The Aboriginal Peoples of Canada

By most measures, Canada is a very young country, and Canadians are a very new people. The vast majority of Canada’s population is descended from European immigrants who only arrived in the 18th century or later, and even the most “historic” Canadian cities are rarely more than 200 years old.

But thousands of years before any of this, there were still people living in Canada. Aboriginals, also known as natives, the First Nations, indigenous Canadians, or Canadian Indians, are the descendants of the original inhabitants of North America. Today, they exist as a small, but influential and important minority group that remind Canadians of their country’s ancient past and their contemporary responsibilities to its first residents.

History of Canada’s First Peoples

Everyone has to come from somewhere, and most archaeologists believe the native peoples of Canada migrated to western North America from east Asia sometime between 40,000 and 10,000 B.C., back when the two continents were connected by a massive land bridge. In the centuries that followed, these peoples spread all across the lands that now comprise Canada and the United States, forming hundreds of distinct tribes and communities scattered across the vast landscape. Though population estimates vary wildly, they likely numbered in the millions.

The Pre-contact Nations

The Aboriginal peoples of Canada are divided into around historic 50 nations or tribes, which are split into more than 600 smaller bands. These are usually grouped into six broad historic-geographic communities:

The Haudenosaunee people, also known as the Indians of Northeast Eastern Woodlands, are the largest and best-known native community, and historically lived in farms around the St. Lawrence river and Great Lakes in modern day Ontario and Quebec. Known for their distinctive long houses, they were organized into a powerful political coalition known as the Iroquois Confederacy, and were the first to make substantial contact with European explorers.

The Great Plains or Prairie Indians lived in the territory that today forms the Prairie provinces of Alberta, Saskatchewan, and Manitoba. Their livelihood came from hunting the wild buffalo of the region, and they famously used “every part” for survival.

The Indians of the Northwest Coast lived along Canada’s Pacific coast, in modern-day British Columbia. They were primarily fishermen who lived in houses dotted along the beach, and are today best known for their beautiful artwork and totem poles.

The Plateau Indians were a small but distinctive community who lived in an elevated area in southeastern British Columbia between the Rocky and Cascade mountain ranges.

The Athapaskan or Dene Indians were a nomadic people who lived all across the barren, northwestern half of Canada in temporary, movable shelters. They hunted the caribou and followed its migration pattern.

The Inuit people, also known by the increasingly unpopular name Eskimo, lived in the extreme arctic, some of the most inhospitable terrain on the entire continent. They hunted seals and caribou and lived in distinctive snow houses called igloos. They were the last to make contact with whites, and did not begin to substantially modify their ancient lifestyles until a few decades ago.

Despite their differences, most aboriginal nations shared certain common characteristics, particularly hunter-gatherer sustenance lifestyles, strong respect for nature, egalitarian and communal social values, and deep and detailed spiritual beliefs. Many had permanent housing, farms, and stable political structures, as well as rich cultures with distinctive traditions in art, fashion, song, and dance. At the same time, their societies were often lacking in other important fields, and most native communities lacked a written language, used only primitive weapons, and had mostly simplistic and superstitious understandings of basic scientific concepts.

Contact With the White Man

When Europeans first came to North America in the mid-1500s, most regarded the aboriginals as a hopelessly backwards people greatly inferior to themselves. Missionaries were quickly dispatched to convert this supposedly “godless” race to Christianity, while early French and British colonists saw them as a useful and easily-exploited source of cheap labour for the fur trade, soldiers for the battlefield, or even household slaves. As the European powers sought to secure greater control over North America, aboriginal nations became an increasing annoyance, and many were eventually forced into signing lopsided treaties that surrendered political control of their land in exchange for meager financial compensation or dubious promises of protection and safety.

In the end, however, it was disease that effectively weakened the aboriginals beyond recovery. Unexpectedly exposed to dozens of new European illnesses for which they had no immunity or cure, millions of natives perished from plagues like smallpox, Typhoid, and influenza. Some estimate that by the close of the 19th century, Canada’s aboriginal population had declined by more than 90 per cent, with the centuries-old native cultures of North America all but extinguished by waves of European settlers.

The late 19th century saw the Canadian government sign a number of new, more complicated treaties with aboriginals and introduce the reserve system (see below) with the hope of bringing the “Indian issue” to a close, once and for all. Surviving aboriginal communities were isolated to economically unimportant corners of the country, while heavy-handed assimilation initiatives like residential schools (see sidebar) attempted to eliminate Indian culture altogether. With the native minority safely out of sight and out of mind, Canada’s new white majority found it easy to spend the next century largely ignoring aboriginal concerns. Only very recently have attitudes begun to change.

Dancers at an aboriginal cultural festival held on a Mohawk nation reserve in Kahnawake, Quebec.
Alina R/Shutterstock

Canada’s Aboriginals Today

Today, Canada is home to about 1.4 million citizens of aboriginal descent (or about four per cent of the total population), most of whom still identify as members of tribes that have existed for centuries. European contact also gave rise to a new aboriginal community known as the Métis (may-tee), who are the mixed-race descendants of Indians and white settlers — mostly French-Canadians — who have been a prominent part of Canada’s prairie population from the 18th century on. Today, more than 450,000 Canadians identify as Métis.

