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Suicide among Indigenous Peoples in Canada

First Nations in Canada have suicide rates double that of the national average, and Inuit communities tend to have even higher rates. Suicide in these cases has multiple social and individual causes. To date, there are a number of emerging programs in suicide prevention by Indigenous organizations that attempt to integrate Indigenous knowledge with evidence-informed prevention approaches.

This article contains sensitive material that may not be suitable for all audiences.

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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 the 2016 census by Statistics Canada, 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.

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Marshall Case

The Marshall case is a landmark ruling in Indigenous treaty rights in Canada. The case centres on Donald Marshall Jr., a Mi’kmaq man from Membertou, Nova Scotia. In August 1993, Marshall caught and sold 210 kg of eel with an illegal net and without a licence during closed-season times. He was arrested after being charged under the federal Fisheries Act and the Maritime Provinces Fishery Regulations. In Marshall’s court case, R. v. Marshall, he was found guilty on all three charges in provincial court (1996) and appeals court (1997). The Supreme Court of Canada reversed Marshall’s convictions in September 1999. The Supreme Court recognized the hunting and fishing rights promised in the Peace and Friendship Treaties. These treaties were signed between the British and the Mi’kmaq, Wolastoqiyik and Peskotomuhkati in 1760–61.

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Inuktitut

Inuktitut is an Indigenous language in North America spoken in the Canadian Arctic. The 2016 census reported 39,770 speakers, of which 65 per cent lived in Nunavut and 30.8 per cent in Quebec. Inuktitut is part of a larger Inuit language continuum (a series of dialects) stretching from Alaska to Greenland. Inuktitut uses a writing system called syllabics, created originally for the Cree language, which represent combinations of consonants and vowels. The language is also written in the Roman alphabet, and this is the exclusive writing system used in Labrador and parts of Western Nunavut. Inuktitut is a polysynthetic language, meaning that words tend to be longer and structurally more complex than their English or French counterparts.

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Gertrude Guerin

Gertrude Guerin (née Ettershank; traditional name Klaw-law-we-leth; also known as “Old War Horse”), chief, politician, community advocate, elder (born 26 March 1917 on the Mission Reserve in North Vancouver, BC; died 25 January 1998). Guerin, born into the Squamish First Nation (see Central Coast Salish), was a fierce protector of Indigenous people and culture. She represented the Musqueam nation locally as an elected chief, and on the national stage in challenges to Canadian jurisdiction over traditional Musqueam territory (see Coast Salish).

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Gloria George

Gloria Mary Maureen George, Indigenous politician, activist and public servant (born 24 July 1942 in Hubert, BC). A tireless advocate for non-status Indians, George was elected president of the Native Council of Canada in 1975, becoming the first and only woman to lead a major Indigenous political organization.

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Indian Agents in Canada

Indian agents were the Canadian government’s representatives on First Nations reserves from the 1830s to the 1960s. Often working in isolated locations far from settler communities, Indian agents implemented government policy, enforced and administered the provisions of the Indian Act, and managed the day-to-day affairs of Status Indians. Today, the position of Indian agent no longer exists, as First Nations manage their own affairs through modern band councils or self-government.

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Ellen Fairclough

Ellen Louks Fairclough, politician (born on 28 January 1905 in Hamilton, Ontario; died 13 November 2004 in Hamilton). A chartered accountant by profession, she became secretary of state and Canada's first woman federal cabinet minister in John Diefenbaker’s 1957 Conservative government. She was instrumental as head of the Department of Citizenship and Immigration in pushing for less racist immigration policies. She also pushed for granting Status Indians the right to vote (see Indigenous Suffrage.)

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Sir Hector-Louis Langevin

Sir Hector-Louis Langevin, politician, lawyer, journalist (born 25 August 1826 in Québec City, Lower Canada; died 11 June 1906 in Québec City). Sir Hector-Louis Langevin played an important role in Confederation, defending the position of Québec and French-speaking Canadians at the Charlottetown and Québec Conferences of 1864, and again in London in 1866. He was a trusted administrator in Sir John A. Macdonald’s governments and an ardent federalist. Langevin was one of the original architects of the residential schools system, which was designed to assimilate Indigenous children into Euro-Canadian culture.

