In Canada, the term “Indigenous” is an umbrella term that describes the original inhabitants of these lands and their descendants. First Nations are Peoples who have historically lived between the Atlantic and Pacific oceans, south of the Arctic. The Inuit have historically lived in Canada’s Far North. The Métis are descendants of the historical joining of First Nations Peoples and European settlers. Each group of Indigenous Peoples in Canada have their own rich and vibrant culture, largely influenced by the environment in which they traditionally lived.
Today, there are over one million First Nations Peoples in Canada who belong to over 600 distinct nations. Their traditional homelands span from the East Coast to the West Coast and often overlap with modern-day provincial and national borders. First Nations Peoples speak over 50 languages and have a rich Oral Tradition that harkens back over millennia. Each community boasts its own unique culture and customs.
The Northwest Coastal Peoples on the West Coast of Canada are made up of at least 70 nations and speak an estimated 19 distinct languages. They traditionally lived in hunter-gatherer societies and relied on the Pacific Ocean as a main source of food. Painted wood carvings, especially totem poles, are the most renowned features of Northwest Coast Indigenous art.
The Northwest Plateau Peoples traditionally lived between the British Columbia coastal mountains and the Rocky Mountains. They can be divided into several main nations, all of which were skilled hunters who mainly relied on fish, deer and elk for food. Songs, often accompanied by drums, are particularly important in traditional Plateau life and are used to summon religious and magical powers.
The Plains Peoples historically lived in a vast territory that extends from the Rocky Mountains east to southern Manitoba, and from the North Saskatchewan River south to the U.S. border and beyond. Plains Peoples were traditionally nomadic bison hunters. Among the Plains Peoples, artistic expression ranges from tattoos to clothing painted or embroidered with dyed porcupine quills and carvings.
The Eastern Woodlands Peoples traditional homeland spans from west of the Great Lakes all the way to the Atlantic Ocean. Nations in the Eastern Woodlands traditionally cultivated corn, beans, squash and/or wild rice. Some nations also grew tobacco. Beadwork, quillwork, masks and tattoos characterize many Eastern Woodlands nations’ artistic expression.
The Subarctic Peoples traditionally occupied a majority of modern-day Canada from the Yukon to Newfoundland, including parts of seven provinces and two territories. Traditional food sources included moose, caribou, black bear, beaver, hare, marmot and groundhog. They typically lived in nomadic communities of 25-30 people. Among many nations, both boys and girls are sent on Vision Quests to obtain power from animal helpers or the spirits of natural places.
What about “Indians”?
Many historical documents refer to Indigenous Canadians as “Indians,” and in fact, some government agencies and functions still do so today. The term has been in use since Christopher Columbus thought he had sailed to the East Indies and mistakenly used “indios” to refer to the people in the lands he visited.
Old western movies refer to Indigenous Peoples as “Indians” as well, and often play up harmful cultural stereotypes. And while some Indigenous Peoples may be comfortable with the term “Indian,” it is mainly viewed as pejorative and should be avoided whenever possible. Some First Nations peoples prefer to identify according to the nation to which they belong (Cree, Mohawk, Dene or Haida, for example). However, many prefer to be called First Nations. When in doubt, carefully note the descriptors a person or nation uses to describe themselves or use “Indigenous.”
Inuit refers to the Peoples who have traditionally lived in the Far North of Canada, in an area they call “Inuit Nunangat.” Inuit Nunangat refers to the land, water and ice that is integral to the Inuit homeland and way of life. The region encompasses 35 percent of Canada’s landmass and 50 percent of its coastline, including parts of Newfoundland and Labrador, Quebec, and the Yukon and Northwest Territories, and all of Nunavut.
There are approximately 65,000 Inuit today with a median age of just 23. The two main Inuit languages, Inuktitut and Inuinnaqtun, are official languages in the regions in which they are spoken. Traditionally, Inuit communities had 100-1,000 members, and often congregated for short periods during the winter months in sealing or hunting camps. Inuit inventions, such as the igloo, the toggling harpoon head and the kayak, are considered technological masterpieces for their resourcefulness and strength of design. Inuit Peoples of today continue to harvest traditional foods such as seal, narwhal and caribou to feed their families and communities.
What about “Eskimos”?
The term “Eskimo” was widely used in non-Indigenous popular culture, media and academia to refer to Inuit Peoples. Its definition is not agreed upon, but it is generally understood to be the term the Algonquin Peoples used to describe their neighbours to the north. The term Eskimo should be avoided as it is a reminder of a time when Inuit identity was appropriated and redefined by non-Inuit.
Métis are a specific Indigenous cultural community that traces their lineage back to the joining of First Nations and primarily French and Scottish European settlers. The merging of First Nations and European cultures created a vibrant new culture with elements from each — like the sash, fiddle music and jigs.
The traditional Métis economy was based on hunting, trapping, and gathering. The Métis language is called Michif, a complex combination of Cree and Métis French (a variation of Canadian French). The traditional Métis homeland was the prairie provinces, but there are now approximately 600,000 Métis across Canada today.
A common thread
Despite the diversity of Indigenous Peoples in Canada, we have certain important cultural traits and traditions that unite us. The importance of Oral Traditions, a deep respect for Elders, and a strong connection to nature are common across all Indigenous communities. And although many of our sacred traditions and practices were put under pressure or even abolished under colonial rule, we are regaining control over lands and cultural practices. Today, we are reclaiming and rejoicing in our Indigenous heritage, and invite you to join in as we celebrate the Indigenous Renaissance.