higher than they are for their non-Aboriginal counterparts. This is the case in Ottawa–Hull, Montréal, Toronto and Calgary. In Regina and Saskatoon, there is still a gap in the rate of employment among Aboriginal and non-Aboriginal degree holders.

These employment outcomes are reflected in annual earnings. Dependence on government transfer payments among the Aboriginal population decreased substantially in all CMAs over the period. While the percentage of the Aboriginal population earning $20,000 or more declined over the 20 years, the corresponding share among non-Aboriginals also fell. Meanwhile, the gap between Aboriginal and non-Aboriginal median income from employment sources narrowed in most CMAs. Nevertheless, while there was a 281% growth in Aboriginal employment-income earners making $40,000 or more, there was even larger growth among those employed and earning less than $15,000.


The analysis reported here has focused on Aboriginal peoples living in selected CMAs in Canada. Given the demographics of this population, especially the large numbers of Aboriginal children and youth, the school systems in selected CMAs face ongoing challenges in addressing the education needs of this group. This is especially the case for CMAs in Manitoba, Saskatchewan and Alberta. Though not included in this analysis, it should also be pointed out that similar challenges also face the populations and school systems in the Yukon, the Northwest Territories and Nunavut.

The evidence concerning Aboriginal children and youth in selected CMAs suggests that progress is indeed being made. School attendance has increased, as have high school completion rates and the share of young adults who have college or university credentials.

Nevertheless, gaps in educational attainment between the Aboriginal and non-Aboriginal populations remain, with young Aboriginal males, especially, still being cause for concern. The conclusion, therefore, is one of cautious optimism – cautious because of the challenges remaining, but tempered with optimism because the trends are pointing in the right direction.


  1. Andrew J. Siggner and Rosalinda Costa. 2005. Aboriginal Conditions in Census Metropolitan Areas, 1981-2001. Statistics Canada Catalogue number 89-613-MIE – Number 008.

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