First Nations

First Nations
First Nations
Odanak First Nation (Abenaki).gifOuje Bougounou Cree.jpg
Haida flag.pngFlag of Eel Ground First Nation.svg
Bandera innu.PNGTemagama Ojibwa.png
Kawawachikamach Band of the Naskapi Nation.jpgBandera Red Earth Cree.PNG
Bandera Nis'ga Nation.pngBandera Sechelt.png
Flag of the Iroquois Confederacy.svgMikmaq State Flag.svg
First Nation Flags
Total population

Aboriginal languages
Canadian English
Canadian French


traditional beliefs

First Nations is a term that collectively refers to various Aboriginal peoples in Canada who are neither Inuit nor Métis.[2] There are currently over 630[3] recognised First Nations governments or bands spread across Canada, roughly half of which are in the provinces of Ontario and British Columbia.[4] The total population is nearly 700,000 people. Under the Employment Equity Act, First Nations are a "designated group", along with women, visible minorities, and persons with physical or mental disabilities.[5] They are not defined as a visible minority under the Act or by the criteria of Statistics Canada.[6]

The term First Nations (most often used in the plural) has come into general use for the indigenous peoples of the Americas located in what is now Canada, except for the Arctic-situated Inuit, and peoples of mixed European-First Nations ancestry called Métis. The singular, commonly used on culturally politicised reserves, is the term First Nations person (when gender-specific, First Nations man or First Nations woman). A more recent trend is for members of various nations to refer to themselves by their tribal or national identity only, e.g., "I'm Haida," or "We're Kwantlens," in recognition of the distinctiveness of First Nations ethnicities.[7]

North American indigenous peoples have cultures spanning thousands of years. Some of their oral traditions accurately describe historical events, such as the Cascadia Earthquake of 1700. Written records began with the arrival of European explorers and colonists during the Age of Discovery, beginning in the late 15th century.[8][9] European accounts by trappers, traders, explorers, and missionaries give important evidence of early contact culture.[10] In addition, archeological and anthropological research, as well as linguistics, have helped scholars piece together understanding of ancient cultures and historic peoples.

Although not without conflict or slavery, Euro-Canadians' early interactions with First Nations and Inuit populations were relatively noncombative compared to the often violent battles between colonists and native peoples in the United States. Combined with later economic development, this relatively noncombative history has allowed First Nations peoples to have a strong influence on the national culture, while preserving their own identities.[11]



Collectively, First Nations,[4] Inuit,[12] and Métis[13] peoples constitute Aboriginal peoples in Canada, Indigenous peoples of the Americas or first peoples.[14][15] "First Nations"' is a legally defined term that came into common usage in the 1980s to replace the term "Indian band".[16] Elder Sol Sanderson says that he coined the term in the early 1980s.[17] A band is a legally recognized "body of Indians for whose collective use and benefit lands have been set apart or money is held by the Canadian Crown, or declared to be a band for the purposes of the Indian Act."[15]

As individuals, First Nations people are officially recognized by the Government of Canada by the terms "registered Indians" or "status Indians" only if they are listed on the Indian Register and are thus entitled to benefits under the Indian Act.[18] They are considered "non-status Indian" if they are not so listed and thus not entitled to benefits, according to the Canadian state. Administration of the Indian Act and Indian Register is carried out by the federal government's Department of Indian and Northern Affairs.[16]

While the word "Indian" is still a legal term, its use is erratic and in decline in Canada.[19][20] Some First Nations people consider the term offensive, while others prefer it to "Aboriginal person/persons/people". According to the 2006 Census, today more Canadians identify as being of East Indian ethnicity than there are members of First Nations, reflecting demographic changes due to increased 20th-century immigration. The use of the term "Native Americans", which the United States government and others have adopted in that nation, is not common in Canada.[15] It refers more specifically to the Aboriginal peoples residing within the boundaries of the United States.[21] The parallel term "Native Canadian" is not commonly used, but "Natives"' and autochtones (from Canadian French) are. Under the Royal Proclamation of 1763, also known as the "Indian Magna Carta",[22] the Crown referred to indigenous peoples in British territory as tribes or nations. The term "First Nations" is capitalised, unlike alternative terms. Bands and nations may have slightly different meanings.


For pre-history, see: Paleo-Indians and Archaic periods (Canada)


First Nations by linguistic-cultural area: List of First Nations peoples

First Nations had settled across Canada by 500 BC – 1000 AD. Hundreds of tribes had developed, each with its own culture, customs, legends, and character.[23] In the northwest were the Athapaskan speaking peoples, Slavey, Tli Cho, Tutchone speaking peoples and Tlingit. Along the Pacific coast were the Haida, Salish, Kwakiutl, Nuu-chah-nulth, Nisga'a and Gitxsan. In the plains were the Blackfoot, Kainai, Sarcee and Northern Peigan. In the northern woodlands were the Cree and Chipewyan. Around the Great Lakes were the Anishinaabe, Algonquin, Iroquois and Wyandot. Along the Atlantic coast were the Beothuk, Maliseet, Innu, Abenaki and Mi'kmaq.

