First Nations is a Canadian term of ethnicity which refers to the aboriginal peoples located in what is now Canada, and their descendants who are neither Inuit nor Métis. Lest the descriptive First Nations imply the only First Peoples, it is important to recognize that the Inuit are also a Founding Peoples (as are the ancestors of the Metis) i.e. the Inuit did not arrive after the First Nations. Collectively, First Nations, Inuit, and Métis peoples are known as Aboriginal peoples, First peoples, or Indigenous peoples, bands, or nations. A national representative body of the First Nations in Canada is the Assembly of First Nations.

First Nations people in Canada have been referred to as Native-Canadians, Aboriginal peoples and Autochthones (a term used by French-Canadians). They are known officially by the Government of Canada as registered Indians if they are entitled to benefits under the Indian Act. The use of the term Native Americans is not common in Canada, as "Native Americans" is seen to refer to the Aboriginal peoples of the United States specifically.

Controversial terminologyEdit

"First Nation" is a legally undefined term that came into common usage in the 1980s to replace the term "Indian band". Elder Sol Sanderson says that he coined the term in the early 1980s.[1] A band is defined as "a body of Indians for whose collective use and benefit lands have been set apart or money is held by the Canadian Crown, or declared to be a band for the purposes of the Indian Act".[2] There are currently over 600 First Nations governments or bands in Canada, roughly half of which are located in the provinces of Ontario and British Columbia. There is some controversy over the use of the term "First Nations" to either self-describe Indigenous peoples within Canada, or for non-indigenous peoples to refer to Indigenous peoples in this fashion. Under international law covenants, "First Nations" per se have no standing, as "indigenous peoples" or "nations" do.[How to reference and link to summary or text]

The Canadian government, many indigenous people within Canada, and many non-indigenous people use the term First Nations out of respect for the right of indigenous people to describe themselves.

In general, indigenous peoples within Canada who identify themselves as First Nations do not believe in the status of indigenous peoples as nation-states, while those who do not use the term, or insist on the term "indigenous peoples", are sovereignists. There are also indigenous people in Canada who use the term "First Nation" for any tribal and or nomadic ethnic group deprived of self-determination as a political recognition of colonization. These groups work internationally on minority rights and self-determination.

Indian reserves, established in Canadian law by treaties such as Treaty 7, are the contemporary lands of First Nations. Some reserves are located within a city, such as the Opawikoscikan Reserve in Prince Albert, Saskatchewan. There are more reserves in Canada than there are First Nations, as some First Nations were ceded multiple reserves by treaty.

Other terms include "Status Indian" and "Non-Status Indian", the latter designating a member of a First Nation who is not entitled to benefits. The use of the word "Indian" in day-to-day language is erratic in Canada, with some seeing the term as offensive while others prefer it to terminology such as "aboriginal person" (or people). All members of First Nations who are entitled to benefits are entered in the Indian Register, which serves as the official record of members of First Nations. Administration of the Indian Act and Indian Register is carried out by the federal government's Department of Indian and Northern Affairs.

Phil Fontaine, the Chief of the Assembly of First Nations, and many others, have argued that a citizenship based membership for each First Nation community is needed, instead of only memberships based on bloodlines, race theories, and records of ancestry. If one has to always be a quarter or eighth "Indian", then over a long period of time and mixing with others, there might be very few official "Indians" or natives. Citizenship could be based on other factors, like loyalty to one's community, knowledge and education about the history and politics of that traditional territory, language spoken, and close family and friendship bonds with community members.[How to reference and link to summary or text]

Under the Royal Proclamation of 1763, the document many people refer to as the "Indian Magna Carta",[3] the Crown refers to indigenous peoples in British territory as "Tribes" or "Nations".

History before European contactEdit

History since European contactEdit

Despite an ancient history of their own, First Nations cultures are sometimes written about as if their history begins with the encroachment of Europeans onto the continent.[4] Nevertheless, First Nations' written history, in fact begins at the hands of European authors, as in accounts by trappers, traders, explorers, and missionaries (cf. the Codex canadiensis).

