Indigenous Peoples: Terminology Guide

(Disponible en français : Peuples autochtones : guide terminologique)

For centuries, the original inhabitants of the Americas have been largely defined by others, beginning with the misapplication of the term “Indian” by Christopher Columbus to describe the various peoples of these continents. Today, as attitudes toward the First Peoples of what is now known as Canada change and evolve, so too do the terms used to describe them. Knowing which terms to use, the legal distinctions between them, and to whom they apply can often be challenging. However, using appropriate language is fundamental to ensuring respectful and positive relationships with First Nations, Inuit and the Métis, and to avoiding terms that may be discriminatory, offensive or inaccurate.

This HillNote provides suggestions for navigating 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. As Métis writer Chelsea Vowel notes, “[n]ames are linked to identity, and notions of identity are fluid. They change, they evolve.” Terminology may reflect how a group understands and describes itself at a given moment. As such, the appropriateness of terminology depends on context.

Furthermore, in its lexicon of terminology, the National Inquiry into Missing and Murdered Indigenous Women and Girls explains that “[w]hile ‘Indigenous’ may be considered the most inclusive term since it identifies peoples in similar circumstances without respect to national boundaries or local conventions, it remains a contentious term since it defines groups primarily in relation to their colonizers.” This illustrates 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.

Terms in common usage

Terms frequently used when discussing Indigenous affairs are defined below. The French equivalent of each term is included in parentheses.

  • Aboriginal peoples (peuples autochtones): The term used in section 35(1) of the Constitution Act, 1982, which recognizes and affirms existing Aboriginal and treaty rights. The term is defined in section 35(2) as including the Indian (First Nations), Inuit and Métis peoples of Canada.
  • Indigenous peoples (peuples autochtones): A term used in place of “Aboriginal peoples.” While until recently the term “Indigenous” had most frequently been used in the international context, it has now gained greater acceptance as a preferred substitute for “Aboriginal” in Canada.
    It is used in the name of federal government departments (Indigenous Services Canada, Crown-Indigenous Relations and Northern Affairs Canada) as well as in some federal laws (e.g., An Act respecting Indigenous languages). Nonetheless, the term “Aboriginal” remains in use when referring to domestic legal concepts (such as “Aboriginal rights” and “Aboriginal title”). Note that the shift from “Aboriginal” to “Indigenous” has no equivalent in French, and the adjective “autochtone” has remained in use.
  • First peoples (premiers peuples): A term sometimes used in place of “Aboriginal peoples” or “Indigenous peoples”, though less frequently. This term does not have any legal meaning.
  • Indian (Indien): Although outdated, the term “Indian” has a specific legal meaning under the Indian Act and its use may be appropriate in certain circumstances. It generally refers to status Indians, non-status Indians and treaty Indians. The term “First Nations” – which has no legal meaning – is now widely accepted as a substitute for “Indians.”
  • First Nations (Premières Nations): A term referring to all Indians, whether status or non-status, as well as to their communities. Although it is not defined in the Indian Act, it is now used in most modern Canadian statutes (e.g., An Act respecting First Nations, Inuit and Métis children, youth and families).
  • Status Indian (Indien inscrit): An individual registered, or entitled to be registered, as an Indian pursuant to the provisions of the Indian Act. Indian status is a legal status conferring certain rights and benefits and determining eligibility for certain federal programs. The courts have found that eligibility criteria have discriminated against women, forcing the federal government to revise them on multiple occasions since 1985. Status Indians are sometimes referred to as “registered Indians.”
  • Non-Status Indian (Indien non inscrit): An individual of First Nations ancestry, with cultural ties to a First Nation or who is a member of a First Nation, but who is not entitled to be registered as an Indian pursuant to the Indian Act.
  • Treaty Indian (Indien visé par un traité): A First Nations person who is a member of a group that signed an historic treaty with the Crown. The terms “Status Indian” and “Treaty Indian” are not interchangeable as not all status Indians belong to a group that signed a treaty.
  • Chief (chef): The head of a First Nations government under the Indian Act regime. The chief and his or her councillors (collectively known as the band council) are elected pursuant to one of various electoral systems. This governance model is not traditional among First Nations. Traditionally, some First Nations had hereditary leadership structures. Some communities have maintained these traditional institutions alongside the Indian Act regime. The contemporary roles and responsibilities of hereditary chiefs vary from one community to the other.
  • Inuit (Inuits): The circumpolar people living primarily in Inuit Nunangat, the territory covering the land, ice and water of Nunavut, Nunatsiavut (northern Labrador), Nunavik (northern Quebec) and the Inuvialuit Settlement Region (northern Yukon and Northwest Territories). In Inuktut, “Inuit” means “the people”. Therefore, the expression “Inuit people” should be avoided. “Inuk” is the singular form of “Inuit” and is used when referring to a single individual. Inuit were historically referred to as “Eskimos”, a term that is considered derogatory.
    Note that the Inuit and the Innu are not the same group: the Innu are a First Nations people located in northeastern Quebec and southern Labrador.
  • Métis (Métis): There are different ways of defining Métis identity. 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 Indigenous and non-Indigenous ancestry who identify themselves as Métis.
    In its 2003 Powley decision, the Supreme Court of Canada suggested that three broad indicators of Métis identity are self-identification, ancestral connection and community acceptance.
  • Aboriginal rights (droits ancestraux): A set of constitutionally protected rights held by Indigenous peoples by virtue of their historic occupation and use of the land as distinctive societies with their own practices, customs and traditions.
  • Aboriginal title (titre ancestral): A collective right to the exclusive occupation and use of a land by an Indigenous group.
  • Treaty rights (droits issus des traités): The rights defined in the historic and modern treaties negotiated between the Crown and Indigenous peoples.

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.”  When in doubt, one should refer to Indigenous peoples in the way they refer to themselves.

Moreover, the term “Aboriginals” should be avoided. “Aboriginal” should be used as an adjective, rather than a noun. The possessive “our Indigenous peoples” should also be avoided. It is preferable to say “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 “Canadian.” When used as formal titles, terms such as “Chief” and “Elder” should be capitalized as well. Finally, note that “Indigenous peoples” and “First Nations” are not interchangeable: the Métis and Inuit are also Indigenous peoples.

The terms and concepts listed in this HillNote may evolve over time as their meanings are disputed, contested and reconstituted to reflect changing social attitudes. First Nations, Inuit and Métis peoples may also change their preferences.

Additional resources

National Inquiry into Missing and Murdered Indigenous Women and Girls, Lexicon of Terminology, 1 June 2019.

Canadian Geographic, “First Nations: Frequently Asked Questions,” in Indigenous Peoples Atlas of Canada.

Canadian Geographic, “Inuit: Frequently Asked Questions,” in Indigenous Peoples Atlas of Canada.

Canadian Geographic, “Métis: Frequently Asked Questions,” in Indigenous Peoples Atlas of Canada.

The University of British Columbia, Indigenous Peoples: Languages Guidelines, Version 2.0, 2018.

Author: Tonina Simeone, Library of Parliament
Revised by: Olivier Leblanc-Laurendeau, Library of Parliament