Indian is a term that is now considered outdated and offensive, but has been used historically to identify Indigenous people in South, Central and North America. In Canada, the term is used most often to refer to legally defined identities.

The term Indian is believed to have originated with Christopher Columbus, who used the word to describe the Indigenous peoples in the Americas. In the 1400s, Columbus believed he had reached Asia when, in fact, he had arrived in the Caribbean. The term has since persisted, and has been used indiscriminately to refer to all Indigenous peoples on the North, Central and South American continents, with the exception of the Inuit in the Canadian Arctic, Greenland and Alaska. Outside legal definitions in Canada, the term Indian is no longer used to refer to Indigenous peoples.


Since the 1980s, many terms have been used instead of Indian, including Native peoples, First Peoples, Aboriginal peoples, First Nations and Indigenous peoples. These are catch-all phrases that hold different meanings for different people. Generally speaking, the terms Native and Aboriginal have been rejected by many Indigenous groups who claim that these are European and colonial terms that are too broadly defined. As a result, some use the term First Nations. However, this term excludes Inuit and Métis peoples. In recent years, the term Indigenous has been adopted by various governments and Indigenous associations in Canada to refer to First Nations, Inuit and Métis peoples. However, there is no single, widely accepted term that is used to identify First Peoples in Canada.

Many Indigenous peoples in Canada therefore, self-identify using traditional terms from their own languages. For example, the term Haudenosaunee replaces the outdated French term Iroquois to refer to the peoples of the Six Nations. Similarly, Anishinaabe replaces Ojibwa and Siksika replaces Blackfoot. Using terms from Indigenous languages to refer to First Nations, Métis and Inuit peoples is part of a reclaiming process in which colonial terms are overturned.

Legal Definitions

Though generally considered outdated and offensive, the term Indian still holds legal significance in Canada. The Government of Canada, in section 35(2) of the Constitution Act, 1982, defines three groups of Aboriginal peoples: Indians, Inuit and Métis. Section 3 of the 1876 Indian Act outlined criteria for who was legally defined as Indian. There are three recognized categories of Indian: Status Indians (also referred to as Registered Indians); Treaty Indians; and Non-Status Indians. Until amendments to the Act in 1985, the rules were wholly dependent on male lineage. The 1876 Act defined an Indian as:

First. Any male person of Indian blood reputed to belong to a particular band;

Secondly. Any child of such person;

Thirdly. Any woman who is or was lawfully married to such person.

People who fit this description are registered under the Act as Indian and appear on the Indian Register — the official record identifying all Registered Indians in Canada, maintained by Indigenous and Northern Affairs Canada (INAC). The register contains the names, birthdates, death dates, and marriage and divorce details, as well as records of persons transferring from one band to another, for all Status Indians.

Status and Treaty Indians

Status Indians are individuals who are listed in the Indian Register. Treaty Indians are Registered Indians who belong to a First Nation or Indian band that signed a treaty with the Crown, thereby surrendering land for specified benefits. Between 1871 and 1922, the Canadian government and various First Nations signed the 11 Numbered Treaties. All Registered Indians are issued identification cards (known as status cards) that contain information about their identity, band and registration number.

Historically, Status and Treaty Indians have been considered “wards” of the Canadian federal government. This means that they are placed under the protection of the state. This legal relationship demonstrates the patriarchal and historical notion that Indigenous peoples are “children” who require control and direction. In the past, the government used the Indian Act (as well as other legislation) as a way to assimilate Indigenous peoples to White, colonial Canadian culture. With the increasing move towards self-government, ward status will likely change.

The Indian Act has historically stated that those with Indian status have rights to live on reserves, share in band monies, vote for band council and chief, and inherit band property. With the exception of specific promises contained in treaties, Status and Treaty Indians receive identical benefits and privileges from the federal government. For example, all Status Indians are exempt from paying income tax on any income they earn on a reserve, and the personal property of a Status Indian cannot be seized if it is situated on a reserve. However, the provisions governing these exemptions are complex and do not apply uniformly in every scenario.

Non-Status Indians

Historically, Non-Status Indians have been defined as First Nations peoples who are not registered with the federal government and/or do not belong to a band that signed a treaty with the Crown. Non-Status Indians may have also lost their status as a result of marriage to a Non-Status person, enfranchisement or other legal restrictions.

Not legally recognized as Indian until a Supreme Court ruling in April 2016, Non-Status Indians have faced challenges, such as not being able to participate in band politics and/or share the same rights and privileges of Treaty and Status Indians. Some even face criticism from Indigenous groups who consider them “inauthentic” Indians. Being legally defined as Indian does not wholly define one’s ancestral or cultural identity; Non-Status Indians still retain Indigenous identity. They also often share many of the same socio-economic issues as Status and Treaty Indians, including lack of access to health care and education, poverty, displacement from ancestral homelands, and the loss of Indigenous culture and language. Ineligible for status, Non-Status Indians have had difficulties finding avenues of support for these issues. While organizations such as the Congress of Aboriginal Peoples have sought to represent the concerns of Non-Status Indians, many still feel excluded from the Indigenous community.

