The aboriginal peoples of Canada are a small but influential community that remind Canadians of their country’s ancient past and their contemporary responsibilities to its first residents.
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 Europeans arrived there were still people living in Canada. Aboriginals, also known as natives, the First Nations, indigenous Canadians, or Canadian Indians, are the modern-day descendants of the first human inhabitants of North America.
Everyone has to come from somewhere, and most archaeologists believe the first peoples of Canada, who belong to what is sometimes called the Amerindian race, migrated to western North America from east Asia sometime between 21,000 and 10,000 B.C. (approximately 23,000 to 12,000 years ago), back when the two continents were connected by a massive land bridge known as the Bering Plain. 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 settlements scattered across the vast landscape. Though population estimates vary wildly, the Amerindians likely numbered in the millions.
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 communities, based mostly on geography:
Despite their differences, most aboriginal nations shared certain common characteristics, particularly hunter-gatherer sustenance lifestyles, deep 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.
When Europeans first came to North America in the mid-1500s, most regarded the continent’s indigenous residents as a hopelessly backwards people greatly inferior to themselves. Missionaries were 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 of 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 centuries-old indigenous cultures 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 the surviving aboriginal nations, and introduce the reserve system (see below) which was intended to bring the “Indian issue” to a close once and for all. Under the terms of these treaties, aboriginal communities were assigned to live and govern themselves in isolated, 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.
Today, Canada is home to about 1.7 million citizens of aboriginal descent (or about four per cent of the total population), the majority of whom identify as members of Indian tribes, or First Nations, 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 Plains 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 half a million Canadians identify as Métis. These days, more and more white Canadians with at least one indigenous relative in their family tree have started self-identifying as Métis, but this is controversial with those who believe the term should only be used to describe descendants of a very specific historical mixed-race community. Canada’s Inuit population is the smallest community of aboriginal Canadians, at about 65,000.
Aboriginal people are relatively evenly spread across Canada, though they are most concentrated in the prairie provinces of Manitoba and Saskatchewan, where First Nations and Métis people 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 (in this case, Inuit) 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 care for their families. In other ways, however, their lives are quite different, due to the continued existence of aboriginal treaties and reserves, which regulate and control Canadian Indian life in a way that is distinctive, complicated, and — more often than not — deeply controversial.
When Canada was first being colonized by white settlers, the governments of France and Britain, and later Canada, signed treaties with aboriginal leaders in which the natives agreed to surrender control of their lands in exchange for promises from the settler governments. Britain’s Royal Proclamation of 1763, issued by King George III (1738-1820) supposedly clarified the colonial governments’ promise to ensure “Sovereignty, Protection, and Dominion” for protected indigenous lands. 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 colonial-era agreements are still being honored today by the Canadian federal government, and the Constitution of Canada recognizes aboriginal treaties as having the force of constitutional law. 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. 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 status 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.
A Indian reserve (or reservation) is a legally-protected area of land, 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 self-governing society organized according to native traditions. In practice, most reserves are small, isolated communities in very rural parts of Canada. They may resemble anything from a trailer park to a small village, and rarely have populations larger than a few hundred. Governance of the reserve is entrusted to an elected chief and band council. 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.
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 benefits, 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 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 challenges the authority of 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.