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Finding the hidden Toronto indigenous community that Statistics Canada misses

Researcher says community is much larger than Stats Can data reports

Sam Mukwa Kloetstra is a new arrival to Toronto from a northern Ontario First Nation.

May Warren / Metro

Sam Mukwa Kloetstra is a new arrival to Toronto from a northern Ontario First Nation.

Standing in the entrance to the Native Canadian Centre next to a wall decorated with indigenous art, Sam Mukwa Kloetstra jokes people often ask where the entrance to the museum is.

They don’t realize it’s a living, breathing meeting place for Toronto’s large indigenous population, which struggles to be heard, and seen.

A new study out of St. Michael’s Hospital gives a better picture of just how many indigenous people are in the city and raises questions about how an underestimate impacts their lives.

The study estimates the number of indigenous people in Toronto is between 34,000 and 69,000, compared to Statistics Canada’s 2011 census, which puts it at about 20,000.

“The problem is, particularly in a city like Toronto, if you’re poor then you don’t live in one place very much,” said Janet Smylie, a researcher with the Centre for Research on Inner City Health and a Métis family physician.

“We have this under participation of indigenous people living in cities so it makes our population look to be a fraction of its actual size,” she added.

Her study used indigenous people themselves and community centres to help identify Toronto’s population, instead of relying on lists of people’s addresses, as the census does.

 Smylie hopes it can help “unmask” some of the unmet needs.

“If there’s 70,000 people, one health centre is insufficient ” she said.

City of Toronto demographer Harvey Low said it’s not surprising there are “underestimates from the census” as the city has long known indigenous people are undercounted.

Kloetstra, who arrived in Toronto from Mattagami First Nation two years ago, said many indigenous people might not be picked up in the census because they often move back and forth between reserves.

There’s also still a lot of mistrust between indigenous people and the government given past abuse of information.

“If you identified as First Nations than you lost rights,” Kloetstra said.

“That identification took away the humanness from who we are.”

Toronto’s indigenous community may be spread out, but that doesn’t mean it’s not there, he added.

“We don’t have a central location like Chinatown, or Little India, but we still manage to have this community that is so integrated in the city that we disappear in it.”

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