Aboriginal peoples in Canada have interacted with Europeans as far back as 1000 AD,[5] but prolonged contact came once permanent European settlements were established. These accounts, though biased, generally speak of friendliness on the part of the First Nations, [6] some of whom profited in trade with Europeans. Such trade generally strengthened more organized political entities like the Iroquois Confederation.[7]

As far back as the late 18th century, First Nations have been targeted for assimilation into what is referred to as the European/Canadian culture.[8] These attempts reached a climax with the establishment of the Canadian residential school system, the prohibition of Indigenous cultural practices, and the Indian Acts of the late 19th and early 20th century.[9]

Late 19th centuryEdit


The situation for Indigenous people in the prairies grew very grave, very quickly. Between 1875 and 1885, the American Bison were hunted to extinction; the construction of the Canadian Pacific Railway brought large numbers of white settlers west; governments, police forces, and courts of law were established; and various epidemics continued to devastate Indigenous communities. All of these factors had a profound effect on Indigenous people, particularly those from the plains who relied on the return of the bison every year. Most of those nations that agreed to treaties had negotiated for a guarantee of food, and help to begin farming.[10] Just as the bison finally disappeared (the last Canadian hunt was in 1879), Lieutenant-Governor Edgar Dewdney cut rations to reduce government costs. Between 1880 and 1885, approximately 3,000 Indigenous people starved to death in the Northwest Territories.[10]

Some Cree chiefs resisted these treaties, offended by the very idea. Big Bear refused to sign Treaty 6 until starvation among his people forced his hand in 1882.[10] His attempts to unite Indigenous nations made some progress, and in 1884, two thousand Cree from several reserves met near Battleford in an attempt to organize themselves into a large cohesive resistance. Discouraged by the lack of government response but encouraged by the efforts of the Metis at armed rebellion, Wandering Spirit and other young militant Cree attacked the small town at Frog Lake, killing Thomas Quinn, the hated Indian Agent and eight others.[10] Big Bear actively opposed this violence, but was put on trial for treason and sentenced to three years in prison.

Early 20th centuryEdit

As Canadian ideas of progress evolved at the turn of the century, the federal Indian policy pushed harder to remove Indigenous people from their lands and to encourage assimilation.[10] Amendments to the Indian Act in 1905 and 1911 made it easier to expropriate reserve lands from First Nations. Nearly half of the Blackfoot reserve in Alberta was sold, and when the Kainai (Blood) Nation refused to accept the sale of their lands in 1916 and 17, the Department of Indian Affairs held back funding necessary for farming until they relented.[10] In British Columbia, the McKenna-McBride Royal Commission was created in 1912 to settle disputes over reserve lands in the province. The claims of Indigenous people were ignored, and the commission allocated new, less valuable lands for many First Nations.[10]

Those nations who managed to maintain their ownership of good lands were often farmed successfully. Indigenous people living near the Cowichan and Fraser Rivers, and those from Saskatchewan managed to produce good harvests.[10] Since 1881, those living in the Prairie Provinces required permits from Indian agents to sell any of their produce, and a pass system was later introduced in the old Northwest Territories requiring Indigenous people to seek written permission from an Indian agent before leaving their reserves for any length of time.[10] These laws, as well as the bans on sun dances and potlatches were regularly defied as Indigenous people attempted to retain their freedom and their culture.

Late 20th centuryEdit

Following the end of the Second World War, laws concerning First Nations in Canada began to change, albeit slowly. The federal prohibition of potlatch and sun dance ceremonies ended in 1951, and provinces began to accept the right of Indigenous people to vote. All First Nations people were granted the right to vote in federal elections in 1960. By comparison, Native Americans in the United States had been allowed to vote since the 1920s.[11]

1969 White PaperEdit

In his 1969 White Paper, Minister of Indian Affairs, the Hon. Jean Chrétien, proposed the abolition of the Indian Act of Canada, the rejection of Aboriginal land claims, and the assimilation of First Nations people into the Canadian population with the status of "other ethnic minorities" rather than a distinct group.

A response by Harold Cardinal and the Indian Chiefs of Alberta (entitled "Citizens Plus" but commonly known as the "Red Paper") explained the widespread opposition to Chrétien's proposal from Status Indians in Canada. Prime Minister Trudeau and the Liberals began to back away from the 1969 White Paper, particularly after the Calder case decision in 1973.[12]

Ontario Minamata diseaseEdit

In 1970, severe mercury poisoning called Ontario Minamata disease was discovered at Asubpeeschoseewagong First Nation, Wabaseemoong Independent Nation, and Aamjiwnaang First Nation, all near Dryden, Ontario where there was extensive mercury pollution from Dryden Chemicals Company. The Ontario provincial government closed the commercial fisheries run by the First Nation people and ordered them to stop eating local fish, which made up the majority of their diet.[13]

Elijah Harper & the Meech Lake AccordEdit

In 1981, Elijah Harper, a Cree from Red Sucker Lake, Manitoba, became the first "Treaty Indian" in Canada to be elected as a provincial politician. In 1990, Harper achieved national fame by holding an eagle feather as he took his stand in the Manitoba legislature and refused to accept the Meech Lake Accord, a constitutional amendment package negotiated to gain Quebec's acceptance of the Constitution Act, 1982. The accord was negotiated in 1987 without the input of Canada's Aboriginal peoples. This was made more irksome given the recent conclusion of the third, final and unsuccessful constitutional conference on Aboriginal peoples. The Manitoba assembly had to unanimously consent to a motion allowing it to hold a vote on the Accord because of a procedural rule. With only twelve days before the ratification deadline for the Accord, Harper began a filibuster which prevented the assembly from ratifying the Accord. As Meech Lake failed to pass in Manitoba, the constitution was not amended.[14] Harper also opposed the Charlottetown Accord in 1992, despite the fact that Assembly of First Nations Chief Ovide Mercredi supported it.

