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10 Indigenous Firsts

Indigenous peoples have contributed greatly to Canadian society, culture and politics. Despite facing discrimination, racial segregation and policies of assimilation, Indigenous peoples have fought to make this country a better place for all, and to protect their own Indigenous cultures. From leaders in the fields of medicine and law, to war veterans, chiefs and politicians, many Indigenous peoples have risen to the top of their respective fields, championing a variety of causes. This list of 10 Indigenous “firsts” celebrates those trailblazers who were the first in their profession to make historic accomplishments in Canada.

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Nehiyawak (Cree)

The Cree or Nehiyawak (neh-HEE-oh-wuk) in the Cree language, are the most populous and widely distributed Indigenous peoples in Canada. Cree First Nations occupy territory in the Subarctic region from Alberta to Québec, as well as portions of the Plains region in Alberta and Saskatchewan. According to 2016 census data, 356,655 people identified as having Cree ancestry and 96,575 people speak the Cree language.

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Qalipu Mi’kmaq First Nation

Qalipu (pronounced: ha-lee-boo) is a Mi’kmaq First Nation based in Newfoundland and Labrador. The nation was established in 2011 under the Indian Act. According to the federal government, Qalipu has 24,243 registered members, making it the second-largest First Nation by population in Canada. The nation’s members hail from 67 different communities across Newfoundland. As of 2020, roughly 95 per cent of Qalipu members live in Newfoundland and Labrador; the other 5 per cent live throughout Canada. The Qalipu Mi’kmaq First Nation currently controls no reserve land. (See also Reserves in Newfoundland and Labrador.)

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Innu (Montagnais-Naskapi)

Innu, which means “people” in the Innu language, is the predominant term used to describe all Innu. Some groups maintain the use of one of two older terms: Montagnais (French for “mountain people”), usually applied to groups in forested, more southern communities, and Naskapi, which refers to far northern groups who inhabit the barren lands of the subarctic. In the 2016 census, 27,755 people identified as having Innu/Montagnais ancestry, while an additional 1,085 identified as Naskapi.

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Mi'kmaq

Mi’kmaq (Mi’kmaw, Micmac or L’nu, “the people” in Mi’kmaq) are Indigenous peoples who are among the original inhabitants in the Atlantic Provinces of Canada. Alternative names for the Mi’kmaq appear in some historical sources and include Gaspesians, Souriquois and Tarrantines. Contemporary Mi’kmaq communities are located predominantly in Nova Scotia and New Brunswick, but with a significant presence in Quebec, Newfoundland, Maine and the Boston area. As of 2015, there were slightly fewer than 60,000 registered members of Mi’kmaq nations in Canada.

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Baffin Island Inuit

Baffin Island Inuit (also known as Nunatsiarmiut) are Indigenous peoples who live on Baffin Island, the largest island in the Arctic Archipelago and in the territory of Nunavut. According to the 2016 census, the total Inuit population in the Baffin region was 14,875.

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Indigenous Land Claims in Canada

Land claims seek to address wrongs made against Indigenous peoples, their rights and lands, by the federal and provincial or territorial governments. There are different types of land claims. Comprehensive claims (also known as modern treaties) deal with Indigenous rights, while specific claims concern the government’s outstanding obligations under historic treaties or the Indian Act. There are many ongoing comprehensive and specific claims negotiations in Canada.

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Stoney-Nakoda

Stoney-Nakoda or îyârhe Nakodabi, "Rocky Mountain Sioux," are culturally and linguistically allied to the Plains Assiniboine, but in Saskatchewan and Montana are characterized by differences in language and culture. They speak the northern dialect of the Dakota language. Stoney oral tradition (see also Indigenous Oral Histories and Primary sources) asserts that their forefathers resided along the Rocky Mountain foothills from time immemorial.

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Peace and Friendship Treaties

Between 1725 and 1779, Britain signed a series of treaties with various Mi’kmaq, Wolastoqiyik (Maliseet), Abenaki, Penobscot and Passamaquoddy peoples living in parts of what are now the Maritimes and Gaspé region in Canada and the northeastern United States. Commonly known as the Peace and Friendship Treaties, these agreements were chiefly designed to prevent war between enemies and to facilitate trade. While these treaties contained no monetary or land transfer provisions, they guaranteed hunting, fishing and land-use rights for the descendants of the Indigenous signatories. The Peace and Friendship Treaties remain in effect today.

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Chanie Wenjack

Chanie “Charlie” Wenjack (born 19 January 1954; died 23 October 1966 near Redditt, ON). Chanie Wenjack, an Anishinaabe boy from Ontario, ran away from his residential school near Kenora at age 12, and subsequently died from hunger and exposure to the harsh weather. His death in 1966 sparked national attention and the first inquest into the treatment of Indigenous children in Canadian residential schools.

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Two-Spirit

​Two-Spirit, a translation of the Anishinaabemowin term niizh manidoowag, refers to a person who embodies both a masculine and feminine spirit. Activist Albert McLeod developed the term in 1990 to broadly reference Indigenous peoples in the lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender and queer (LGBTQ) community. Two-spirit is used by some Indigenous peoples to describe their gender, sexual and spiritual identity. (See also Lesbian, Gay, Bisexual and Transgender Rights in Canada.)

