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 2016, over 1.6 million people in Canada identified as Indigenous, making up 4.9 per cent of the national population. 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.

Unidentified Métis Family, Probably at Osnaburgh House, Ontario
In this family portrait, we see the blending of two cultures. The father wears a European suit adorned with a pocket watch. The mother, who might be Métis, holds their infant in a cradle board, traditionally used by First Nations peoples. The shawls, worn by several of the women and girls, reflect Métis culture.
Inuit women in gala dress, Qatiktalik (Cape Fullerton), c. 1903-04.\r\n
Justin Trudeau and Perry Bellegarde
Prime Minister Justin Trudeau and national chief of the Assembly of First Nations (AFN) Perry Bellegarde talk before the beginning of the AFN Special Chiefs Assembly in Québec, 2015.

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.

Demographics

In 2016, over 1.6 million people in Canada identified as Indigenous, making up 4.9 per cent of the national population. The Indigenous population in Canada is growing steadily; since 2006, it has more than quadrupled. Statistics Canada has projected that in the next 20 years, the Indigenous population will likely grow to include over 2.5 million.

The 2016 census showed population growth in First Nations communities both on and off reserve; from 2006 to 2016, the on-reserve population grew 12.8 percent while the off-reserve population grew 49.1 per cent off reserve. Statistics Canada also reported that the Métis are the most likely Indigenous group to live in an urban community; nearly two-thirds of the population lived in a city in 2016. For the Inuit, nearly 75 per cent of the population inhabit Inuit Nunangat, a stretch of traditional territory covering the land, water and ice contained in the Arctic.

DID YOU KNOW?
In the 2016 census, 11,620 people in Canada claimed Cherokee ancestry. The Cherokee Nation is the largest tribal nation in the United States.

Regional and Cultural Diversity

Unidentified Métis Family, Probably at Osnaburgh House, Ontario
In this family portrait, we see the blending of two cultures. The father wears a European suit adorned with a pocket watch. The mother, who might be Métis, holds their infant in a cradle board, traditionally used by First Nations peoples. The shawls, worn by several of the women and girls, reflect Métis culture.
Inuit women in gala dress, Qatiktalik (Cape Fullerton), c. 1903-04.\r\n
Justin Trudeau and Perry Bellegarde
Prime Minister Justin Trudeau and national chief of the Assembly of First Nations (AFN) Perry Bellegarde talk before the beginning of the AFN Special Chiefs Assembly in Québec, 2015.

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:

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.

Abenaki
Innu (Montagnais-Naskapi) Oneida
Ahousaht Interior Salish
Onondaga
Algonquin Inuinnait (Copper Inuit) Pacheenaht
Assiniboine Inuvialuit (Mackenzie Inuit) Petun
Atikamekw Kainai (Blood) Piikani (Peigan)
Baffin Island Inuit K'asho Got'ine (Hare) Saldermiut Inuit
Beothuk
Kaska Dena
Sahtu Got'ine (Bearlake)
Blackfoot Confederacy
Kivallirmiut (Caribou Inuit) Secwepemc (Shuswap)
Cayuga
Ktunaxa (Kootenay) Sekani
Central Coast Salish
Kwakwaka'wakw (Kwakiutl) Seneca
Coast Salish
Kyuquot and Checleseht
Shuta Got'ine (Mountain)
Cree
Labradormiut (Labrador Inuit) Siksika (Blackfoot)
Dakota
Lilwat (Lillooet) Slavey
Dakelh (Carrier) Lingit (Tlingit) Stoney-Nakoda
Dane-zaa (Beaver) Métis
Syilx (Okanagan)
Dene
Mi'kmaq
Tagish
Denesuline (Chipewyan) Mohawk
Tahltan
Ditidaht
Mowachaht-Muchalaht
Tla-o-qui-aht (Clayoquot)
Ehattesaht
Nahani
Tlicho (Dogrib)
Gitxsan (Gitksan) Netsilingmiut (Netsilik Inuit) Toquaht
Gwich'in
Neutral Confederacy
Tr'ondëk Hwëch'in (Han)
Haida
Nicola-Similkameen
Tseshaht (Sheshaht)
Haisla (Kitamaat) Nisga'a
Tsilhqot'in (Chilcotin)
Haudenosaunee (Six Nations or Iroquois) Nlaka'pamux (Thompson) Tsimshian
Heiltsuk
Northern Georgia Strait Coast Salish
Tsuut'ina (Sarcee)
Hesquiaht
Nuchatlaht
Tutchone
Hupacasath (Opetchesaht) Nunavimmiut (Ungava Inuit) Uchucklesaht
Huu-ay-aht
Nuu-chah-nulth
Ucluelet (First Nation)
Huron-Wendat
Nuxalk (Bella Coola) ​Wolastoqiyik​ (Maliseet)
Iglulingmuit (Iglulik Inuit) Odawa
Wetal (Tsetsaut)
Inuit
Ojibwa
Yellowknives (band)

Read More // Indigenous People

Indigenous Perspectives Education Guide

Indigenous Peoples Collection

Further Reading

  • J.R. Miller, Compact, Contract, Covenant: Aboriginal Treaty-Making in Canada (2009).

  • Robert McGhee, Ancient People of the Arctic (1996).

  • Chris Andersen, “Métis”: Race, Recognition, and the Struggle for Indigenous Peoplehood (2014).

  • Chelsea Vowel, Indigenous Writes: A Guide to First Nations, Métis & Inuit Issues in Canada (2016).

  • Olive Patricia Dickason, Canada’s First Nations: A History of Founding Peoples from Earliest Times, 4th ed. (2009).

  • Olive Patricia Dickason and David Alan Long, Visions of the Heart: Issues Involving Aboriginal Peoples in Canada, 4th ed. (2016).

  • James Rodger Miller, Skyscrapers Hide the Heavens: A History of Indian-White Relations in Canada (2000).

  • Kristin Burnett and Geoff Read, Aboriginal History: A Reader, 2nd ed. (2016).

  • H.A. Dempsey, Indian Tribes of Alberta (1978); P. Drucker, Indians of the Northwest Coast (1955); W. Duff, The Indian History of British Columbia (1964); L.M. and J.R. Hanks, Tribe Under Trust: A Study of the Blackfoot Reserve of Alberta (1950); H.B. Hawthorn et al, The Indians of British Columbia (1958); D. Jenness, The Indians of Canada (1932); T. McFeat, ed, Indians of the North Pacific Coast (1966); D.G. Mandelbaum, The Plains Cree (1979); R.B. Morrison and C.R. Wilson, The Native Peoples: The Canadian Experience (1987); A. Ray, Indians in the Fur Trade (1974); V.F. Ray, Cultural Relations in the Plateau of Northwestern America (1939); W.C. Sturtevant, gen ed, Handbook of North American Indians, vol 15: Northeast, ed, B.G. Trigger (1978) and vol 6: Subarctic, ed, J. Helm (1981), other volumes are forthcoming; J.W. Vanstone, Athapaskan Adaptations: Hunters and Fishermen of the Subarctic Forests (1974); M. Zaslow, ed, A Century of Canada's Arctic Islands 1880-1980 (1981).

External Links