Métis and Inuit Peoples

Although the Canadian Constitution (1982) recognizes Inuit and Métis peoples as “Aboriginal,” it does not define them as Status Indians. A Supreme Court ruling in April 2016 stated that Métis people are in fact Indians under the law. This will potentially pave the way for discussions about the rights conferred by this status.

Loss of Status

Since the 1860s, many Status and Treaty Indians have lost their status because of patriarchal and assimilationist terms in the Indian Act. Until 1951 and 1975, the Indian Act forced many Status Indian men and women to “enfranchise” — give up status rights for citizenship rights. Gaining the franchise, joining the military, obtaining a college degree or becoming a professional automatically resulted in the loss of Indian status. In addition, any Status Indian who resided outside of Canada for five years or longer resigned his or her status. Before 1985, a Status Indian woman also lost her status if she married a man who did not have status; children from these marriages lost their status as well.At times, the loss of status severed peoples’ ties to their ancestry and community.

Although the status rules are exclusionary, many Status Indians have no interest in overturning them. The 1969 White Paper — a federal proposal to do away with reserves and Indian status — was met with heavy resistance by First Nations. They claimed that Indian status not only acknowledged the history and relationship between the Crown and First Peoples in Canada, but also obligated the government to acknowledge that relationship and its commitments to First Nations. In addition, some First Nations feared eventual assimilation without the protection of status. However, some Indigenous peoples argue that cultural authenticity and status are not connected, and that legal definitions of Indian are nothing more than government impositions.

Bill C-31

In 1985, the federal government introduced Bill C-31, which proposed modifications to sections of the Indian Act, including changes to Indian status and band membership. The revised Section 6 of the Act introduced two new classes of Indians:

6(1) – those who can pass Indian status to their children;
6(2) – those who have Indian status, but cannot pass their status to their children unless the other parent also has status.

These amendments allowed women who had lost their legal Indian status through marriage to Non-Status Indian men to regain their status. Bill C-31 also enabled all first-generation children of these marriages and individuals who had enfranchised to regain their legal status. More than 114,000 people gained or regained their Indian status as a result of Bill C-31.

However, these amendments have not entirely remedied the sexism and racial discrimination historically inherent in the Act. For example, the children of a Non-Status and subsection 6(2) Indian will not have status. Subsection 6(2) therefore perpetuates discriminatory measures against marrying Non-Status peoples. In addition, the children of women who had regained their status in 1985 were classified as 6(2), which meant they were prohibited from passing on their status to their children. This is often referred to as the “second generation cut-off.” As a result of the McIvor v. Canada case in 2010, the federal government introduced legislative amendments that would ensure Indian status to eligible grandchildren of women who had lost status as a result of marrying non-Indigenous or Non-Status men before 1985. The amendments in 2010 did not, however, extend to other situations. As a result, many still argue that the Indian Act is exclusionary and does not adequately define Indian identity.

Bill C-31 also separated Indian status from band membership. The Act granted bands the right to develop their own membership rules. Bands could now determine who could participate in band politics, and who could access band resources and property. However, bands did not control who gained or lost status. The federal government retained this power. While most members of bands are also Status Indians, it is possible to have status without belonging to a band, or vice versa (see Aboriginal Rights; Aboriginal People: Political Organization and Activism; Aboriginal People: Government Policy).


As of 2011, there were more than 690,000 Status Indians. The 2011 National Household Survey reported that more than 1.4 million people identified themselves as Aboriginal, representing 4.3 per cent of the Canadian population. Of those people, 45 per cent were Registered Indians, 32 per cent were Métis, 15 per cent were Non-Status Indians and 4 per cent were Inuit.

Status Indians and Non-Status Indians are located in every province and territory. In 2011 approximately half of all Status Indians lived on reserve and half off reserve. There has been a significant migration to urban centres amongst all Indigenous peoples in Canada. The 2006 census indicated that more than half of all Indigenous peoples (status and non-status) lived off-reserve. In 2010 there were 615 First Nation communities comprised of more than 50 nations (see Demography of Aboriginal People).


No longer used to describe First Peoples in Canada outside the legal context, the term Indian still has deep meaning for First Nations in Canada. For some, the term confirms their ancestry and protects their historic relationship to the Crown and federal government. For others, the definitions set out in the Indian Act are not affirmations of their ancestry and identity.