Women's status & Bill C-31Edit

According to Indian Act, Indigenous women who married white men lost their treaty status, and their children would not be granted status at all. In the reverse situation (Indigenous men married to white women), men could keep their status, and their children would also gain treaty status. In the 1970s, the Indian Rights for Indian Women and National Native Women's Association groups campaigned against this practice on the grounds that it discriminated against women and failed to fulfill treaty promises.[10] They successfully convinced the federal government to change the section of the act with the adoption of Bill C-31 on June 28, 1985. Women who had lost their status and children who had been excluded were then able to register and gain official Indian status. Despite these changes, First Nations women who married white men could only pass their status on one generation; their children would gain status, but (without a marriage to a full status Indian) their grandchildren would not.

Bill C-31 further gave elected bands the power to regulate who was allowed to reside on their reserves and to control development on their reserves. It abolished the concept of "enfranchisement" by which First Nations people could gain certain rights by renouncing their Indian status.[15]

The Erasmus-Dussault commissionEdit

File:060420 native protest gal04.jpg

In 1991, Prime Minister Brian Mulroney created the Royal Commission on Aboriginal Peoples. Their report was issued in 1996; its most revolutionary proposal was the creation of a government for (and by) the First Nations that would be fully responsible within its own jurisdiction, and with which the federal government would speak on a "Nation-to-Nation" basis. This proposal offered a far different way of doing politics than the traditional policy of assigning all First Nations matters under the jurisdiction of the Indian and Northern Affairs, managed by one minister of the federal cabinet. The report also recommended providing the governments of the First Nations with up to CAD$2 billion every year until 2010, in order to reduce the socioeconomic gap between the First Nations and the rest of the Canadian citizenry. The money would represent an increase of at least 50% to the budget of Indian and Northern Affairs. Finally, the report insisted on the importance of First Nations leaders to actively think of ways to cope with the challenging issues their people were facing, so the First Nations could take their destiny into their own hands.

The federal government, then headed by Jean Chrétien, responded to the report a year later by officially presenting its apologies for the forced acculturation the federal government had imposed on the First Nations, and by offering an "initial" provision of $350 million.

In the spirit advocated by the Eramus-Dussault commission, several tripartite (federal, provincial, and First Nations) accords have been signed since the report was issued. Several political crises between different provincial governments and different bands of the First Nations also occurred in the late 20th century, notably:

Early 21st centuryEdit

File:The Defense of Cree Rights.jpg

In 2001, the Quebec government, the federal government, and the Cree Nation signed "La Paix des Braves" (The Peace of the Braves, a reference to the 1701 peace treaty between the French and the Iroquois League). The agreement allowed Hydro-Québec to exploit the province's hydroelectric resources in exchange for an allocation of $3.5 billion to be given to the government of the Cree Nation. Later, the Inuit of northern Quebec joined in the agreement.

In 2005, the leaders of the First Nations, various provincial governments, and the federal government produced a working paper called the Kelowna Accord, which would have yielded $5 billion for 5 years, but the new federal government of Stephen Harper (2006) did not fully follow through on the working paper.

At present, many First Nations, along with the Métis and the Inuit, claim to receive inadequate funding for education, and allege their rights have been overlooked in many instances. Recently James K. Bartleman, Lieutenant Governor of Ontario, listed the encouragement of indigenous young people as one of his key priorities. During his term that began in 2002, he has launched several initiatives to promote literacy and bridge building. Bartleman himself is the first aboriginal person to hold the Lieutenant Governor's position in Ontario.

As of 2006, over 75 First Nations communities exist in boil-water advisory conditions.[16] In late 2005, the drinking water crisis of the Kashechewan First Nation received national media attention when E. coli was discovered in their water supply system, following two years of living under a boil-water advisory. The drinking water was supplied by a relatively new treatment plant built in March 1998. The cause of the tainted water was a plugged chlorine injector that was not discovered by local operators, who were not qualified to be running the treatment plant. When officials arrived and fixed the problem, chlorine levels were around 1.7 mg/l, which was blamed for chronic skin disorders such as impetigo and scabies. An investigation led by Health Canada revealed that the skin disorders were likely due to living in squalor. The evacuation of Kashechewan is largely viewed by Canadians as a cry for help for other underlying social and economic issues which Aboriginal people in Canada face.