The Blackfoot Indians – also known as the Blackfeet Indians – reside in the Great Plains of Montana and the Canadian provinces of Alberta and Saskatchewan.[16]:5 The name 'Blackfoot' came from the colour of the peoples' leather footwear, known as moccasins. They had dyed or painted the bottoms of their moccasins black, but one story claimed that the Blackfoot Indians walked through the ashes of prairie fires, which in turn coloured the bottoms of their moccasins black.[16]:5 They had not originally come from the Great Plains of the Midwest North America, but rather from the upper Northeastern area. The Blackfoot started as woodland Indians but as they made their way over to the Plains, they adapted to new ways of life and became accustomed to the land.[24] They learned the new lands that they travelled to very well and established themselves as Plains Indians in the late 18th century, earning themselves the name "The Lords of the Plains."[25]

The Sḵwxwú7mesh history is a series of past events, both passed on through oral tradition and recent history, of the Sḵwxwú7mesh indigenous peoples of the Pacific Northwest Coast. Prior to colonisation, they recorded their history through oral tradition as a way to transmit stories, law, and knowledge across generations.[26] The writing system established in the 1970s used the Latin alphabet as a base. It was a respectable responsibility of knowledgeable elders to pass historical knowledge to the next generation. People lived and prospered for thousands of years until the Great Flood. In another story, after the Flood, they would repopulate from the villages of Schenks and Chekwelp,[27] located at Gibsons. When the water lines receded, the first Sḵwxwú7mesh came to be. The first man, named Tsekánchten, built his longhouse in the village, and later on another man named Xelálten, appeared on his longhouse roof and sent by the Creator, or in the Sḵwxwú7mesh language keke7nex siyam. He called this man his brother. It was from these two men that the population began to rise and the Sḵwxwú7mesh spread back through their territory.[26]:20

A traditional Iroquois longhouse.

The Iroquois influence extended from northern New York into what are now southern Ontario and the Montreal area of modern Quebec.[28] The Iroquois Confederacy is, from oral tradition, formed circa 1142.[29] Adept at the Three Sisters (maize/beans/squash), the Iroquois were able to spread at the expense of the Algonquians until they too adopted agricultural practises enabling larger populations to be sustained.

The Assiniboine were close allies and trading partners of the Cree, engaging in wars against the Gros Ventres alongside them, and later fighting the Blackfeet.[30] A Plains people, they went no further north than the North Saskatchewan River and purchased a great deal of European trade goods through Cree middlemen from the Hudson's Bay Company. The life style of this group was semi-nomadic, and they would follow the herds of bison during the warmer months. They traded with European traders, and worked with the Mandan, Hidatsa, and Arikara tribes, and that factor is attached to their life style.[30]

In the earliest oral history, the Algonquins were from the Atlantic coast. Together with other Anicinàpek, they arrived at the "First Stopping Place" near Montreal.[31] While the other Anicinàpe peoples continued their journey up the Saint Lawrence River, the Algonquins settled along the Kitcisìpi (Ottawa River), an important highway for commerce, cultural exchange, and transportation from time immemorial. A distinct Algonquin identity, though, was not realised until after the dividing of the Anicinàpek at the "Third Stopping Place", estimated at about 2,000 years ago near present day Detroit.[31]

Details of Ojibwe Wigwam at Grand Portage by Eastman Johnson

According to their tradition, and from recordings in wiigwaasabak (birch bark scrolls), Ojibwe came from the eastern areas of North America, or Turtle Island, and from along the east coast.[32] They traded widely across the continent for thousands of years and knew of the canoe routes west and a land route to the west coast. According to the oral history, seven great miigis (radiant/iridescent) beings appeared to the peoples in the Waabanakiing to teach the peoples of the mide way of life. One of the seven great miigis beings was too spiritually powerful and killed the peoples in the Waabanakiing when the people were in its presence. The six great miigis beings remained to teach while the one returned into the ocean. The six great miigis beings then established doodem (clans) for the peoples in the east. Of these doodem, the five original Anishinaabe doodem were the Wawaazisii (Bullhead), Baswenaazhi (Echo-maker, i.e., Crane), Aan'aawenh (Pintail Duck), Nooke (Tender, i.e., Bear) and Moozoonsii (Little Moose), then these six miigis beings returned into the ocean as well. If the seventh miigis being stayed, it would have established the Thunderbird doodem.[32]

Chief Anotklosh of the Taku Tribe.

The Nuu-chah-nulth are one of the Indigenous peoples of the Pacific Northwest Coast. The term 'Nuu-chah-nulth' is used to describe fifteen separate but related First Nations, such as the Tla-o-qui-aht First Nations, Ehattesaht First Nation and Hesquiaht First Nation whose traditional home is in the Pacific Northwest on the west coast of Vancouver Island.[33] In pre-contact and early post-contact times, the number of nations was much greater, but smallpox and other consequences of contact resulted in the disappearance of groups, and the absorption of others into neighbouring groups. The Nuu-chah-nulth are relations of the Kwakwaka'wakw, the Haisla, and the Ditidaht. The Nuu-chah-nulth language is part of the Wakashan language group.[34]

A 1999 discovery of the body of Kwäday Dän Ts’ìnchi has provided archaeologists with significant information on indigenous tribal life prior to extensive European contact. Kwäday Dän Ts’ìnchi (meaning Long Ago Person Found in Southern Tutchone), or Canadian Ice Man, is a naturally mummified body found in Tatshenshini-Alsek Provincial Park in British Columbia, by a group of hunters. Radiocarbon dating of artifacts found with the body placed the age of the find between 1450 AD and 1700 AD.[35][36] Genetic testing has shown he was a member of the Champagne and Aishihik First Nations. Local clans are considering a memorial potlatch to honour Kwäday Dän Ts’ìnchi.[35][36][37]

European contact

Aboriginal people in Canada interacted with Europeans as far back as 1000 AD,[8]:Part 1 but prolonged contact came only after Europeans established permanent settlements in the 17th and 18th centuries. European written accounts noted friendliness on the part of the First Nations,[8]:Part 1 who profited in trade with Europeans. Such trade strengthened the more organised political entities such as the Iroquois Confederation.[9]:Ch 6 The Aboriginal population is estimated to have been between 200,000[38] and two million in the late 15th century.[39] Repeated outbreaks of European infectious diseases such as influenza, measles and smallpox (to which they had no natural immunity), combined with other effects of European contact, resulted in a forty to eighty percent aboriginal population decrease post-contact.[40] For example, during the late 1630s, smallpox killed over half of the Huron, who controlled most of the early fur trade in what became Canada. Reduced to fewer than 10,000 people, the Huron were attacked by the Iroquois, their traditional enemies.[41]