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Yvon Dumont

Yvon Dumont, CM, OM, Métis leader, lieutenant-governor of Manitoba (born 21 January 1951 at St. Laurent, Manitoba, a mostly Métis community northwest of Winnipeg). Dumont became involved in Indigenous politics as a teenager and, throughout his career, held senior positions in the Manitoba Métis Federation (MMF), the Native Council of Canada (now the Congress of Aboriginal Peoples) and the Métis National Council (MNC). As MNC president in 1986, Dumont participated in the defeat of the Charlottetown Accord. On 5 March 1993, he was sworn in as the lieutenant-governor of Manitoba, the first Métis person in Canadian history to hold a vice-regal office. Yvon Dumont was a successful appellant in the 2013 Supreme Court of Canada land claims case Manitoba Métis Federation vs. Canada. This case helped bring about the signing of a memorandum of understanding in May 2016 between the Canadian government and the MMF to “advance exploratory talks on reconciliation.” Dumont remains a proponent of recognizing the Métis people as a distinct Indigenous population.

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Women and the Indian Act

The Indian Act has affected Indigenous cultures, systems of governance, societies and ways of life since its enactment in 1867. Gender discrimination in the Act further disadvantaged First Nations women, in particular. Until 1985, women with Indian status who married someone without status lost their status rights. Men, on the other hand, did not lose Indian status in the same way. Even after Bill C-31 reinstated the status rights of many women in 1985, the Act still discriminated against women by privileging male lines of descent. Amendments in 2011 and 2017 sought to fix these issues. In 2019, the federal government brought into force the remaining part of Bill S-3, which is meant to address lingering sex-based inequities in the Indian Act. (See also Indigenous Women’s Issues.)

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Black Enslavement in Canada

In early Canada, the enslavement of African peoples was a legal instrument that helped fuel colonial economic enterprise. The buying, selling and enslavement of Black people was practiced by European traders and colonists in New France in the early 1600s, and lasted until it was abolished throughout British North America in 1834. During that two-century period, settlers in what would eventually become Canada were involved in the transatlantic slave trade. Canada is further linked to the institution of enslavement through its history of international trade. Products such as salted cod and timber were exchanged for slave-produced goods such as rum, molasses, tobacco and sugar from slaveholding colonies in the Caribbean.

This is the full-length entry about Black enslavement in Canada. For a plain language summary, please see Black Enslavement in Canada (Plain Language Summary).

(See also Olivier Le Jeune; Sir David Kirke; Chloe Cooley and the Act to Limit Slavery in Upper Canada; Underground Railroad; Fugitive Slave Act of 1850; Slavery Abolition Act, 1833; Slavery of Indigenous People in Canada.)

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Indigenous Peoples and Government Policy in Canada

For most of the history of political interaction between Indigenous people and the Canadian government (and its colonial predecessors) government policy has focused on First Nations. The Inuit were barely acknowledged until the 1940s, while special responsibility for Métis and Non-Status Indians was largely denied until 2016. The early history of Indigenous policy in Canada is characterized by the presence of both France and Britain as colonizing powers. British colonial policy acknowledged Indigenous peoples as sovereign nations. Post-Confederation Canadian Indigenous policy initially was based on a model of assimilation, with one of its main instruments being the Indian Act. Since the late 1960s, government policy has gradually shifted to a goal of self-determination for Indigenous peoples, to be achieved through modern-day treaties and self-government agreements.

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Harry Daniels

Harry Wilfred Daniels, politician, writer, actor (born 16 September 1940 in Regina Beach, SK; died 6 September 2004 in Regina Beach). Daniels was a celebrated Métis politician and activist who fought for the rights of Métis people. His greatest contribution to Indigenous rights in Canada was the Supreme Court case Daniels v. Canada, which guaranteed that Métis and Non-Status Indians are considered “Indian” under the Constitution Act, 1867.