On June 29, 2007, Canadian aboriginal groups held countrywide protests aimed at ending First Nations poverty, dubbed the Aboriginal Day of Action. The demonstrations were largely peaceful, although some groups disrupted transportation with blockades or bonfires; a stretch of the Highway 401 was shut down, as was the Canadian National Railway's line between Toronto and Montreal.[17]


In the 20th century the First Nations population of Canada increased 10 times. Between 1900 and 1950 the population grew only by 29% but after the 1960’s the infant mortality level on reserves dropped dramatically and the population grew by 161%. Since the 1980’s the number of First Nations babies more than doubled and currently almost half of the First Nations population is under the age of 25. As a result the First Nations population of Canada is expected to increase dramatically in the coming decades. [1] [2]


File:Tsuu Tsina parade.JPG
Main article: List of First Nations peoples

There are many distinct First Nations cultures in Canada, originating from all regions of the country.

Culture areasEdit

First Nations can be grouped into cultural areas based on their ancestors’ primary lifeway, or occupation, at the time of European contact. These culture areas correspond closely with physical and biological regions of Canada.

In the Pacific Coast the cultures were centred around ocean and river fishing; in the interior, hunting and gathering and river fishing. In both of these areas the salmon was of chief importance. For the people of the plains, bison hunting was the primary activity. In the subartic forest, other species such as the moose were more important. For peoples near the Great Lakes and St. Laurence river, shifting agriculture was practised, including the raising of maize, beans, and squash.

Today, First Nations people work in a variety of occupations and many also live outside their ancestor's homes. Nevertheless, the traditional cultures of their ancestors, shaped by nature, still exert a strong influence on their culture, from spirituality to political attitudes.

Language diversityEdit

At European contact, First Nations peoples spoke a wide variety of languages grouped into several language families. Peoples with similar languages did not always share the same material culture. For example, Cree language speakers lived both in the forests and on the prairies. Similarly, peoples with related languages were not always allies.

While a number of First Nation languages are still found in Canada, many of them are presently endangered, with decreasing numbers of speakers.

Political organizationEdit

At contact, First Nations organization ranged in size from band societies of a few people to multi-nation confederacies like the Iroquois. First Nations leaders from across the country form the Assembly of First Nations, which began as the National Indian Brotherhood in 1968.

Today's political organizations are largely the by-product of interaction with European-style methods of government. As well, First Nations political organizations are spread throughout Canada and vary in political standing, viewpoints, and reasons for forming. Most First Nations political organizations arise from the need to be united and to have their opinions heard. First Nations negotiate with the Canadian Government through Indian and Northern Affairs Canada in all affairs concerning land, entitlement, and rights.

However, not all first nation groups belong to these groups. Some groups operate independently.

See alsoEdit

Notes Edit

  1. Assembly of First Nations, p. 74.
  2. Terminology Guide Indian and Northern Affairs Canada
  4. George Woodcock A Social History of Canada, 1988; Eric Wolf, Europe and the People Without History, 1982.
  5. Woodcock, part I
  6. Woodcock, part I
  7. Wolf, chapter 6
  8. Stage Three: Displacement and Assimilation, Volume 1, Part 1, Chapter 6 of the Report of the Royal Commission on Aboriginal Peoples Indian and Northern Affairs Canada, 26 August 1991
  9. Conceptions of History Volume 1, Part 1, Chapter 3 of the Report of the Royal Commission on Aboriginal Peoples Indian and Northern Affairs Canada, 26 August 1991
  10. 10.0 10.1 10.2 10.3 10.4 10.5 10.6 10.7 10.8 10.9 "History of the Canadian Peoples, 1867-Present," Alvin Finkel & Margaret Conrad, 1998
  11. The Effect of Expansion of the Franchise on Turnout, Michael Kinnear, "Electoral Insight," November 2003
  12. With an ear to the ground: The CCF/NDP and aboriginal policy in Canada, 1926-1993 Journal of Canadian Studies, Spring 1999 by Frank James Tester, Paule McNicoll, Jessie Forsyth
  13., Mercury Rising: The Poisoning of Grassy Narrows, CBC TV, November 1st, 1970. Accessed 2007-07-26
  14. Cohen, Andrew. A Deal Undone: The Making and Breaking of the Meech Lake Accord, Vancouver/Toronto: Douglas & McIntyre, 1990.
  15. BILL C-31
  16. includeonly>"Water still a problem on 76 reserves", 'Canadian Broadcasting Corporation', 2006-02-20. Retrieved on 2007-07-01.
  17. includeonly>Sibonney, Claire. "Poverty the focus of Canada-wide native protests", 'Reuters', 2007-06-29. Retrieved on 2007-07-01.

External linksEdit