There are reports of contact made before Christopher Columbus between the first peoples and those from other continents. Even in Columbus' time there was much speculation that other Europeans had made the trip in ancient or contemporary times; Gonzalo Fernández de Oviedo y Valdés records accounts of these in his General y natural historia de las Indias of 1526, which includes biographical information on Columbus.[42] Aboriginal first contact period is not well defined. The earliest accounts of contact occurred in the late 10th century, between the Beothuk and Norseman.[43] According to the Sagas of Icelanders, the first European to see what is now Canada was Bjarni Herjólfsson, who was blown off course en route from Iceland to Greenland in the summer of 985 or 986 CE.[43] The first settler of what is now Canada relied on First Nations, for resources and trade to sustain a living. First written accounts of interaction is predominantly Old world bias. Although not without conflict, European/Canadian early interactions with First Nations and Inuit populations were relatively peaceful, compared to the experience of native peoples in the United States.[11] National Aboriginal Day recognises the cultures and contributions of Aboriginal peoples of Canada.[44] There are currently over 600 recognized First Nations governments or bands encompassing 1,172,790 2006 people spread across Canada with distinctive Aboriginal cultures, languages, art, and music.[1][4][45]

16th–18th centuries

The Portuguese Crown claimed it had territorial rights in the area visited by Cabot. In 1493, the Pope – assuming international jurisdiction – had divided lands discovered in America between Spain and Portugal. The next year, in the Treaty of Tordesillas, these two kingdoms decided that the dividing line would be drawn north–south, 370 leagues (from 1,500 to 2,200 km (930 to 1,400 mi) approximately depending on league used) west of the Cape Verde Islands. Land to the west would be Spanish, to the east Portuguese. Given the uncertain geography of the day, this seemed to give the "new founde isle" to Portugal. On the 1502 Cantino map, Newfoundland appears on the Portuguese side of the line (as does Brazil). An expedition captured about 60 Aboriginal people as slaves who were said to "resemble gypsies in colour, features, stature and aspect; are clothed in the skins of various animals ...They are very shy and gentle, but well formed in arms and legs and shoulders beyond description ...." Only the captives, sent by Gaspar Corte-Real, reached Portugal. The others drowned, with Gaspar, on the return voyage. Gaspar's brother, Miguel Corte-Real, went to look for him in 1502, but also failed to return. Scholars believe that Miguel Corte-Real carved inscriptions on the controversial Dighton Rock.

Non-Native American nations' claims over North America, 1750–2008.

In 1604, Pierre Dugua, Sieur de Mons received the fur trade monopoly.[46] Dugua led his first colonisation expedition to an island located near to the mouth of the St. Croix River. Samuel de Champlain, his geographer, promptly carried out a major exploration of the northeastern coastline of what is now the United States. Under Samuel de Champlain, the Saint Croix settlement was moved to Port Royal (today's Annapolis Royal, Nova Scotia), a new site across the Bay of Fundy, on the shore of the Annapolis Basin, an inlet in western Nova Scotia. Acadia was France's most successful colony to date.[47] The cancellation of Dugua's fur monopoly in 1607 ended the Port Royal settlement. Champlain was able to persuade First Nations to allow him to settle along the Saint Lawrence, where in 1608 he would found France's first permanent colony in Canada at Quebec City. The colony of Acadia grew slowly, reaching a population of about 5,000 by 1713. New France had cod fishery coastal communities and farm economies supported communities along Saint Lawrence River. French voyageurs travelled deep into the hinterlands (of what is today Quebec, Ontario, and Manitoba, as well as what is now the American Midwest and the Mississippi Valley) trading with First Nations as they went – guns, gunpowder, cloth, knives, and kettles for beaver furs.[48] The fur trade kept the interest in Frances overseas colonies alive, yet only encouraged a small population as minimal labour was required, and also discouraged the development of agriculture, the surest foundation of a colony in the New World.[49]

The Métis

The Métis (from French métis – "mixed") are descended of marriages of Cree, Ojibway, Algonquin, Saulteaux, Menominee, Mi'kmaq, Maliseet, and other First Nations in the late 18th and 19th century[50] to Europeans,[51] mainly French.[52] According to Indian and Northern Affairs Canada, the Métis were historically the children of French fur traders and Nehiyaw women or, from unions of English or Scottish traders and Northern Dene women (Anglo-Métis). The Métis spoke or still speak either Métis French or a mixed language called Michif. Michif, Mechif or Métchif is a phonetic spelling of the Métis pronunciation of Métif, a variant of Métis. The Métis today predominantly speak English, with French a strong second language, as well as numerous Aboriginal tongues. Métis French is best preserved in Canada, Michif in the United States, notably in the Turtle Mountain Indian Reservation of North Dakota, where Michif is the official language of the Métis that reside on this Chippewa reservation. The encouragement and use of Métis French and Michif is growing due to outreach within the provincial Métis councils after at least a generation of steep decline. Canada's Indian and Northern Affairs define Métis to be those persons of mixed First Nation and European ancestry.[53]

French and Indian War

Conference between the French and First Nations leaders.

