Celebrating National Indigenous History Month in Canada

The history of Indigenous peoples in Canada begins much earlier than any other group living here — and is far more complex.

Inuk man playing a drum
An image from the National Film Board's still photography collection, celebrating National Aboriginal Day. It shows an Inuk man playing a drum in Pelly Bay (Arvilikjuaq), Nunavut, Canada, 1961.

When European settlers arrived in what would become Canada in the early 16th century, the number of Indigenous people ranged from an estimated low of 350,000 to as high as 2,000,000. By Confederation, more than 350 years later, the Indigenous population had not grown, as might be expected, but had shrunk dramatically. In 1867, there were between 100,000 and 125,000 First Nations people here, along with about 10,000 Métis in Manitoba and 2,000 Inuit across the Arctic (see Demography of Indigenous People).

The reasons for their decline are tied to such factors as war, illness, and starvation, arising directly from European settlement and habits. As The Canadian Encyclopedia notes, “The Indigenous population… continued to decline until the early 20th century.” Even after that trend reversed, other problems continued, including discrimination, ignorance or misunderstanding of Indigenous cultures, and government laws and policies that often had disastrous effects.

Those challenges and hardships cannot be forgotten, and National Aboriginal History Month is an opportune time to remember them. Yet, it is also important to be aware of the achievements of Indigenous peoples, and the manner in which they have enriched the lives of all Canadians.

At our organization, Historica Canada, we highlight the triumphs and tragedies involving Indigenous peoples in Canada through programs such as Indigenous Arts & Stories, The Canadian Encyclopedia and our Heritage Minutes. Any list of events in either category is certain to be incomplete, but the process is ongoing. Here are some stories we’ve recently represented: a new Heritage Minute, released on 21 June 2016 (National Aboriginal Day), chronicles a tragic story arising from the long-standing forced enrolment of Indigenous youth in residential schools. That Minute tells the story of Chanie Wenjack, an Anishinaabe boy who ran away from his residential school and subsequently died from hunger and exposure. His death sparked the first inquest into the treatment of Indigenous children in Canadian residential schools.

A second new Minute also released during National Aboriginal History Month depicts a treaty negotiation through the eyes of Cree people in Northern Ontario, who saw the process in much different terms than their counterparts across the table. Titled Naskumituwin (or “oral agreement” in Cree), the Minute tells of the story behind the 1921 signing of Treaty 9, which covers a vast tract of Cree and Ojibwa land in Ontario. A third new Minute, released in October 2016, celebrates Kenojuak Ashevak, the world-renowned artist who was at the forefront of the global popularization of Inuit art (see The Art of the North).

Some other past Minutes tell stories of Indigenous traditions and defining events. They include: Indigenous achievements during the War of 1812 (many while in alliance with the British), particularly at the Battle of Queenston Heights; the heroic life and troubled death of Tommy Prince, one of Canada’s most decorated military figures; the hanging of the still-controversial Métis leader, Louis Riel, in 1885; and a Minute devoted to the significance of the Inukshuk, the Inuit symbol that serves as a statement in the wilderness to declare, as one character in the Minute says, “now the people will know we were here.”

Those efforts barely even scratch the surface of Indigenous peoples’ history in Canada.

At the same time, it’s worth noting the wide range of peoples that the term Indigenous encompasses. As of 2010, the most recent year for which statistics are available, the term included: 617 First Nations communities and more than 50 nations, 8 Métis settlements and 53 Inuit communities. Collectively, that includes more than 60 languages. In the 2011 National Household Survey, the most recent, more than 1.8 million people declared Indigenous ancestry.

All of this goes to show that Indigenous peoples in Canada are distinct and diverse, with many different cultures, traditions and lifestyles. Their diversity gives them something in common with other Canadians, in a country that is increasingly defined by that quality. Yet, at the same time, they are increasingly proud of being distinct. And, more than ever, they are determined to stay that way.