In Canada, the accepted term for people who are Indigenous and who do not identify as Inuit or Métis is “First Nations.” In the past, these people were referred to as “Indians.” Today, “Indian” is considered an offensive colonial term and should not be used.
First Nations people have lived and thrived since time immemorial on this land now called Canada. They have many different languages, cultures, traditions, and spiritual beliefs. Historically, First Nations managed their lands and resources with their own governments, laws, policies, and practices. Their societies were very complex and included systems for trade and commerce, building relationships, managing resources, and spirituality.
Today, there are around 630 different First Nation communities across Canada – about half of which are in British Columbia and Ontario. According to the 2016 Census1, there are over 70 distinct Indigenous languages recognized across the country, and UNESCO’s world atlas of languages in danger recognizes over 80 distinct Indigenous languages in Canada, including those that no longer have speakers2.
Frequently asked questions about First Nations
How many First Nations people are there?
First Nations make up the largest group of Indigenous Peoples in Canada. In 2016, there were 977,230 First Nations people in Canada.
Where do First Nations people live?
First Nations people live in every province and territory. The largest First Nations populations are in Ontario, British Columbia, and Alberta. However, while First Nations people living in these provinces accounted for less than 4 percent of the total provincial populations in 2011, they represent almost one third of the total population of the Northwest Territories and almost one-fifth of the total population of Yukon.
Do all First Nations people live on reserves?
No. Many First Nations people live off reserve. In 2011, only about half (49.3 per cent) of the 637,660 First Nations people in Canada who reported being Status Indians lived on a reserve. The numbers vary widely by province, with Quebec having the highest proportion of First Nations people living on reserve, at nearly three-quarters. Winnipeg’s population has populations of 38,700 First Nations, 52, 130 Métis people, and 315 Inuit people as of the 2016 Census. The Census also reported tenure of housing for Aboriginal people: 50% own their own homes, 37% rent, and 10% are in band housing. In Canada, only 0.2% of the entire land mass is devoted to reserve lands (Indigenous Corporate Training Inc., 2018, point #2).
Is it okay to use the word “Indian” to describe First Nations people?
The term “Indian” refers to the legal identity of a First Nations person who is registered under the Indian Act. “Indian” should be used only when referring to a First Nations person with status under the Indian Act and only within a legal context. Otherwise, the use of the term “Indian” in Canada is considered outdated and offensive.
You may notice that the terms “American Indian” and “Native Indian” are still in current and common usage in the United States. Some First Nations people in Canada will also refer to themselves as “Indians,” and the federal legislation is still called the Indian Act. But “Indian” is still not a term you should use.
What does “Status Indian” mean?
A person who is recognized by the federal government as being registered under the Indian Act is referred to as a “Status Indian.” Status Indians may be entitled to certain programs and services offered by federal agencies and provincial governments.
There have been many rules for deciding who is eligible for registration as an Indian under the Indian Act. Significant changes were made to the legislation in 1951, 1985, and again in 2011. People who identify themselves as Indians but who are not entitled to registration on the Indian Register under the Indian Act are referred to as “non-Status Indians.” Some of them may be members of a First Nation even though the federal government does not recognize them as Status Indians. For more information on the Indian Act see The Indian Act3 and the Timeline in Appendix B.
Do First Nations people pay taxes?
It is a common misconception that First Nations people in Canada do not pay federal or provincial taxes. Under certain circumstances, Status Indians can be exempted from paying tax. For example, income earned on a reserve can be tax exempt, and any goods or services purchased by a Status Indian on a reserve or delivered to them on a reserve are sales tax exempt.
So there are limited situations where Status Indians may not have to pay income tax or sales tax. However, non-Status Indians, Métis people, and Inuit are not eligible for any tax exemptions.
Do First Nations people get free housing?
There are two main categories of housing on reserves: market-based housing and non-profit social housing. Market-based housing refers to households paying the full costs associated with purchasing or renting their housing. This is not free housing!
The Canadian Mortgage and Housing Agency delivers housing programs and services to all Canadians across the country under the National Housing Act.
Do First Nations students get free post-secondary education?
Some students will and some students will not get funding for post-secondary education. It depends on the First Nation to which the student belongs and whether the First Nation has funding for the student. The demand for funding is often greater than the funds available, and some communities are in states of crisis in which they must focus their resources on other areas.
First Nations Culture
Culture is an expression of a community’s worldview and unique relationship with the land. Indigenous cultures across Canada are diverse, but there are commonalities among them. Traditionally their societies have been communal, every member had roles and responsibilities, there was equality between men and women, nature was valued, and life was cyclical.
You will learn more below about other significant characteristics of First Nation cultures, particularly those within Manitoba.
In Manitoba, there are five First Nations groups categorized by the languages they use: Dene, Cree, Oji-Cree, Ojibway, and Dakota. Explore this link to learn more about each First Nation community, view a map, and hear a pronunciation of the community names: Community Map4. Language preservation and revitalization are extremely important as cultural knowledges, histories, and teachings are embedded within the languages themselves.