French and Indian War or referred as part of the larger conflict known as the Seven Years' War (1756–1763). The name French and Indian War refers to the two main enemies of the British: the royal French forces and the various Native American forces allied with them. The conflict, the fourth such colonial war between the nations of France and Great Britain, resulted in the British conquest of Canada. In British America etymology, the sitting British monarch became the war's namesake, such as King William's War or Queen Anne's War. Because there had already been a King George's War in the 1740s, British colonists named the second war in King George's reign after their opponents so it became the French and Indian War.[54]

The Franco-Indian alliance was an alliance between American and Canadian First Nations and the French, centred on the Great Lakes and the Illinois Country.[55] The alliance involved French settlers on the one side, and on the other side were the Abenaki, Odawa, Menominee, Ho-Chunk (Winnebago), Mississaugas, Illiniwek, Huron-Petun, Potawatomi etc.[55] It allowed the French and the Indians to form a haven in the middle-Ohio valley before the open conflict between the European powers erupted.[56]


First Nations routinely captured slaves from neighbouring tribes. The conditions under which such slaves lived were much more humane than the conditions endured by African peoples forcibly brought as chattel by Europeans to the Americas. Slave-owning tribes of the fishing societies, such as the Yurok and Haida lived along the coast from what is now Alaska to California.[57] Fierce warrior indigenous slave-traders of the Pacific Northwest Coast raided as far as California. Slavery was hereditary, the slaves being prisoners of war and their descendants. Among Pacific Northwest tribes about a quarter of the population were slaves.[58]

The citizens of New France received slaves as gifts from their allies among First Nations peoples. Slaves were prisoners taken in raids against the villages of the Fox nation, a tribe that was an ancient rival of the Miami people and their Algonquian allies.[59] Native (or "pani", a corruption of Pawnee) slaves were much easier to obtain and thus more numerous than African slaves in New France, but were less valued. The average native slave died at 18, and the average African slave died at 25[58] (the average European could expect to live until the age of 35[60]). 1790, the abolition movement was gaining credence in Canada and the ill intent of slavery was evidenced by an incident involving a slave woman being violently abused by her slave owner on her way to being sold in the United States.[58] The Act Against Slavery of 1793 legislated the gradual abolition of slavery: no slaves could be imported; slaves already in the province would remain enslaved until death, no new slaves could be brought into Upper Canada, and children born to female slaves would be slaves but must be freed at age 25.[58] The Act remained in force until 1833 when the British Parliament's Slavery Abolition Act finally abolished slavery in all parts of the British Empire.[61] Historian Marcel Trudel has documented 4,092 recorded slaves throughout Canadian history, of which 2,692 were Aboriginal people, owned by the French, and 1,400 blacks owned by the British, together owned by approximately 1,400 masters.[58] Trudel also noted 31 marriages took place between French colonists and Aboriginal slaves.[58]


British agents worked to make the first nations into military allies of the British, providing supplies, weapons, and encouragement. During the American Revolutionary War most of the tribes supported the British. In 1779, the Americans launched a campaign to burn the villages of the Iroquois in New York State.[62] The refugees fled to Fort Niagara and other British posts, and remained permanently in Canada. Although the British ceded the Old Northwest to the United States in the Treaty of Paris in 1783, it kept fortifications and trading posts in the region until 1795. The British then evacuated American territory, but operated trading posts in British territory, providing weapons and encouragement to tribes that were resisting American expansion into such areas as Ohio, Indiana, Michigan, Illinois and Wisconsin.[63] Officially, the British agents discouraged any warlike activities or raids on American settlements, but the Americans were increasingly angered, and this became one of the causes of the War of 1812.[64]

In the war, the great majority of First Nations supported the British, and many fought under the aegis of Tecumseh.[65] But Tecumseh was killed in 1813 in battle, and the Indian coalition collapsed. The British have long wished to create a neutral Indian state in the American Old Northwest,[66] and made this demand as late as 1814 at the peace negotiations at Ghent. The Americans rejected the idea, the British dropped it, and Britain's Indian allies lost British support. In addition, the Indians were no longer able to gather furs and American territory. Abandoned by their powerful sponsor, Great Lakes-area natives ultimately assumilated into American society, migrated to the west or to Canada, or were relocated onto reservations in Michigan and Wisconsin.[67] Historians have unanimously agreed that the Indians were the major losers in the War of 1812.[68]

19th century

Assiniboine hunting buffalo, ca 1851

Living conditions for Indigenous people in the prairie regions deteriorated quickly. Between 1875 and 1885, settlers and hunters of European descent contributed to hunting the North American Bison almost to extinction; the construction of the Canadian Pacific Railway brought large numbers of European settlers west who encroached on former Indigenous territory. European Canadians established governments, police forces, and courts of law with different foundations than indigenous practices. Various epidemics continued to devastate Indigenous communities. All of these factors had a profound effect on Indigenous people, particularly those from the plains who had relied heavily on bison for food and clothing. Most of those nations that agreed to treaties had negotiated for a guarantee of food and help to begin farming.[69] Just as the bison disappeared (the last Canadian hunt was in 1879), Lieutenant-Governor Edgar Dewdney cut rations to indigenous people in an attempt to reduce government costs. Between 1880 and 1885, approximately 3,000 Indigenous people starved to death in the North-Western Territory/Northwest Territories.[69]

Pitikwahanapiwiyin (Poundmaker)

Offended by the concepts of the treaties, Cree chiefs resisted them. Big Bear refused to sign Treaty 6 until starvation among his people forced his hand in 1882.[69] His attempts to unite Indigenous nations made progress. In 1884 the Métis (including the Anglo-Métis) asked Louis Riel to return from the United States, where he had fled after the Red River Rebellion, to appeal to the government on their behalf. The government gave a vague response. In March 1885, Riel, Gabriel Dumont, Honoré Jackson (a.k.a. Will Jackson), Crowfoot, Chief of the Blackfoot First Nation and Chief Poundmaker, who after the 1876 negotiations of Treaty 6 split off to form his band.[70] Together, they set up the Provisional Government of Saskatchewan, believing that they could influence the federal government in the same way as they had in 1869.[71] The North-West Rebellion of 1885 was a brief and unsuccessful uprising by the Métis people of the District of Saskatchewan under Louis Riel against the Dominion of Canada, which they believed had failed to address their concerns for the survival of their people.[72] In 1884, 2,000 Cree from reserves met near Battleford to organise into a large, cohesive resistance. Discouraged by the lack of government response but encouraged by the efforts of the Métis at armed rebellion, Wandering Spirit and other young militant Cree attacked the small town of Frog Lake, killing Thomas Quinn, the hated Indian Agent and eight others.[69] Although Big Bear actively opposed the attacks, he was charged and tried for treason and sentenced to three years in prison. After the Red River Rebellion of 1869–1870, Métis moved from Manitoba to the District of Saskatchewan, where they founded a settlement at Batoche on the South Saskatchewan River.[73] In Manitoba settlers from Ontario began to arrive. They pushed for land to be allotted in the square concession system of English Canada, rather than the seigneurial system of strips reaching back from a river which the Métis were familiar with in their French-Canadian culture. The buffalo were being hunted to extinction by the Hudson's Bay Company and other hunters, as for generations the Métis had depended on them as a chief source of food.

