Aging Aboriginals pose new fiscal, social challenge for government: census
A group of First Nations protesters hold hands and dance in a circle during a demonstration in Surrey, B.C., in January 2013. (Darryl Dyck / THE CANADIAN PRESS)
OTTAWA -- The number of Aboriginal seniors is set to skyrocket in the next 20 years, Statistics Canada warned Wednesday as it released new census numbers that suggest the Indigenous population will soon put heavy strain on the federal government's seniors benefits system.
It's the same concern that has policy-makers nervously eyeing Canada's median age and the historically high number of people who are at or nearing retirement age.
Wednesday's data from the 2016 census show that the number of Aboriginal seniors has more than doubled to 121,665, compared to just 56,030 in 2006.
The numbers are likely to continue to swell over the coming two decades: The agency estimates that the proportion of Aboriginals aged 65 and older will double over the next two decades from the 7.3 per cent recorded in 2016.
Social Development Minister Jean-Yves Duclos, a key minister in charge of drafting a policy and strategies for dealing with Canada's aging population, was told last fall that officials are wrestling with how to make sure benefit payments can keep up with demand.
"The growth of the Aboriginal senior population will strain resources for social security, health and pension benefits, which are cost adjusted to eligible (government) social supports," reads briefing material for an October 2016 meeting between Duclos, then-health minister Jane Philpott and 15 experts on emerging seniors' issues.
The Canadian Press obtained the documents under the Access to Information Act.
Canada's population still remains the youngest of G7 nations, but 2016 data shows it is aging more quickly than many other countries.
Canada's senior ranks grew by 20 per cent between 2011 and 2016, the fastest rate in 70 years. An earlier census release showed 5.9 million seniors and 5.8 million youth in 2016, marking the first time there were more Canadians over 65 than there were 14 and under.
One key message from last year's meeting: a one-size-fits-all policy or strategy won't work for a seniors population that faces different needs, depending on age, geography, culture, language, ethnicity and sexual orientation -- needs that occasionally overlap.
Indigenous seniors generally face higher levels of poverty and health issues than the general population of seniors. They also grapple with a loss of identity, tied in many cases to a traumatic residential school experience that included physical, emotional and sexual abuse.
Just like in the broader population, Indigenous seniors prefer to age in place and experience end of life at home, the follow-up report said, making safe housing even more important.
Many Indigenous seniors live in "unsafe communities and in overcrowded housing units," a problem the government needs to address, according to the official account of the meeting provided to Duclos.
The census data outlined that in more detail, showing that about one-fifth of the Indigenous population live in housing in need of major repairs, a figure that is more than three times higher than in the non-Indigenous population.
The census also showed that 21.5 per cent of Indigenous seniors live below the poverty line, compared to 14.6 per cent in the national population.