Indigenous Peoples in Canada
In Canada, the term Indigenous peoples (or Aboriginal peoples) refers to First Nations, Métis and Inuit peoples. These are the original inhabitants of the land that is now Canada. In 2011, more than 1.4 million people in Canada identified as Indigenous. Though severely threatened — and in certain cases extinguished — by colonial forces, Indigenous culture, language and social systems have shaped the development of Canada, and continue to grow and thrive despite extreme adversity.
Who are Indigenous Peoples in Canada?
Indigenous peoples (also referred to as Aboriginal peoples) have been in Canada since time immemorial. They formed complex social, political, economic and cultural systems before Europeans came to North America.
There are three categories of Indigenous peoples in Canada: Inuit, Métis and First Nations. The Inuit primarily inhabit the northern regions of Canada. Their homeland, known as Inuit Nunangat, includes much of the land, water and ice contained in the Arctic region. Métis peoples are of mixed European and Indigenous ancestry, and live mostly in the Prairie provinces and Ontario, but also in other parts of the country. First Nations peoples were the original inhabitants of the land that is now Canada, often occupying territories south of the Arctic.
The Indian Act — the principal statute through which the federal government manages a variety of issues concerning Indigenous affairs — further divides Indigenous peoples into two categories: Status Indians and Non-Status Indians. Status Indians are individuals who are listed in the Indian Register and are issued identification cards (known as status cards) that contain information about their identity, band and registration number. Non-Status Indians are Indigenous peoples who are not registered with the federal government. (See also Indian.)
All Indigenous peoples in Canada are protected by section 35 of the Constitution Act, 1982, which enshrines Indigenous rights. Various treaties and other legislation also serve to protect the special relationship between the Crown and Indigenous peoples in Canada.
Geographic and Cultural Areas of Indigenous Peoples in Canada
Indigenous peoples, both historical and contemporary, in North America can be divided into 10 cultural areas. Only the first six areas are found within the borders of Canada:
- Northwest Coast
- Eastern Woodlands (sometimes referred to as the Northeast)
- Great Basin
Contemporary political borders in North America do not reflect (and often overlap) traditional lands. For example, the Mohawk Nation at Akwesasne straddles both provincial (Québec and Ontario) and international (New York State) borders, as its existence predates the establishment of the international border in 1783. (See also Indigenous Territory.)
These areas are based on linguistic divisions first defined by the ethnologist and linguist Edward Sapir in 1910, while he was head of the Anthropology Division at the Geological Survey of Canada, which later became the Canadian Museum of History. (See also Indigenous Languages in Canada.) Sapir’s geographical framework was adopted by the Smithsonian Institution’s Handbook of North American Indians, the first volumes of which were published in 1978, and continues to be used widely in scholarship.
The Handbook states that these categories are “used in organizing and referring to information about contiguous groups that are or were similar in culture and history,” but it is important to note that these delineations are not concrete, and neighbouring peoples always share some similarities and some differences. Rather than representing 10 distinct cultures, these areas reflect geographic and cultural groupings that are fluid and often intermixed. In addition, contemporary Indigenous peoples may live far from their ancestral homelands, and indeed may form new communities rooted in urban centres rather than traditional lands.
These cultural areas are massive and generalized; what is true of a part is not always true of the whole. For example, some sources further divide the Eastern Woodlands into the Southeast and Northeast regions, while others combine these regions into simply Woodlands, and as such one must not assume that all peoples in a cultural area shared the same experiences.
Research overviews of the six cultural areas in Canada provide only some specific anthropological information. The peoples included in these areas are in some ways similar and in other ways different. What is true for the Wendat may not have been true for the Mi’kmaq, and indeed there existed variations among bands within a group. When considering contemporary situations, it is impossible to assume that one issue, set of beliefs, or cultural reference can relate to all Indigenous people in Canada, though in contemporary politics, large-scale political movements like Idle No More have gained wide acceptance and mobilization.
The ethnologists, archaeologists and anthropologists who have written about these cultural regions were often not Indigenous themselves. Though much of this research was done through interviews and fieldwork, it inevitably operated within a settler-colonial framework — a worldview that privileges property acquisition, European-style government and economic growth — regardless of the positive intentions of the researcher. Nevertheless, this research remains valuable both as historical and historiographical tools.
List of Indigenous Peoples in Canada
In 2011, more than 1.4 million people identified as Indigenous in Canada. Below is a list of separate entries on various Indigenous nations in Canada. This is not a comprehensive list, but it provides insight into the history, society, culture, politics and contemporary life of various First Nations, Inuit and Métis communities in Canada.
Chris Andersen, “Métis”: Race, Recognition, and the Struggle for Indigenous Peoplehood (2014).
J.R. Miller, Compact, Contract, Covenant: Aboriginal Treaty-Making in Canada (2009).
Olive Patricia Dickason, Canada’s First Nations: A History of Founding Peoples from Earliest Times, 4th ed. (2009).
James Rodger Miller, Skyscrapers Hide the Heavens: A History of Indian-White Relations in Canada (2000).
Robert McGhee, Ancient People of the Arctic (1996).
Chelsea Vowel, Indigenous Writes: A Guide to First Nations, Métis & Inuit Issues in Canada (2016).
Kristin Burnett and Geoff Read, Aboriginal History: A Reader, 2nd ed. (2016).
Olive Patricia Dickason and David Alan Long, Visions of the Heart: Issues Involving Aboriginal Peoples in Canada, 4th ed. (2016).