Colonisation and Integration

St. Paul's Indian Industrial School, Manitoba, 1901

From the late 18th century, European Canadians encouraged First Nations to assimilate into their own culture, referred to as "Canadian culture". The assumption was that it was the correct one because the Canadians of European descent saw themselves as dominant, and technologically, politically and culturally more advanced.[74] These attempts reached a climax in the late 19th and early 20th centuries

Founded in the 19th century, the Canadian Indian residential school system was intended to force the assimilation of Canadian Aboriginal and First Nations people into European-Canadian society.[75] The purpose of the schools, which separated children from their families, has been described by commentators as "killing the Indian in the child."[76][77]

Funded under the Indian Act by Indian and Northern Affairs Canada, a branch of the federal government, the schools were run by churches of various denominations – about 60% by Roman Catholics, and 30% by the Anglican Church of Canada and the United Church of Canada, along with its pre-1925 predecessors, Presbyterian, Congregationalist and Methodist churches.

The attempt to force assimilation involved punishing children for speaking their own languages or practicing their own faiths, leading to allegations in the 20th century of cultural genocide and ethnocide. There was widespread physical and sexual abuse. Overcrowding, poor sanitation, and a lack of medical care led to high rates of tuberculosis, and death rates of up to 69%.[78] Details of the mistreatment of students had been published numerous times throughout the 20th century, but following the closure of the schools in the 1960s, the work of indigenous activists and historians led to a change in the public perception of the residential school system, as well as official government apologies, and a (controversial) legal settlement.[79]

20th century

Ethnomusicologist Frances Densmore recording Blackfoot chief Mountain Chief (1916)

As Canadian ideas of progress evolved at the turn of the century, the federal Indian policy was directed at removing Indigenous people from their communal lands and encouraging assimilation.[69] Amendments to the Indian Act in 1905 and 1911 made it easier for the government to expropriate reserve lands from First Nations. The government sold nearly half of the Blackfoot reserve in Alberta to settlers.

When the Kainai (Blood) Nation refused to accept the sale of their lands in 1916 and 1917, the Department of Indian Affairs held back funding necessary for farming until they relented.[69] In British Columbia, the McKenna-McBride Royal Commission was created in 1912 to settle disputes over reserve lands in the province. The claims of Indigenous people were ignored, and the commission allocated new, less valuable lands (reserves) for First Nations.[69]

Those nations who managed to maintain their ownership of good lands often farmed successfully. Indigenous people living near the Cowichan and Fraser rivers, and those from Saskatchewan managed to produce good harvests.[69] Since 1881, those First Nations people living in the prairie provinces required permits from Indian Agents to sell any of their produce. Later the government created a pass system in the old Northwest Territories that required indigenous people to seek written permission from an Indian Agent before leaving their reserves for any length of time.[69] Indigenous people regularly defied those laws, as well as bans on Sun Dances and potlatches, in an attempt to practice their culture.[80]

The 1930 Constitution Act or Natural Resources Transfer Acts was part of a shift acknowledging indigenous rights. It enabled provincial control of Crown land and allowed Provincial laws regulating game to apply to Indians, but it also ensured that "Indians shall have the right ... of hunting, trapping and fishing game and fish for food at all seasons of the year on all unoccupied Crown lands and on any other lands to which the said Indians may have a right of access."[81]

First and Second World Wars

Aboriginal War Veterans monument

More than 6,000 Canadian First Nations, Inuit and Métis served with British forces during First World War and Second World War. A generation of young native Canadian men fought on the battlefields of Europe during the Great War and approximately 300 of them died there. When Canada declared war on Germany on September 10, 1939, the native community quickly responded to volunteer. Four years later, in May 1943, the government declared that, as British subjects, all able Indian men of military age could be called up for training and service in Canada or overseas.

Late 20th century

Following the end of the Second World War, laws concerning First Nations in Canada began to change, albeit slowly. The federal prohibition of potlatch and Sun Dance ceremonies ended in 1951. Provincial governments began to accept the right of Indigenous people to vote. In June 1956, section 9 of the Citizenship Act was amended to grant formal citizenship to Status Indians and Inuit, retroactively as of January 1947.

In 1960, First Nations people received the right to vote in federal elections without forfeiting their Indian status. By comparison, Native Americans in the United States had been allowed to vote since the 1920s.[82]

1969 White Paper

In his 1969 White Paper, then-Minister of Indian Affairs, Jean Chrétien, proposed the abolition of the Indian Act of Canada, the rejection of Aboriginal land claims, and the assimilation of First Nations people into the Canadian population with the status of "other ethnic minorities" rather than as a distinct group.[83]

Harold Cardinal and the Indian Chiefs of Alberta responded with a document entitled "Citizens Plus" but commonly known as the "Red Paper". In it, they explained Status Indians' widespread opposition to Chrétien's proposal. Prime Minister Pierre Trudeau and the Liberals began to back away from the 1969 White Paper, particularly after the Calder case decision in 1973.[84]

