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An Expat Guide To The Indigenous Peoples Of Canada

The term ‘indigenous people in Canada’ refers to three categories of peoples – First Nations, Inuit and Métis. The indigenous or aboriginal people are the ones who originally inhabited the territory that is now Canada. The population of Aboriginal people living in communities across the country was over 1.8 million in 2011. The history of these people dates back to before the arrival of European settlers. Parts of their history were also extinguished by colonial powers.But despite being severely threatened, the Aboriginal culture, language and social systems are integral parts of Canada today and are still growing amidst adversity.

Canada, today, is a multicultural nation and consists of different ethnic and racial groups. But just short of 400 years ago, the people who lived here were the Aboriginal people. The term Aboriginal refers to the native or original inhabitants of the land. Today they are known as the First Nations or First peoples of Canada. There are various cultural groups included in this category. There is also a diversity of language as the original inhabitants used as many as 53 different languages, and each group had a specific name in their own language. Canada’s Aboriginals are officially composed of three main categories for administrative reasons. The term Aboriginal includes the First Nations, Inuit and Métis peoples. The 2011 National Household Survey listed 1,836,035 people (5.6% of the population) in Canada with Aboriginal ancestry.

First Nations

First Nations used to be called ‘Indians’ in Canada, but today some have deemed the term incorrect, as the name arose when the early European explorers mistakenly assumed they were in India when they travelled to North America. Many groups who were earlier called ‘Indians’ prefer the term First Nations, and they identify themselves by their nation, such as Cree, Mohawk and Oneida. The First Nations are the Aboriginal Canadians who do not belong to the Inuit and Métis. There are officially 634 First Nations governments spread throughout Canada and approximately half are situated in Ontario and British Columbia.

The First Nations had settled in current-day Canada between 1000 BC and 500 BC, and had established trade routes across the region. There were communities with distinct cultures and customs. The Athapaskan- speaking peoples were located in the northwest. Also in this areas were the Slavey, Tlicho, Tutchone speaking peoples and the Tlingit. Settled along the Pacific coast were the Haida, Salish, Kwakiutl, Nuu-chah-nulth, Nisga’a and Gitxsan. The Blackfoot, Kainai, Sarcee and Northern Peigan lived in the plains, and in the northern woodlands lived the Cree and Chipewyan. The Anishinaabe, Algonquin, Iroquois and Wyandot lived along the interconnected fresh water lakes called the Great Lakes, and along the Atlantic coast were the Beothuk, Maliseet, Innu, Abenaki and Mi’kmaq / Micmac.

The Blackfoot Confederacies, which is the collective name of three First Nations band governments, are located in the provinces of Alberta, Saskatchewan and British Columbia, and in the Great Plains of Montana. They were called ‘Blackfoot’ on account of the color of their leather footwear, called moccasins, which they had dyed black on the bottom. The Squamish indigenous peoples of the Pacific Northwest Coast passed on their history through the oral tradition.

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The Iroquois Confederacy’s influence spread from the north of New York to southern Ontario and the Montreal region of modern Quebec. Allies and trading partners of the Cree, the Assiniboine are a Plains people and did not venture further than the North Saskatchewan River. The Algonquins came from the Atlantic coast and they arrived at the ‘First Stopping Place’ near Montreal along with other Anicinàpek. The Ojibwe arrived from the eastern parts of North America and from the east coast. The indigenous peoples of the Pacific Northwest Coast, the Nuu-chah-nulth, are composed of separate but related First Nations. Prior to contact and in the early times post-contact, there were several more nations, which began disappearing on account of smallpox and other results of contact.

Today, the indigenous peoples speak more than thirty different languages, many of which are spoken only in the Canadian region. There are also a number of languages that are declining.

The First Nations had been creating art for many years before the European settler colonists arrived and Canada was established as a nation state. The indigenous artistic traditions extended across territories in North America. Art historians have organized these traditions according to regional, cultural and linguistic groups, such as Northwest Coast, Plateau, Plains, Eastern Woodlands, Subarctic and Arctic. The art traditions are greatly varied across these groups. Indigenous art differs from European artistic traditions in that they focus on portability and the body, while the latter focuses on architecture. Some of their visual art are used in conjunction with other art forms, for instance the shaman’ mask and rattles are also used in dance and music.

Following European contact, indigenous art adopted and adapted to European trade products like glass beads. Today, there are indigenous artists using different media in Canada, some have even represented the country at the Venice Biennale.

First Nations peoples encounter several problems today, and some are even to a greater degree than Canadians. Their living conditions are much like those in developing countries such as Haiti. There are also a number of them unemployed. Some of the other issues faced by the indigenous peoples include high incarceration rates, substance abuse, health conditions, homelessness, low levels of education and poverty.


The Inuit originally lived in the Arctic regions of Greenland, Alaska and Canada. They speak the Inuktitut language that has different dialects. The Inuit Sign Language, spoken in Nunavut, has become critically endangered. The Canadian government contributed to the creation of secular, government-run high schools in the Nunavut region and other Inuit regions in Quebec and Labrador. The Inuit were not large enough in number to support a full high school in each community. Therefore only a few schools were established and students from different territories were enrolled there. These schools brought together young Inuit from the Arctic, who were exposed to the 1960s rhetoric of human and civil rights that existed in Canada at the time. As a result, a new generation of Inuit activists was born, and they began the movement for respect for the Inuit and their lands.

