First Nations communities continue to grow
Unima’ki communities going against trend for rest of island
Cape Breton’s First Nations communities are bucking the trend when it comes to local population growth.
According to the latest 2016 Canada census data, released by Statistics Canada on Wednesday, all five Unima’ki communities experienced a population increase since the previous census in 2011.
Over that time period, the number of island Mi’kmaq climbed from 6,020 to 6,311, while Eskasoni, the province’s largest Aboriginal community, saw its population increase from 3,309 to 3,222. Membertou experienced a more than 10 per cent hike and now has more than 1,000 residents. And, the three smaller communities, Whycocomagh, Wagmatcook and Potlotek (Chapel Island), also all recorded positive population growth.
Those numbers belie what is happening in the rest of Cape Breton. The new data, compiled on May 10 of last year, lists the island’s population at 132,010, down from the 2011 census that counted 135,974 people living on the east side of the Canso Causeway.
Experts attribute the continuing decline in large part to the loss of key industries over the past couple of generations and the lure of good-paying jobs in Western Canada.
But with local politicians and business development people looking for solutions to reverse the trend, Mi’kmaq leaders like Eskasoni Chief Leroy Denny are facing entirely different challenges.
“We have a very young community — the majority of our population is between 18 and 34 and last year there were 95 new babies in Eskasoni,” said Denny.
“Our school population is about 1,200 students and we have to be concerned about that and housing and jobs for our people, so we do have a lot of challenges.”
Denny also said that with their strong family ties, most young Mi’kmaq want to remain in Cape Breton and have little desire to move west.
“They want to stay in Cape Breton, our people do not want to leave their territory,” he said. “These young people are our future and we have to provide for them — we need to be able to give them jobs.”
But the chief said he’s optimistic about the future despite the economic challenges facing Cape Breton.
“I’m seeing our people getting involved in more and more of the new projects happening around the island — a lot has changed and I’m starting to feel more positive because our people, they are getting more involved,” said Denny, who added that Cape Breton First Nations communities are becoming an increasingly more important part of the island’s economy.
While the 2016 data has yet to be released, the 2011 census figures revealed there were more than 1,400,000 Canadians with an Aboriginal identity. That figure represented 4.3 per cent of Canada’s population.
Proud parents R.J. and Juelz Gould, of Eskasoni, show off baby Ramsay Roswell just hours after the 7-lbs., 12-ounce boy was the first baby delivered in Cape Breton in 2017, arriving at 2:09 a.m. on Jan. 1. Ramsay is the couple’s fourth child. Recently released figures show that Cape Breton’s five Aboriginal communities are increasing in population while the rest of the island is experiencing a population decline.