Health Transfer Policy

In 1970, severe mercury poisoning, called Ontario Minamata disease, was discovered among Asubpeeschoseewagong First Nation and Wabaseemoong Independent Nations people, who lived near Dryden, Ontario. There was extensive mercury pollution caused by Dryden Chemicals Company's waste water effluent in the Wabigoon-English River system.[85][86] Because local fish were no longer safe to eat, the Ontario provincial government closed the commercial fisheries run by the First Nation people and ordered them to stop eating local fish. Previously it had made up the majority of their diet.[87] In addition to the acute mercury poisoning in northwestern Ontario, Aamjiwnaang First Nation people near Sarnia, Ontario experienced a wide range of chemical effects, including severe mercury poisoning. They suffered low birth rates, skewed birth-gender ratio, and health effects among the population.[88][89][90] This led to legislation and eventually the Indian Health Transfer Policy that provided a framework for the assumption of control of health services by First Nations people, and set forth a developmental approach to transfer centred on the concept of self-determination in health.[91] Through this process, the decision to enter into transfer discussions with Health Canada rests with each community. Once involved in transfer, communities are able to take control of health programme responsibilities at a pace determined by their individual circumstances and health management capabilities.[92]

Elijah Harper and the Meech Lake Accord

In 1981, Elijah Harper, a Cree from Red Sucker Lake, Manitoba, became the first "Treaty Indian" in Manitoba to be elected as a member of the Legislative Assembly of Manitoba. In 1990, Harper achieved national fame by holding an eagle feather as he refused to accept the Meech Lake Accord, a constitutional amendment package negotiated to gain Quebec's acceptance of the Constitution Act, 1982, but also one that did not address any First Nations grievances. The accord was negotiated in 1987 without the input of Canada's Aboriginal peoples.[93][94][95] The third, final constitutional conference on Aboriginal peoples was also unsuccessful. The Manitoba assembly was required to unanimously consent to a motion allowing it to hold a vote on the accord, because of a procedural rule. Twelve days before the ratification deadline for the Accord, Harper began a filibuster that prevented the assembly from ratifying the accord. Because Meech Lake failed in Manitoba, the proposed constitutional amendment failed.[96] Harper also opposed the Charlottetown Accord in 1992, even though Assembly of First Nations Chief Ovide Mercredi supported it.[83]

Women's status and Bill C-31

According to the Indian Act, indigenous women who married white men lost their treaty status, and their children would not get status. In the reverse situation (indigenous men married to white women), men could keep their status, and their children would get treaty status. In the 1970s, the Indian Rights for Indian Women and Native Women's Association of Canada groups campaigned against this policy because it discriminated against women and failed to fulfill treaty promises.[69] They successfully convinced the federal government to change the section of the act with the adoption of Bill C-31 on June 28, 1985. Women who had lost their status and children who had been excluded were then able to register and gain official Indian status. Despite these changes, First Nations women who married white men could only pass their status on one generation, their children would gain status, but (without a marriage to a full status Indian) their grandchildren would not. A First Nations male who married a white woman retained status as did his children, but his wife did not gain status, nor did his grandchildren.

Bill C-31 also gave elected bands the power to regulate who was allowed to reside on their reserves and to control development on their reserves. It abolished the concept of "enfranchisement" by which First Nations people could gain certain rights by renouncing their Indian status.[97]

Erasmus-Dussault commission

In 1991, Prime Minister Brian Mulroney created the Royal Commission on Aboriginal Peoples chaired by René Dussault and Georges Erasmus. Their 1996 report proposed the creation of a government for (and by) the First Nations that would be responsible within its own jurisdiction, and with which the federal government would speak on a "Nation-to-Nation" basis.[98] This proposal offered a far different way of doing politics than the traditional policy of assigning First Nations matters under the jurisdiction of the Indian and Northern Affairs, managed by one minister of the federal cabinet. The report also recommended providing the governments of the First Nations with up to $2 billion every year until 2010, in order to reduce the economic gap between the First Nations and the rest of the Canadian citizenry.[98] The money would represent an increase of at least 50% to the budget of Indian and Northern Affairs.[98] The report engaged First Nations leaders to think of ways to cope with the challenging issues their people were facing, so the First Nations could take their destiny into their own hands.[98]

The federal government, then headed by Jean Chrétien, responded to the report a year later by officially presenting its apologies for the forced acculturation the federal government had imposed on the First Nations, and by offering an "initial" provision of $350 million.[98]

In the spirit of the Eramus-Dussault commission, tripartite (federal, provincial, and First Nations) accords have been signed since the report was issued. Several political crises between different provincial governments and different bands of the First Nations also occurred in the late 20th century, notably the Oka Crisis, Ipperwash Crisis, Burnt Church Crisis, and the Gustafsen Lake Standoff.[98]

Early 21st century

In 2001, the Quebec government, the federal government, and the Cree Nation signed "La Paix des Braves" (The Peace of the Braves, a reference to the 1701 peace treaty between the French and the Iroquois League). The agreement allowed Hydro-Québec to exploit the province's hydroelectric resources in exchange for an allocation of $3.5 billion to be given to the government of the Cree Nation. Later, the Inuit of northern Quebec (Nunavik) joined in the agreement.

The Defence of Cree Rights

In 2005, the leaders of the First Nations, various provincial governments, and the federal government produced an agreement called the Kelowna Accord, which would have yielded $5 billion over 10 years, but the new federal government of Stephen Harper (2006) did not follow through on the working paper.

Royal Military College of Canada Aboriginal Leadership Opportunity Year drum featuring a symbol for First Nations, an Inukshuk, and an infinity symbol for Métis people (Canada)

First Nations, along with the Métis and the Inuit, have claimed to receive inadequate funding for education, and allege their rights have been overlooked. James Bartleman, Lieutenant Governor of Ontario, listed the encouragement of indigenous young people as one of his key priorities. During his term that began in 2002, he has launched initiatives to promote literacy and bridge building. Bartleman himself is the first Aboriginal person to hold the Lieutenant Governor's position in Ontario.

