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Useful Terminology

Have you ever wondered which terms are most appropriate? If so, you’re not alone.
Sometimes it is hard to know how people or peoples identify themselves given the extensive amount of diversity within “Canada.” Did you know that there are over 600 distinct representative organizations, governments, or agencies that differentiate populations of original inhabitants? We sometimes use umbrella terms that are meant to encapsulate all of the diversity under one label; terms such as Aboriginal, Indigenous, or First Peoples. These umbrella terms are vague however, and do not speak to the heterogeneity of what they are meant to capture. It would be akin to labelling all peoples from the continent of Asia as ‘Asians.’ This would collapse all the distinct nations in countries like India, Saudi-Arabia, Israel, Japan, etc., by one designation.
As a general rule of thumb, use the names that people or peoples have identified for themselves. You can find out how an individual identifies by asking, “How do you identify?” A representative organization, like a band office or a community council, can inform you as to how a specific group identifies. Remember to be as specific as possible. For instance, identifying someone as Innu is more appropriate than identifying them as First Nations. If you are talking about Innu, Cree, Blackfoot, Shuswap, and Gitxsan then take the time to identify them individually. If you are referring to all the populations of original inhabitants in British Columbia collectively, then ‘First Nations’ may suffice. If you have to use an umbrella term, remember the innate generalization that it implies. Here are some useful terms that are in common usage today:

First Peoples: A broad term that includes the Inuit, Métis, and First Nations of Canada. Canada’s First People are descendants of the original inhabitants of what is now called Canada, who lived here for many thousands of years before explorers arrived from Europe.

Indigenous Peoples: A broad term that has been used to describe ‘original inhabitants’ globally (both in Canada and other countries).

Aboriginal: The term "Aboriginal" is from the Latin "ab origine," or "from the beginning." In the Canadian constitution, ‘Aboriginal’ refers to a person who has First Nations, Inuit, or Metis ancestry. But not all people who identify as First Nation, Inuit, Metis, or Blended subscribe to this label. As a good rule of thumb, use the titles that people have identified for themselves.

First Nations: is a term that is used for all Indigenous people in Canada except Inuit and Métis. For many, this term is a more respectful and competent description of the people formally referred to as Indians. First Nation is a legally undefined term that came into common usage in the 1980s to replace the term Indian band or tribe.

Indian: Some find being called ‘Indian’ offensive while others refer to themselves as Indians. The term is still used in government documents such as The Indian Act. There are three legal definitions that apply to “Indians” in Canada and those are Status, Non Status, and Treaty.

Indian Act: Canadian federal legislation first passed in 1876, and amended several times since. It sets out certain federal government obligations and regulates the management of “Indian” reserve lands, “Indian” moneys and other resources. Among its many provisions, the Indian Act currently requires the Minister of Indian Affairs and Northern Development to manage “Indian Lands” and certain moneys belonging to First Nations, and to approve or disallow First Nations bylaws.

Status Indian: means a person defined, and who has been registered, pursuant to Canada’s Indian Act as an Indian under the Indian Act.

Status Card: The Certificate of Indian Status (commonly referred to as a Status Card) is an official form of government identification issued to a person who is registered as an “Indian” under the provisions of the Indian Act. Cardholders are entitled to services and benefits that may include healthcare and certain tax exemptions. Status cards are not to be confused with the ‘Membership cards’ issued to Inuit or Métis peoples by their affiliate organizations.

Treaty Indian: A status Indian who belongs to a First Nation that signed a treaty with the Crown.

Treaty: is an agreement between government and a First Nation that defines the rights of the nation’s members with respect to lands and resources over a specified area, and may also define the self-government authority of that Nation.

Non-Status Indian: Non-Status Indians are people who consider themselves to be ‘Indians’ or members of a First Nation, but are not recognized by the Government of Canada as “Indians” under the Indian Act. Non-status Indians are not entitled to the same rights and benefits available to Status Indians.

Inuit: The indigenous people of Arctic. In what is now Canada, Inuit live primarily in Nunavut, Nunavik, Nunatsiavut, and the Inuvialuit region. For centuries the Inuit have been referred to as ‘Eskimos’ by outside observers, however the Inuit of Canada find this term unacceptable. Inuit, in most dialects of the Inuktitut language, is the term for ‘people.’

Métis: This term was formerly utilized as a catch all category for persons of blended Aboriginal and non-Aboriginal ancestry. According to the Métis National Council, the actual definition of who is Métis is more specific. Métis people possess lineage to the prairie Métis (descendants of Red River Settlement). The Métis are recognized under the 1982 Constitution as one of the three distinct Aboriginal peoples of Canada.

Blended ancestry: A person who derives their identity from two or more distinct ancestral lineages. This term has replaced derogatory terms such as ‘half breed’ and ‘mutt.’

Traditional: Traditional (with a capital ‘T’) refers to that which comes from the established traditions of each respective nation. We are not just talking about how things use to be in the past, but also in how those time-honoured practices are being held today.

Traditional territory: is the geographic area identified by a First Nation to be the area of land which they and/or their ancestors traditionally occupied or used.

Reserve: A tract of land, the legal title to which is held by the federal government, set apart for the use and benefit of a First Nation. Some nations have more than one reserve. Many reserves are not on Traditional territories.

Elder: A man or woman whose wisdom about spirituality, culture, and life is recognized by the community. In general, members of an Aboriginal community will seek the advice and assistance of elders in various traditional and contemporary areas.

Culture: Culture tends to satisfy many of the needs we have as social beings. It promotes belonging and sense of self, our purpose, our roots, recognition, and structures in which we live our lives and incorporate new information. Aboriginal culture is said to be therapeutic because the customs, beliefs, and the general way of life is interwoven with wellness promotion through Traditions, ceremony, and other cultural ways of being.

Ceremony, Prayer, and Sacredness: Ceremony means a lot of different things to different people. Many people make the mistake of associating the Traditional ceremonies of Aboriginal peoples to a religion or some paranormal set of superstitions. Ceremony is about teaching and learning and it reinforces and perpetuates what is meaningful to us. Ceremony can be prescriptive or a regular part of the maintenance of our wellbeing. With the danger of oversimplifying it, ceremony is an enactment of our values, guiding principles, and our prayers. Our prayers are the acknowledgment of what is sacred, and what is sacred is how we are connected to everything else.

Cultural appropriation: cultural appropriation typically involves members of a dominant group exploiting the culture of less privileged groups — often with little understanding of the latter’s history, experience, and traditions.

Tokenism: The act of including only the outward representation of often stereotypical cultural indicators and thereby failing to capture the relevance or significance of knowledge, culture, perspective, etc., by limiting efforts/engagement to a surface level understanding.

Colonialism: is a practice of domination much like imperialism, in which one people subjugates another.

Residential Schools: In 1928, a government official predicted Canada would end its "Indian problem" within two generations by enforcing a policy called "aggressive assimilation." Church-run, government-funded residential schools for Aboriginal children separated children from their families, communities, and cultures to purposely “kill the Indian in the child.” Residential schools were operated unit the mid 1990’s. The extent to which resident children were exposed to physical, sexual, mental, and emotional abuse is evident in the disclosures of ‘survivors.’ Furthermore, the consequential breakdown of family, the disconnect from culture and practice, and the disruption self-concept can be easily observed in many second and third generation residential school survivors.

Intergenerational trauma: is the dissemination of unresolved trauma across generations. This term is used to describe the processes in which trauma is experienced over time and the impact it has on individuals, community, environment, and subsequent generations.

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