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First Nations

First Nations is a term used to describe Indigenous peoples in Canada who are not Métis or  Inuit. First Nations people are original inhabitants of the land that is now Canada, and were the first to encounter sustained European contact, settlement and trade. According to the 2016 census by Statistics Canada, 977,230 people in Canada identified as being of First Nations heritage, a growth of 39.3 per cent since 2006. There are 634 First Nations in Canada, speaking more than 50 distinct languages.

For more detailed information on specific First Nations, see Indigenous Peoples in Canada.

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Kanyen'kehà:ka (Mohawk)

Kanyen'kehà:ka or Kanien'kehá:ka (“People of the Chert”), commonly known as Mohawk by non-Kanyen'kehà:ka, are Indigenous peoples in North America. They are the easternmost member of the Haudenosaunee Confederacy, also referred to as the Iroquois or Six Nations Confederacy. In the early years of the 17th century, they resided on the banks of the Mohawk River in what is now upstate New York. They became intensely involved in the fur trade and in the colonial conflicts of the next two centuries. Many had moved to the St. Lawrence River before 1700 and following the American Revolution, the remainder moved to Canada to reside in territories controlled by their ally, Great Britain. Here, the Kanyen'kehà:ka have garnered a reputation of militancy in maintaining their language and culture, and for defending their rights.

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Maria Campbell

Maria Campbell, O.C., Cree-Métis writer, playwright, filmmaker, scholar, teacher and elder (born 26 April 1940 in Park Valley, SK). Campbell’s memoir Halfbreed (1973) is regarded as a foundational piece of Indigenous literature in Canada for its attention to the discrimination, oppression and poverty that some Métis women (and Indigenous people, in general) experience in Canada. Campbell has authored several other books and plays, and has directed and written scripts for a number of films. As an artist, Campbell has worked with Indigenous youth in community theatre and advocated for the hiring and recognition of Indigenous people in the arts. She has mentored many Indigenous artists during her career.

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Haudenosaunee (Iroquois)

The Haudenosaunee, or “people of the longhouse,” commonly referred to as Iroquois or Six Nations, are members of a confederacy of Aboriginal nations known as the Haudenosaunee Confederacy. Originally a confederacy of five nations inhabiting the northern part of New York state, the Haudenosaunee consisted of the Seneca, Cayuga, Oneida, Onondaga and Mohawk. When the Tuscarora joined the confederacy early in the 18th century, it became known as the Six Nations. Today, Haudenosaunee live on well-populated reserves — known as reservations in the United States — as well as in off-reserve communities.

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Dene

The Dene comprise a far-reaching cultural and linguistic family, stretching from the Canadian North and Alaska to the American southwest. In Canada, the Dene, which means “the people” in their language, comprise a variety of First Nations, some of which include the Denesoline (Chipewyan), Tlicho (Dogrib) and Dinjii Zhuh (Gwich’in). The Dene are also known as Athabascan, Athabaskan, Athapascan or Athapaskan peoples. In the 2016 census, 27,430 people identified as having Dene ancestry.

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Stanley Vollant

Stanley Vollant, CQ, Innu surgeon, professor and lecturer (born 2 April 1965 in Quebec City, Quebec). Vollant is the first Indigenous surgeon trained in Quebec. In 1996, he received a National Aboriginal Role Model Award from the Governor General of Canada. Vollant began Innu Meshkenu in 2010, a 6,000 km walk to promote the teachings of First Nations and to encourage Indigenous young people to pursue their dreams. In 2016, he founded the non-profit organization Puamun Meshkenu to inspire and support Indigenous peoples in their mental and physical health.

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Nadine Caron

Nadine Rena Caron, surgeon, researcher, mentor, educator, patient advocate, community leader (born 1970 in Kamloops, BC). Nadine Caron was the first female First Nations student to graduate from the University of British Columbia Faculty of Medicine. She was also the first female First Nations general surgeon in Canada. For many years, Caron has highlighted the needs and voices of northern, rural and Indigenous populations in Canada.

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Oka Crisis

The Oka Crisis, also known as the Kanesatake Resistance or the Mohawk Resistance at Kanesatake, was a 78-day standoff (11 July–26 September 1990) between Mohawk protesters, Quebec police, the RCMP and the Canadian Army. It took place in the community of Kanesatake, near the Town of Oka, on the north shore of Montreal. Related protests and violence occurred in the Kahnawake reserve, to the south of Montreal. The crisis was sparked by the proposed expansion of a golf course and the development of townhouses on disputed land in Kanesatake that included a Mohawk burial ground. Tensions were high, particularly after the death of Corporal Marcel Lemay, a Sûreté du Québec police officer. Eventually, the army was called in and the protest ended. The golf course expansion was cancelled and the land was purchased by the federal government. However, it did not establish the land as a reserve, and there has since been no organized transfer of the land to the Mohawks of Kanesatake.

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Jackson Beardy

Jackson Beardy (also known as Quincy Pickering Jackson Beardy), Oji-Cree artist (born 24 July 1944 at Island Lake, MB; died 8 December 1984 in Winnipeg, MB). Beardy was part of the Woodlands School of Indigenous art, and in 1973 he became part of a group of Indigenous artists popularly known as the Indian Group of Seven. His stylized artworks — sometimes painted on canvas, birch bark or beaver skins — were often concerned with the interdependence of humans and nature. They also tended to depict figures from Ojibwe and Cree oral traditions. From the late 1960s to his death in the early 1980s, Beardy promoted Indigenous art as a valid category of contemporary art. His influence as a Woodland artist has contributed to the development of contemporary Indigenous art in Canada.