As of 2006, over 75 First Nations communities exist in boil-water advisory conditions.[99] In late 2005, the drinking water crisis of the Kashechewan First Nation received national media attention when E. coli was discovered in their water supply system, following two years of living under a boil-water advisory. The drinking water was supplied by a new treatment plant built in March 1998. The cause of the tainted water was a plugged chlorine injector that was not discovered by local operators, who were not qualified to be running the treatment plant. When officials arrived and fixed the problem, chlorine levels were around 1.7 mg/l, which was blamed for skin disorders such as impetigo and scabies. An investigation led by Health Canada revealed that the skin disorders were likely due to living in squalor. The evacuation of Kashechewan is largely viewed by Canadians as a cry for help for other underlying social and economic issues which Aboriginal people in Canada face.

On June 29, 2007, Canadian Aboriginal groups held countrywide protests aimed at ending First Nations poverty, dubbed the Aboriginal Day of Action. The demonstrations were largely peaceful, although groups disrupted transportation with blockades or bonfires; a stretch of the Highway 401 was shut down, as was the Canadian National Railway's line between Toronto and Montreal.[100]

Canadian Crown and First Nations relations

Honourable David Laird explaining
terms of Treaty #8, Fort Vermilion, 1899

The relationship between the Canadian Crown and the First Nations, Inuit, and Métis peoples of Canada stretches back to the first interactions between European colonialists and North American indigenous people. Over centuries of interaction, treaties were established, and Canada's First Nations have, like the Māori and the Treaty of Waitangi in New Zealand, come to generally view these agreements as being between them and the Crown of Canada, and not the ever-changing governments.[101][102]

The associations exist between the Aboriginal peoples of Canada and the reigning monarch of Canada; as was stated in the proposed First Nations – Federal Crown Political Accord: "cooperation will be a cornerstone for partnership between Canada and First Nations, wherein Canada is the short-form reference to Her Majesty the Queen in Right of Canada.[103] These relations are governed by the established treaties; the Supreme Court stated that treaties "served to reconcile pre-existing Aboriginal sovereignty with assumed Crown sovereignty, and to define Aboriginal rights,"[103] and the First Nations saw these agreements as meant to last "as long as the sun shines, grass grows and rivers flow."

Political organisation

At contact, First Nations organisations ranged in size from band societies of a few people to multi-nation confederacies like the Iroquois. First Nations leaders from across the country formed the Assembly of First Nations, which began as the National Indian Brotherhood in 1968.

Today's political organisations are largely the by-product of interaction with European-style methods of government. First Nations political organisations throughout Canada vary in political standing, viewpoints, and reasons for forming. First Nations political organisations arise to have a united voice and express their opinions. First Nations negotiate with the Canadian Government through Indian and Northern Affairs Canada in affairs concerning land, entitlement, and rights. Independent First Nation groups do not belong to these groups.

Assembly of First Nations / National Indian Brotherhood

"Ovide Mercredi speaking to the media"
Ovide Mercredi, former national chief of the Assembly of First Nations

The Assembly of First Nations (AFN) is a body of First Nations leaders in Canada. The aims of the organisation are to protect the rights, treaty obligations, ceremonies, and claims of citizens of the First Nations in Canada.

After the failures of the League of Indians in Canada in the Interwar period and the North American Indian Brotherhood in two decades following the Second World War, the Aboriginal peoples of Canada organised themselves once again in the early 1960s. The National Indian Council was created in 1961 to represent Indigenous people, including Treaty/Status Indians, non-status people, the Métis people, though not the Inuit.[104] This organisation also collapsed in 1968 as the three groups failed to act as one, so the non-status and Métis groups formed the Native Council of Canada and Treaty/Status groups formed the National Indian Brotherhood (NIB), an umbrella group for provincial and territorial First Nations organisations.



Main articles: First Nations Aboriginal languages
Language families in Northern America at the time of European contact

Today, there are over thirty different languages spoken by indigenous people, most of which are spoken only in Canada. Many are in decline. Those with the most speakers include Anishinaabe and Cree (together totalling up to 150,000 speakers); Inuktitut with about 29,000 speakers in the Northwest Territories, Nunavut, Nunavik (Northern Quebec), and Nunatsiavut (Northern Labrador); and Mi'kmaq, with around 8,500 speakers, mostly in Eastern Canada. Aboriginal peoples have lost their native languages and often all but surviving elders speak English or French as their first language.[105]

Two of Canada's territories give official status to native languages. In Nunavut, Inuktitut and Inuinnaqtun are official languages alongside English and French, and Inuktitut is a common vehicular language in government. In the Northwest Territories, the Official Languages Act[106] declares that there are eleven different languages: Chipewyan, Cree, English, French, Gwich’in, Inuinnaqtun, Inuktitut, Inuvialuktun, North Slavey, South Slavey and Tłįchǫ. Besides English and French, these languages are not vehicular in government; official status entitles citizens to receive services in them on request and to deal with the government in them.[105]


One characteristic of Indigenous art that distinguishes it from European traditions is its being portable and made for the body rather than for architecture, though even this is only a general tendency and not an absolute rule. Indigenous visual art is also often made to be used in conjunction with other arts, for example shaman's masks and rattles play an important role in ceremonialism that also involves dance, storytelling and music.[107]

Artworks preserved in museum collections date from the period after European contact and show evidence of the creative adoption and adaptation of European trade goods such as metal and glass beads. The distinct Métis cultures from inter-cultural relationships with Europeans contribute new culturally hybrid art forms. During the 19th and the first half of the 20th century the Canadian government pursued an active policy of assimilation, both forced and cultural, toward indigenous peoples and one of the instruments of this policy was the Indian Act, which banned manifestations of traditional religion and governance, such as the Sun Dance and the Potlatch,[108] including the works of art associated with them. While First Nations illegally continued their practices in secret, their art was continuously confiscated, stolen, and sold to museums. Ironically, there was an overwhelming demand from Northwest Coast art at this time in Europe and other non-aboriginal markets. This awkward double standard was common. First Nations people had no political rights or freedoms, but their heritage of totem pole sculptures were used to symbolise British Columbia on tourism brochures. The authorities allowed souvenirs of totem poles to be sold in gift shops and use the "exoticism" of aboriginal culture for their own capitalist gain but the actual practice of First Nations art remained against the law.[109]

