Aboriginal Peoples in Canada: Terminology

People are often unsure about word usage when discussing or studying Aboriginal peoples. Because Indigenous peoples have been named by their colonizers and have had derogatory descriptors applied to them as a result of racism and stereotyping, it is important that terms are used accurately and in the appropriate context. Accurate language empowers Indigenous peoples and validates their experiences, perspectives, beliefs, and histories. Using appropriate terminology also avoids the misunderstandings that can arise from inaccurate word usage.

There is no single vocabulary to refer to Indigenous peoples in the Americas. Usage varies from country to country, region to region, and among Indigenous peoples themselves. In Canada, the terms “Aboriginal” and “Native” are both used, although “Native” is now used less often and “Aboriginal” is more common. In the United States, “American Indian” and “Native American” are used. The term “Indigenous,” which the United Nations popularized in the 1970s, was once used only by academics and non-governmental organizations, but is now becoming the preferred term in Canada within all sectors and by Indigenous peoples themselves. Terms that originated as legal definitions – such as “status Indian” – are still necessary in Canada because that is the language used in legislation and courts of law. Whenever possible, identify people by their specific identities (e.g., “Cree painter Allen Sapp” or “Mohawk athlete Waneek Horn-Miller”) and identify nations by the names they use in their own languages, as many Aboriginal peoples now prefer those designations (e.g., Kwakwaka’wakw instead of the former Kwakiutl).

In Canada, three distinct peoples are recognized in the Constitution: Indians, Métis, and Inuit.

Indian: “Indian” refers to:

  • status Indians, who are registered with the federal government and are entitled to rights and benefits;
  • non-status Indians, who are part of a First Nation group but are not recognized by the government for a variety of reasons including enfranchisement (a series of legal processes through which Indians lost status, such as entering the Armed Forces), the rejection of treaty with the Crown (such as the Rocky Mountain Cree, who still exist as a people but are not recognized as a band), and the loss of status through discriminatory practices (such as First Nations women losing their status when they married white men); and
  • treaty Indians, who are status Indians belonging to a First Nation that signed a treaty with the Crown.

Many Aboriginal peoples consider “Indian” an offensive term, especially when used by non-Aboriginal peoples, as it was a name applied to them by their colonizers. “First Nations,” “Aboriginal,” and “Indigenous” have replaced “Indian” as the preferred terms in Canadian society.

Métis: “Métis” traditionally referred to the descendants of Aboriginal women and fur traders, but many people with mixed First Nations and European ancestry now use the term to identify themselves. Note that Métis organizations have differing criteria as to who qualifies as Métis.
Inuit: Inuit are people who live in Arctic Canada. They are not to be confused with the Innu, who are Algonkian-speaking people living in Quebec and Labrador. Inuit means “people” in the Inuktitut language, and is used to refer to more than one person. When referring to a single person, use the term “Inuk,” which means “person.” Inuit are sometimes still referred to as “Eskimo” in the United States (when they’re not referred to as “Alaska Natives”), but “Eskimo” is considered offensive in Canada as it comes from a derogatory word in the Cree language.
Aboriginal: “Aboriginal” refers to First Nations, Métis, and Inuit peoples, without regard to specific identities. Therefore, the term should not be used when referring to specific rights, responsibilities, or programs, as it creates confusion. For example, it is incorrect to say that “Aboriginal peoples” are eligible for health benefits through the federal government, as band-administered funding through Indian and Northern Affairs Canada (INAC) is applicable only to status Indians and Inuit recognized by the Inuit Land Claim (and not to Métis, non-status Indians, and other Inuit). The federal government was also incorrect when it rebranded INAC as “Aboriginal Affairs and Northern Development Canada” in 2011 and as “Indigenous and Northern Affairs” in 2015, because that implies that INAC is responsible for all Aboriginal peoples in Canada, when in fact that department deals only with status Indians and some Inuit. According to the Oxford Dictionary, the adjective “aboriginal” dates from the 1660s, with the noun dating from 1767, and it means “first, earliest,” especially in reference to lands colonized by Europeans. The word originates from the Latin “Aborigines,” meaning “the first ancestors of the Romans; the first inhabitants,” from “ab origine,” literally “from the beginning.”
First Nation: A replacement term for Indian, which many Aboriginal peoples find offensive. It applies to status and non-status Indians and can also refer to bands (for example, “First Nations people in the Lake Superior region” and “the Curve Lake First Nation”). The term does not include Inuit or Métis.
Band: A group for whom land and funding are set aside by the federal government. A band is composed of status Indians who may also be treaty Indians. Many people now prefer the term “First Nation.” A band might be a First Nation, but several bands can also live in one First Nations community (for example, the Six Nations of the Grand River First Nation has 13 bands).
Band Council: The governing body of a band set up under the requirements of the federal Indian Act. Chiefs and councils are colonial structures that were imposed on First Nations, and are not the same as traditional governance structures. At the Six Nations of the Grand River Territory, for example, there is a band council and a traditional longhouse government. The government of Canada chooses to deal only with band councils.
Tribal Council: A group of several First Nations who work together to represent and/or advocate for their common interests; a Tribal Council may also administer government funding to member communities.
Tribe: Although “tribe” is used by a few groups in Canada (e.g., the Blood Tribe in southern Alberta), Aboriginal peoples in Canada are commonly recognized as belonging to self-governing nations, not tribes. Many people consider “tribe” a pejorative term.
Reserve: Land owned by the Crown and set aside for the use of an Indian band; many people now prefer to use “First Nations community” instead of “reserve.” Note that “reservation” is an American term, and is not used in Canada.
Off-Reserve: Anything that relates to First Nations – people, services, or objects – but not located on a reserve.

Other general guidelines include:

  • Do not use language that implies ownership, such as “Canada’s Aboriginal peoples” or “our First Nations.” Aboriginal peoples do not belong to anyone; they are autonomous, self-determining nations, not children or wards of the state. Canadians would not say “our Ukrainians,” so they should not say “our Aboriginal peoples.” The use of “our” reflects a paternalistic attitude.
  • The term “custom” is used to describe traditional practices, such as marriage or child-rearing, and should not be used to imply that these practices are less developed or backward or only applicable to the past.
  • Terms such as “huts” and “camps” should be avoided – this implies that Aboriginal people do not have homes and communities like other ethno-cultural groups.
  • Do not use the term “costume” to describe traditional dress, as this implies that Aboriginal clothing is not integral to Aboriginal culture but is something that can be worn by anyone. Dance outfits and regalia are considered sacred; they are also not to be referred to as “costumes.”
  • When referring to sacred or spiritual practices, avoid the terms “rituals” and “rites,” as this implies that these practices are not equal to the sacred or spiritual practices of other ethno-cultural groups.
  • Avoid using terms such as “scattered” or “roaming” to describe Aboriginal peoples, as this implies a bias toward communities or peoples that are not settled in the same way as European communities or peoples.


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