Traditional Indigenous education is different from European-style education. Children learn with their families and immediate community. Learning is holistic, ongoing, and does not take place at specific times. Education is entwined with language and connected to Mother Earth. Children learn how to live, survive, and participate in and contribute to their community. They are encouraged to take part in everyday activities alongside adults to watch and listen and then eventually practise what they have learned. Today, not all Indigenous children receive a traditional education, even those living in reserve communities. Some youth are able to receive some traditional or land-based education alongside the more westernized style of education they receive. Many Indigenous peoples who live in reserve communities must leave their homes to access post-secondary education.
Education is a lifelong process, continuing as people grow into different roles—child, youth, adult, and Elder. The importance of lifelong learning has been affirmed by the Assembly of First Nations: Lifelong Learning5.
Indigenous cultures are traditionally inclusive. Lynda Gray (2011), from the Tsimshian First Nation, writes: “Everyone had a place in the community despite their gender, physical or mental ability, sexual orientation, or age. Women, Elders, Two-spirit, children, and youth were an integral part of a healthy and vibrant community” (p. 32).
In Indigenous cultures, Elders are cherished and respected. An Elder is not simply an older or elderly person but is usually someone who is very knowledgeable about the history, values, and teachings of his or her culture. He or she lives according to these values and teachings. Each Indigenous community determines who are respected Elders. For their knowledge, wisdom, and behaviour, Elders are valuable role models and teachers for all members of the community. Elders play an important role in maintaining the tradition of passing along oral histories. In some instances, Elders may be referred to as Knowledge Keepers.
First Nations pass along values and family and community histories through oral storytelling. Oral histories and stories have been passed down from generation to generation and are essential to maintaining Indigenous identity and culture. People repeat stories to keep information alive over generations. Particular people within each First Nation have memorized oral histories with great care. Indigenous cultures also tell stories and histories through symbolic objects. Carved totem poles and house posts are a good example of this kind of visual language, with a long history on the West Coast.
Each Indigenous culture, community, and even family has its own historical and traditional stories, songs, or dances. Different cultures have different rules about ownership. Some songs, names, symbols, and dances belong only to some people or families and cannot be used, retold, danced, or sung without permission. Sometimes they are given to someone in a ceremony. Other songs and dances are openly shared.
The importance of ceremony to First Nations peoples of Manitoba cannot be overstated. Ceremony is a way of life and people who live the traditional way see no disconnect between daily activities, teachings, and ceremony. Some examples of ceremonies observed and practiced in Manitoba are Sun Dance, Sweatlodge, Naming, Shaking Tent, Pipe, and Water ceremonies. In the past, these ceremonies were illegal under the Indian Act. The Indian Agent was the representative of the government who oversaw the application of the Act to reserve communities. Often the agent would go home on weekends, and the people would hold ceremonies in secret, adapting them to the shorter weekend time frame. These ceremonies were preserved through these acts of resistance and resilience. The pipe and drum carry great significance for First Nations people in Manitoba, and their use is integral to ceremony. The four sacred medicines are also vitally important: tobacco, sage, cedar, and sweetgrass.
Ceremony should be approached cautiously and respectfully by non-Indigenous people. Some ceremonies are closed, while others are open. Some ceremonies are gender-specific. It is important to seek confirmation of the appropriateness of attendance before entering into ceremony. If you are welcomed into ceremony, be aware that there may be some protocols around behaviours and guidelines for what to wear or items to bring along. Confirm protocol details with the person who invited you to participate in the ceremony prior to attending. Even within a single culture, some leaders will have different ways of conducting ceremony. Friendship Centres and Indigenous Peoples’ Centres can answer questions about ceremonies and let you know about ceremonies you may wish to attend.
The Journey of the Spirit of the Red Man8 (book is widely available through booksellers)
‘Four Medicines’ (Barb Blind) is licensed under a CC BY-NC (Attribution Non-Commercial) License.
- Census in brief. The Aboriginal languages of First Nations people, Métis, and Inuit (http://www12.statcan.gc.ca/census-recensement/2016/as-sa/98-200-x/2016022/98-200-x2016022-eng.cfm)
- UNESCO Atlas of the World’s Languages in Danger (http://www.unesco.org/languages-atlas/index.php)
- The Indian Act (https://indigenousfoundations.arts.ubc.ca/the_indian_act/)
- Community Map (https://mfnerc.org/community-map/)
- Lifelong Learning (https://www.afn.ca/uploads/files/10_-_fact_sheet_-_lifelong_learning.pdf)
- Earth Lodge — First Nations Treaty 2 Territory (http://lodge.fnt2t.com)
- It’s Our Time: First Nations Education Tool Kit (https://www.edu.gov.mb.ca/k12/docs/support/its-our-time/index.html)
- The Journey of the Spirit of the Red Man (https://www.facebook.com/The-Journey-of-the-Spirit-of-the-Red-Man-411609432226730/)