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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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Dane-zaa (Beaver)

Dane-zaa (also known as Dunne-za) are Dene-speaking people from the Peace River area of British Columbia and Alberta. Early explorers called them the Beaver people (named after a local group, the tsa-dunne), however the people call themselves Dane-zaa (meaning “real people” in their language). In the 2016 census, 1,705 people identified as having Dane-zaa ancestry, while 220 reported the Dane-zaa language as their mother tongue.

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Interior Salish

The Interior Salish peoples include the Lillooet (or Lil’wat, see also Lillooet, British Columbia), Shuswap (now Secwepemc), Thompson (now Nlaka'pamux), Sinixt and Okanagan (Syilx) First Nations. These First Nations occupy territory in the interior of British Columbia(although some territory extends into the state of Washington in the United States). They speak languages belonging to the Interior Salish division of the Salishan language family. In the 2016 Census (Canada), 5,620 peoples identified themselves as Salish speakers, including 1,290 that speak Shuswap (Secwepemctsin). (See also Indigenous Languages in Canada).

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Carl Ray

Carl Ray, Cree artist, illustrator, editor and art teacher (born January 1943 in Sandy Lake, ON; died 26 September 1978 in Sioux Lookout, ON). Ray was known for his innovative paintings in the Woodlands style and was a founding member of the Indian Group of Seven. Ray’s work has influenced Indigenous art in Canada and can be found in the collections of various galleries and museums across the country.

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St Lawrence Iroquoians

The St Lawrence Iroquoians form a group of nations that occupied, between 1200 and 1600 CE, a vast territory stretching along the St Lawrence River from the mouth of Lake Ontario to downstream from Québec City.

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Huu-ay-aht

The Huu-ay-aht First Nation, located along the west coast of Vancouver Island, British Columbia, numbers 730 registered members, as of September 2018. The Huu-ay-aht are a Nuu-chah-nulth nation and are self-governing under the Maa-nulth Treaty.

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History of Kainai Nation (Blood Tribe)

The Kainai, also known as the Blood or Kainaiwa, are one of three nations comprising the Blackfoot Confederacy. (The other two include the Siksika and Piikani.) The Kainai have a land base of 1,342.9 km², bordered on all sides by the Oldman, St. Mary and Belly rivers in Alberta. According to the 2016 census, 1,000 people identified as having Kainai ancestry.

This entry provides a historical overview of the Kainai people; for more information about their reserve, society and culture, and modern community, please see Kainai Nation (Blood Tribe).

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Mary Two-Axe Earley

Mary Two-Axe Earley, Kanien’kehá:ka (Mohawk) elder, advocate for women and children, human rights activist (born 4 October 1911 on the Kahnawà:ke reserve, QC; died 21 August 1996 in the same place). Mary Two-Axe Earley was a pioneer and architect of the Canadian women’s movement. Her political activism helped to forge a coalition of allies to challenge Canadian laws that discriminated against Indigenous women. The great bulk of her political advocacy spanned the last three decades of her life, and she was particularly active in the 1960s, 1970s and 1980s.

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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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Jordin Tootoo

Jordin John Kudluk (Thunder) Tootoo, hockey player (born 2 February, 1983 in Churchill, MB). Jordin Tootoo is the first Inuk hockey player to play in the National Hockey League (NHL). Jordin got the attention of the NHL as a tough, talented right-winger in his junior hockey days in Manitoba. In 2003, he received national attention when he played for Team Canada at the World Junior Hockey Championship. After playing 13 seasons in the NHL, he retired in 2018. He is known for speaking to youth and maintaining his Inuit culture.

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John Baptist James “John the B” Marchand (Primary Source)

John “the B” Marchand from Okanagan Reserve #1 was a Bren gunner during the Second World War. He served in the infantry from 1943 to 1945. Learn more about Marchand’s time in the trenches during the Italian Campaign.

Please be advised that Memory Project primary sources may deal with personal testimony that reflect the speaker’s recollections and interpretations of events. Individual testimony does not necessarily reflect the views of the Memory Project and Historica Canada.

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Bertha Clark-Jones

Bertha Clark-Jones (née Houle), OC, Cree (Nehiyawak)-Métis advocate for the rights of Indigenous women and children (born 6 November 1922 in Clear Hills, AB; died 21 October 2014 in Bonnyville, AB). A veteran of the Second World War, Clark-Jones joined the Aboriginal Veterans Society and advocated for the fair treatment of Indigenous ex-service people. She was co-founder and first president of the Native Women’s Association of Canada. Clark-Jones devoted her life to seeking equality and greater power for women in Canada.

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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.

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Beothuk

Beothuk (meaning “the people” or “true people” in their language) were the now-extinct inhabitants of Newfoundland. At the time of European contact, they may have numbered no more than 500 to 1,000. Their population is difficult to estimate owing to a reduction in their territories in the early contact period and the absence of surviving documentation.

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Ahousaht

Ahousaht (Ahousat) is a Nuu-chah-nulth First Nation residing on the west coast of Vancouver Island, British Columbia. The word Ahousaht means “facing opposite from the ocean” or “people living with their backs to the land and mountains” in the Nuu-chah-nulth language. It is the largest of all the Nuu-chah-nulth nations, with a population of 2,224 in 2021.

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Richard Wagamese

Richard Wagamese, Anishinaabe (Ojibwe) novelist, journalist, mentor (born 4 October 1955 in northwestern ON; died 10 March 2017 in Kamloops, BC). A well-known Indigenous writer in Canada, Wagamese won several awards including the Canada Council for the Arts Molson Prize (2013) and the Writers’ Trust of Canada’s Matt Cohen Award (2015). His works speak about the historical and contemporary socio-economic issues affecting Indigenous communities in Canada. They also bring attention to issues regarding Indigenous identity, culture and truth and reconciliation. A beloved writer, Wagamese’s works have inspired many Indigenous and non-Indigenous peoples and writers alike.

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Mowachaht-Muchalaht

The Mowachaht and Muchalaht are Nuu-chah-nulth First Nations which formally amalgamated in the 1950s. Together, their territory includes parts of the west coast of Vancouver Island. As of September 2018, the federal government reports the registered population to be 613. Along with other Nuu-chah-nulth Tribal Council nations, the Mowachaht-Muchalaht are currently in stage four of a six-stage treaty process in British Columbia to attain self-government.

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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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Roberta Jamieson

Roberta Louise Jamieson, OC, Kanyen'kehà:ka (Mohawk) lawyer, ombudsman, Six Nations chief, policy advisor, senior mediator, businesswoman (born in 1953 at Six Nations of the Grand River Territory near Brantford, ON). Jamieson was the first Indigenous woman in Canada to earn a law degree (1976); first non-Parliamentarian appointed to a House of Commons committee (1982); first woman appointed ombudsman in Ontario (1989); and first woman elected as Six Nations chief (2001).