The majority of Canadian aboriginals live in in rural parts of the country’s west coast and prairie provinces, particularly Manitoba and Saskatchewan, where they comprise more than 15 per cent of the population. The small northern territories of Nunavut and the Northwest Territories are the only parts of Canada where aboriginal people outnumber whites. Most aboriginals speak English as their first language, though there have been persistent efforts to preserve traditional aboriginal languages, with Cree and Inuktitut remaining the best known and most widely spoken.

In many ways, Canada’s aboriginal people are little different from any other type of Canadian. They work, play, vote, and take care of their families. In other ways, however, their lives are quite different, due to the existence of aboriginal treaties and reserves which regulate and govern Canadian Indian life in a way that is distinctive, complicated, and — more often than not — deeply controversial.

Treaties and Indian Status

When Canada was first being colonized by white settlers, the governments of France and Britain, and later Canada, signed a bunch of treaties with aboriginal leaders in which the natives agreed to surrender control of their lands in exchange for promises from the settler governments. Such promises usually included military protection, medicine, regular financial payments, special hunting and fishing rights, and a small area of land to use for housing.

These agreements are still being honored today, and any aboriginal person who confirms their native identity with their tribal government and the government of Canada is declared to be a “Status Indian” entitled to receive treaty promises. However, many of these benefits require living on an aboriginal reserve (see below). This is all governed by a complex and controversial piece of legislation known as the Indian Act, passed in 1876.

While most Indians in Canada are covered by some sort of treaty, many are not, particularly in British Columbia and Quebec. Starting in the 1970s, the Canadian government began negotiating modern treaties with historically ignored aboriginal nations through what is now called the land-claim settlements process. Such settlements have proved extraordinarily difficult to hammer out, however, routinely taking many years and involving enormous teams of lawyers and bureaucrats.

Prime Minister Trudeau meets with the File Hills Qu’Appelle Tribal Council, which governs 10 First Nations in Quebec.

The Reserve System

A Indian reserve (or reservation) is a legally-protected area, defined by a treaty, where aboriginal Canadians can live in a state of semi-exemption from a number of federal and provincial laws, and participate in a society organized according to native traditions. In practice, most reserves are small, isolated communities, resembling anything from a trailer park to a small village, with populations of no more than a few hundred residents each. Governance of the reserve is legally entrusted to the local band council, which has considerable power to determine how their community will be run. Most reserves still receive some sort of regular treaty payment from the federal government, and this money is used by the band council to provide residents with basic services such as housing, education, roads, police, and — in many cases — income.

Living “on reserve” exempts native people from having to pay federal or provincial taxes, and, in most cases, entitles them to special grants to help pay for health care, post-secondary education, public transportation, and other social services. Aboriginal hunters and fishermen are likewise usually exempt from size and quantity restrictions, and if a reserve’s territory is lucky enough to contain natural resources such as oil or minerals, then the residents may be eligible to earn a cut of the royalties, too. These days, some of Canada’s savvier native bands have taken to exploiting the legal exemptions of their reserves to operate tax-exempt malls or casinos that make a lot of money for the tribe, as well as selling untaxed cigarettes or legally dubious products like fireworks, which may be banned by the surrounding city or province.

Troubles

One of the great shames and tragedies of modern Canada is how poor the quality of life remains for Canadian aboriginals, even after several decades of aggressive government efforts to redress the sins of the past. Despite a multitude of targeted government programs and privileges, the life of a typical aboriginal in 21st century Canada remains significantly worse than that of any other racial group, with rates of poverty, addiction, and violence grossly disproportionate to their percentage of the population. Statistics show an aboriginal Canadian is almost 10 times more likely than a non-aboriginal to wind up in prison, and aboriginal youths are five to six times more likely to kill themselves than their non-native peers.

The root causes of all these social ills are numerous and complicated, but there are a number of popular targets. Historic racism is obviously a leading one, with the notoriously dysfunctional and abusive residential schools system in particular often blamed for saddling multiple generations of aboriginal people with broken families and deep social pathologies. The modern-day reserve system itself has many critics as well, given many reserves lack the quality of housing, employment, education, medical care, and even basic amenities like clean water and electricity other Canadians take for granted. Blame is either directed at the federal government (for failing to provide adequate funding to bands), corrupt band councils (for embezzling and misspending funds), or both.

Others have argued that Canada’s entire system of dealing with aboriginals is hopelessly backwards and colonialist. By continuing to revolve aboriginal life around treaties and the Indian Act, which place so much responsibility on the Canadian government to fund, regulate, and supervise aboriginal affairs, such critics say Canada’s natives are kept in a perpetual state of infantile dependence, unable to do much of anything without government support and consent. Many Canadian politicians and aboriginal leaders thus support greater self-government powers for First Nations, which is to say, the ability for aboriginal bands to independently pass their own laws equal in power to laws passed by the federal or provincial governments. This is a very dramatic idea that conflicts with the Canadian Constitution, however, so progress has been difficult.

The one thing everyone seems to agree on, however, is that greater economic self-sufficiency for aboriginal people is critically important to improving their quality of life. This is part of the reason why many Canadian native bands are now working so hard to secure royalties from natural resources harvested from their traditional lands, or get a cut of corporate profits earned from corporations operating oil pipelines, mines, dams, or fisheries from companies operating within their tribal borders. Natural resource extraction remains the single largest employer of aboriginal people in Canada.