Indigenous Peoples: Terminology and Identity

Tonina Simeone
Legal and Social Affairs Division

For centuries, the original inhabitants of North America have been largely defined by others, beginning with the misapplication of the term Indian by Christopher Columbus to describe the various peoples of the Americas.

Today, as attitudes toward the first peoples of Canada change and evolve, so too do the terms used to describe this segment of the population. Knowing which terms to use, the legal distinctions between them, and to whom they apply can often be challenging.

Using appropriate language, however, is fundamental to ensuring respectful and positive relationships with First Nations, Inuit and the Métis, and to avoiding terms that may be discriminatory or offensive. For example, it is generally considered derogatory to refer to Inuit as Eskimos.

This HillNote provides suggestions for navigating some of these terminological complexities.

Terminology and identity

There is a significant link between terminology and identity. The words we use to describe ourselves help create our identities. For that reason, terminology may reflect how a particular group understands and describes itself.

For example, in 2008, the 42 communities of the Anishinabek Nation in Ontario endorsed a resolution against using the word Aboriginal, stating it represented another means of assimilation and displacement. The term has also been rejected by the Assembly of Manitoba Chiefs who have expressed concern over the deleterious effects of applying a single term to distinct peoples with their own languages, cultures, histories and territories. The position of the Manitoba Chiefs and Anishinabek resolution illustrate just some of the tensions around the meaning and application of the terms used to describe historically oppressed groups as they seek to reclaim their identities and define themselves in reference to their social realities.

Understanding common usage

Section 35(2) of the Constitution Act, 1982 defines the Aboriginal peoples of Canada as including “the Indian, Inuit and Métis peoples.” Accordingly, Aboriginal Peoples is often used as an all-encompassing term that includes First Nations (Indians), Inuit and the Métis.

Although most frequently used in the international context, the term “Indigenous” is gradually gaining greater acceptance as a preferred substitute for the term “Aboriginal”. This shift in domestic usage coincides, in part, with the adoption of United Nations Declaration on the Rights of Indigenous Peoples by the UN General Assembly in 2007. Examples of this shift include the renaming of the Aboriginal Peoples Choice Music Awards to the Indigenous Music Awards, as well the recent name change of the federal department of Aboriginal Affairs and Northern Development Canada to Indigenous and Northern Affairs Canada, including a newly-named Minister of Indigenous Affairs.

While the change in the department’s name is intended to align more closely with the definitional terms used by indigenous communities themselves, it has no legal impact on the mandate of the department or the Minister’s statutory responsibilities.

It should also be noted that while the term “Indigenous” is being used more regularly in English, this is not the case for its French equivalent, “indigène”; a fact that is reflected in the department’s name remaining  “Affaires autochtones et Développement du Nord Canada” in French.

The term Indian, though seen as outdated, has a specific legal definition under the Indian Act, and its use may be appropriate in certain circumstances.

There are three categories of Indians: Status (or Registered) Indians, Non-Status Indians and Treaty Indians. First Nation is the contemporary term for Indian, and refers to Status and Non-Status Indians, but has no legal standing.

The terms First Nation and First Nation community are also frequently used in place of the term band provided in the Indian Act, with many communities altering their names to reflect this preference.

There are two approaches to defining the Métis. One approach describes the Métis as those persons whose ancestors inhabited western and northern Canada and received land grants and/or scrip. That is, they are descendants of the historic Métis nation. A broader definition includes all persons of mixed Aboriginal and non-Aboriginal ancestry who identify themselves as Métis.

Inuit are a circumpolar people who live primarily in four regions of Canada: the Nunavut territory, Nunavik, Nunatsiavut and the Inuvialuit Settlement Region, collectively known as Inuit Nunangat. Inuk is the singular form of Inuit and is used when referring to a single individual.

Suggested dos and don’ts

Whenever possible, it is preferable to describe Indigenous peoples through their specific identities or nations. Examples would be “a Haida artist,” “a Cree pilot,” or “a Mohawk scholar.”

Despite its widespread use, particularly in the media, the term Aboriginals should be avoided. Aboriginal should be used as an adjective, rather than a proper noun, as in “Aboriginal peoples,” not “Aboriginals.”

Also, the possessive “our Aboriginal/Indigenous peoples” should be avoided, especially in light of the historical context. It is preferable to say, “Aboriginal/Indigenous peoples of/in Canada.” It is recommended that Indigenous, Aboriginal, First Nations, Inuit and Métis be capitalized, in the same way one would capitalize Iranian or French.

Guides for correct usage are available on the Indigenous and Northern Affairs Canada website and elsewhere. For greater clarity, here are other helpful tips provided by the national Inuit organization, the Inuit Tapiriit Kanatami:

  • First Peoples is sometimes used in place of Aboriginal peoples, though less frequently. Collectively, First Peoples refers to Inuit, First Nations (Indians) and the Métis.
  • Aboriginal and First Nation are not interchangeable terms.
  • Aboriginal peoples and First Peoples are interchangeable terms.
  • Inuit are not First Nations because First Nations are Indians. Inuit are not Indians.
  • Inuit and Innu are not the same group. Innu are a First Nations (Indian) group located in northeastern Quebec and southern Labrador.

Even these terms, however, may evolve over time as their meanings are disputed, contested and reconstituted to reflect changing social attitudes.

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