In another case in 1924, during the height of potlatch ban enforcement, BC luminaries held a mock "Royal Tyee Potlatch" to celebrate the visit of the British Royal Navy. This just three years after the police disbanded Dan Cranmer’s potlatch on Village Island, with 45 attendees arrested, with 22 given suspended sentences.[110]

When the potlatch ban disappeared from the revised Indian Act in 1951, the whole culture was able to come to life once more. As Doreen Jensen writes, "For our painting and sculpture, our performance, oratory and song are our history, law political and philosophical discourse, sacred ceremony and land registry." Art was and continues to be deeply embedded in the sense of aboriginal identity.[109]

It was not until the 1950s and 1960s that indigenous artists such as Mungo Martin, Bill Reid and Norval Morrisseau began to publicly renew and re-invent indigenous art traditions. There are now indigenous artists practicing in media across Canada and indigenous artists have represented Canada at the prestigious Venice Biennale (Edward Poitras in 1995 and Rebecca Belmore in 2005).[107]


Pow-wow at Eel Ground First Nation

The First Nations peoples of Canada comprise diverse ethnic groups, each with their own musical traditions. There are general similarities in the music, but is usually social (public) or ceremonial (private). Public, social music may be dance music accompanied by rattles and drums. Private, ceremonial music includes vocal songs with accompaniment on percussion, used to mark occasions like Midewiwin ceremonies and Sun Dances.

Traditionally, Aboriginal peoples used the materials at hand to make their instruments for centuries before Europeans immigrated to Canada.[111] First Nations people made gourds and animal horns into rattles, which were elaborately carved and beautifully painted.[112] In woodland areas, they made horns of birch bark and drumsticks of carved antlers and wood. Traditional percussion instruments such as drums were generally made of carved wood and animal hides.[113] These musical instruments provide the background for songs, and songs are the background for dances. Traditional First Nations people consider song and dance to be sacred. For years after Europeans came to Canada, First Nations people were forbidden to practice their ceremonies.[108][111]


Cultural areas of North American Indigenous peoples at the time of European contact.

In the 20th century, the First Nations population of Canada increased tenfold.[114] Between 1900 and 1950 the population grew only by 29% but after the 1960s the infant mortality level on reserves dropped and the population grew by 161%. Since the 1980s, the number of First Nations babies more than doubled and currently almost half of the First Nations population is under the age of 25. As a result, the First Nations population of Canada is expected to increase in the coming decades.[114]

The 2006 census counted a total Aboriginal population of 1,172,790 (3.75%) which includes 698,025 North American Indians (2.23%).[115]

Canadian Provinces and Territories

There are distinct First Nations in Canada, originating across the country. Indian reserves, established in Canadian law by treaties such as Treaty 7, are the very limited contemporary lands of First Nations recognized by the non-indigenous governments. Reserves exist within cities, such as the Opawikoscikan Reserve in Prince Albert, Wendake in Quebec City or Stony Plain 135 in the Edmonton Capital Region. There are more reserves in Canada than there are First Nations, as First Nations were ceded multiple reserves by treaty.

People who self-identify as having North American Indian ancestors are the plurality in large areas of Canada (areas coloured in brown).

First Nations can be grouped into cultural areas based on their ancestors' primary lifeway, or occupation, at the time of European contact. These culture areas correspond closely with physical and ecological regions of Canada.[45]

Ethnographers commonly classify indigenous peoples of the Americas in the United States and Canada into ten geographical regions with shared cultural traits (called cultural areas).[116] The following list groups peoples by their region of origin, followed by the current location. See the individual article on each tribe, band society or First Nation for a history of their movements. See the Federally recognized tribes for the United States' official list of recognized Native American tribes. The Canadian (in whole or in part) regions are Arctic, Subarctic, Northeast Woodlands, Plains, and Plateau.

The Indigenous peoples of the Pacific Northwest Coast communities centred around ocean and river fishing; in the interior of British Columbia, hunting and gathering and river fishing. In both of these areas, salmon was of chief importance. For the people of the plains, bison hunting was the primary activity. In the subarctic forest, other species such as the moose were more important. For peoples near the Great Lakes and Saint Lawrence river, shifting agriculture was practised, including the raising of maize, beans, and squash.[45]

Today, Aboriginal people work in a variety of occupations and live outside their ancestral homes. The traditional cultures of their ancestors, shaped by nature, still exert a strong influence on their culture, from spirituality to political attitudes.[45]


First Nations peoples face a number of problems to a greater degree than Canadians overall. They have higher unemployment,[117] rates of crime and incarceration,[118] substance abuse,[119] health problems, fetal alcohol syndrome,[120] lower levels of education and higher levels of poverty.[121][122][123] Suicide rates are more than twice the sex-specific rate and also three times the age-specific rates of non-Aboriginal Canadians.[124]

Life expectancy at birth is significantly lower for First Nations babies than for babies in the Canadian population as a whole. As of 2001, Indian and Northern Affairs Canada estimates First Nations life expectancy to be 8.1 years shorter for males and 5.5 years shorter for females.[125]

Self-government has given chiefs and their councils powers which combine those of a province, school board, health board and municipality. Councils are also largely self-regulating regarding utilities, environmental protection, natural resources, building codes, etc. There is concern that this wide-ranging authority, concentrated in a single council, might be a cause of the dysfunctional governments experienced by many First Nations.[126]

Gangs consisting of Aboriginals are becoming an increasing problem, across Canada, due to the poor living conditions. Most are found in Winnipeg, Manitoba.[127]

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