The languages spoken by the Inuit are Inuinnaqtun, Inuktitut, Inuvialuktun, and Greenlandic languages. The Greenlandic languages are further categorized into Kalaallisut (Western), Inuktun (Northern), and Tunumiit (Eastern). In Canada, Inuktitut is spoken and together with Inuinnaqtun, it is among the official languages of Nunavut. The Northwest Territories have Inuvialuktun, Inuinnaqtun and Inuktitut as official languages. The official language of Greenland is Kalaallisut. The Inuit in Canada and Alaska also speak English, while the Canadian Inuit may speak Québécois French. The nearly extinct language, Inuit Sign Language, is spoken by Deaf Inuit. Only about 50 Inuit still speak this language.

Being fishers and hunters, the Inuit hunt whales, seal, walrus, polar bears, birds and fish. They may also hunt less commonly eaten animals such as the Arctic fox. The Inuit diet is protein and fat-rich, with the daily fat intake amounting to 75 percent of the daily energy intake. The Inuit are also gatherers and traditionally have gathered the naturally available tubers, roots, grasses, berries and seaweed. The Inuit use a variety of hunting techniques to gather their food. They used single-passenger boats that were covered with sealskin, called qajaq. These boats were highly buoyant and even if they were overturned, the seated person could right them. This extraordinary quality led to the Europeans and Americans copying the design and giving it the Inuit name, kayak.

The Inuit also made larger boats, called umiaq, from wood frames and animal skins for transporting people, dogs and goods. In the winters, the Inuit hunted sea mammals by keeping watch over an aglu, or breathing hole in the ice. This is the same technique used by polar bears. The Inuit made use of dog sleds, called qamutik, for transportation. The husky dog breed is a result of the Inuit breeding of dogs and wolves. Dogs play an important role for the Inuit, and are used for dragging baggage in the summer, and for pulling sleds in winter. They also help the Inuit when hunting by sniffing out seal holes. They even play a protective role.

The Inuit industry depended mostly on animal hides, driftwood and bones. They also made tools out of stones, and walrus ivory to make knives. Art was an integral part of Inuit culture, and has remained so to date. They usually make small sculptures of human figures and animals, involved in daily activities. They also made clothes from animal skins using needles carved from animal bones. The thread also came from animals in the form of sinew. Like the Arctic peoples from Europe through Asia and America, the Inuit also made anorak, or parkas. The hood of a woman’s parka was traditionally created extra large with a special pocket beneath the hood, so that mothers could carry their baby securely against their back.

During winter, the Inuit lived in temporary snow shelters called an igloo. When temperatures rose above freezing point, they lived in animal skin tents supported by wood or animal bones.


The Métis are a group that includes European and Native customs, as they are the result of the mixing of European and Native men and women. However, they are distinct from both cultures. Since the latter half of the 20th century, the Canadian government has recognized them as among the official Aboriginal peoples. Therefore today they have formal recognition that is equal to that of First Nations and Inuit peoples.

In Canada, 451,795 people identified as Métis in 2011. They represented 1.4 percent of Canada’s total population. Most Métis currently are not the direct consequence of the mixing of First Nations and Europeans, but are the descendants of such intermarriages. Numerous Métis have assimilated into the European Canadian populations and therefore Métis heritage is more common that is generally perceived. In fact, it is estimated that 50 percent of Western Canada’s total population has some Aboriginal genes. But not all of them are part of the ethnic culture. In 2003, the Supreme Court of Canada established that Métis is someone who self-identifies as Métis, has ancestral ties to the original Métis community and is ‘accepted by the modern community with continuity to the historic Métis community’.

People of Métis culture and heritage can be found throughout Canada, the traditional Métis homeland is the Canadian Prairies, in southern and central Manitoba. The Métis in the United States, mainly those who live in the border regions of northern Michigan, eastern Montana and the Red River, are closely related to the Métis in Canada. On account of the fur trade in the 19th century, much of the Aboriginal and European intermingling occurred in these areas.

The matter of who possesses the moral and legal authority to define the word ‘Métis’ is not clear. Canada does not have a comprehensive legal definition of Métis status. Some believe that the indigenous people have the right to definite their own identity, and do not require a government-sanctioned definition. Only the province of Alberta has defined the term legally.

Most Métis once spoke Métis French or indigenous languages such as Mi’kmaq, Cree and Anishinaabemowin among others. Some even spoke creole or a mixed language known as Michif. Today, Métis speak mainly French and English as a second language. They also speak a variety of Aboriginal dialects. Since the use of these languages has been declining over the years, the provincial Métis councils are promoting their revival by teaching them in schools and encouraging their use in communities. As a result, the use of Métis French and Michif is increasing.

The Métis flag is among the oldest patriotic flags in Canada. The Métis actually have two flags, both of which have the same design, but have different colors. The first flag that was used is the red flag and it is today the oldest made flag in Canada.

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