Who are the First Nations, Métis and Inuit Peoples?

As a newcomer to Canada, you may be looking forward to learning all about your new home. Our story begins with the Indigenous peoples and their traditional territories, in what we now call North America.

The terms Indigenous and Aboriginal peoples are often used interchangeably and refer to the first caretakers and inhabitants of, what some groups call, Turtle Island. Indigenous peoples are diverse, and cannot be reduced to a single group experience. Indigenous peoples each have unique histories, distinct languages, cultural practices, and spiritual beliefs.

Today, more than 1.67 million people in Canada identify themselves as Indigenous and the Canadian Constitution recognizes three groups:

If you would like to learn more about issues facing Indigenous peoples today, from an Indigenous perspective, this free online course explores these issues from a historical and critical perspective highlighting national and local Indigenous-settler relations.

What is colonization?

Indigenous peoples have inhabited Canada since "time immemorial", which is a period of the very distant past that is not defined by strict historical dates. Indigenous peoples had their own social, political, cultural, and economic systems in place long before Europeans began arriving on the shores of North America.

Colonization began in North America as European powers began sending settlers to establish relationships with (and eventually control over) the inhabitants of the land. The French and British settlements operated relatively independently from each other and because Indigenous Nations themselves were each so unique, there is no universal “first contact” story. However, the colonization of Indigenous territories can still be defined as the process by which European powers assumed control of a territory that was not their own and enforced their own government, legal, and religious systems over Indigenous peoples and their land.

The consequences of colonization continue to be devastating for Indigenous people and their territories. Violence, forced displacement, forced starvation, and diseases carried by European settlers resulted in mass death, and even the disappearance of entire nations.

Colonization also meant that traditional ways of life were forever altered. Colonial policies, segregation, loss of land, and unequal access to public resources have had enduring and devastating impacts on the health and well-being of Indigenous peoples.

Resilience and resistance continue to be a foundation of Indigenous cultural identity. Indigenous peoples in Canada were never passive in the face of colonization. They continue to resist and challenge the policies that threaten their lives, land, and communities.

The Indian Act

The Indian Act became federal law in 1876 and is the principal statute that still governs all matters relating to Indigenous affairs. The Indian Act consolidated a number of previous colonial policies and is part of a long history of assimilation practices. These policies were created with the intention to terminate the cultural, social, economic, and political identity of Indigenous peoples. It has been amended several times and is a complex and evolving document. It has been employed to different ends, often enabling gross human rights violations. Currently, the Indian Act is administered by Crown-Indigenous Relations and Northern Affairs Canada (CIRNAC) and Indigenous Services Canada (ISC).

How can I be respectful as I learn about Indigenous peoples?

The words we use relating to Indigenous peoples and affairs can be tricky to navigate. A term that might be acceptable to one group or generation, might be offensive to others. Indigenous peoples have often been identified with terms that were not of their own choosing and that were often derogatory and racist. This includes the term ‘Indian’ when referring to Indigenous peoples. Although it can be used in a legal context, like when referring to the Indian Act described above, this label was created by European settlers during the colonial era and is outdated and highly offensive.

Myths about Indigenous Peoples

The way Indigenous people are portrayed in media and film, you may be surprised to learn that the Indigenous peoples still live here at all. You will likely encounter misinformation about Canada’s Indigenous population. You may wish to seek out first-hand stories from the Indigenous communities in your area as this is the best way to clear up most misconceptions. The longest-standing stereotype is that Indigenous peoples receive "lots of assistance from the government” such as free housing, free post-secondary education and they do not pay any taxes.

However, the reality may surprise you. Many Indigenous communities still do not have access to clean drinking water, adequate access to health care or affordable fresh foods at their local stores, especially in more remote and Northern regions.

Your next steps may be to learn more about who's land you are on, what Nations surround you and what languages they speak. This can lead you to a better understanding of how to live and act in solidarity with Indigenous communities. We can all continue to collaboratively build a country that has embraced the Truth and Reconciliation Commission Calls to Action. Some Calls to Action, like Calls to Action 93 and 94, are even specific to newcomers to Canada like you, while the changes made to the Oath of Citizenship are an example of how these can be embraced. Other Calls to Action address issues like education, justice and culture.

For More Information

  • Delivering on Truth and Reconciliation Commission Calls to Action - Learn how the Government of Canada is responding to the Truth and Reconciliation Commission's 94 Calls to Action. From the Government of Canada.
  • Missing and Murdered Indigenous Women and Girls - The National Inquiry’s Final Report reveals that persistent and deliberate human and Indigenous rights violations and abuses are the root cause behind Canada’s staggering rates of violence against Indigenous women, girls and 2SLGBTQQIA people.
  • Professor Pam Palmater - Informative video clips with remarks about how immigrants and newcomers in Canada can become effective allies to Indigenous communities. Dr. Palmater is a Mi’kmaw citizen and a practicing lawyer for 22 years. Dr. Palmater is currently a Professor and the Chair in Indigenous Governance at Ryerson University. From OMNI Television.
  • Whose Land - Whose Land is a web-based app that uses GIS technology to assist users in identifying Indigenous Nations, territories, and Indigenous communities across Canada. From BOLD Realities, TakingITGlobal, and Canadian Roots Exchange.

Please Note: This article was written by settlers in what we know today as Canada. The aim of this article is to provide an information overview of Indigenous peoples and their traditional territories for newcomers to Canada who may not be familiar with this history. This is a work in progress that may change as our team continues to do the necessary work to engage respectfully with Indigenous peoples. We encourage our readers to seek out information and testimonies directly from Indigenous peoples and organizations. A list of relevant resources can be found in the ‘For More Information’ section above.

Last updated: October 6, 2021 4006490