Some Words on Terminology

Section 35 (2) of the Constitution Act, 1982, defined “Aboriginal peoples in Canada” as including “the Indian, Inuit and Métis peoples of Canada.” For example, “Indian” is now considered offensive and has been replaced by “First Nations.” And we are hearing the term “Indigenous” more and more in Canada. It is being used synonymously with “Aboriginal,” and in many cases it is the preferred term as the collective noun for First Nations, Métis, and Inuit. There are many reasons for this shift. One reason is that the prefix ab- means “away from” or “not,” so “aboriginal” actually means “not original.” “Indigenous” comes from the Latin word indigena, which means “sprung from the land; native.” And Indigenous Peoples recognize that rather than a single group of people, there are many separate and unique Nations (Ward, 2017).

Many folks in Canada are confused by the terminology used to refer to the Original Peoples of this land. To be sure, the terms Indian, Native, Aboriginal or Indigenous peoples (depending on when, where, why, or how) is just as confusing to the people they label. One of the many problems of changing terminology is the hesitancy of non-Indigenous people to use any form of address. In their aim not to offend, non-Indigenous people sometimes say nothing at all.

The changing terminology has complicated many aspects of life in Canada. Think about the legacy of laws, organizations, buildings, agencies, and departments that are named over the years and places throughout Canada. For example, though we do not use the word “Indian” generally in conversations, the Indian Act remains in force. Some First Nations people still use the word themselves within certain contexts or among themselves. It means that we need to pay attention to when, where, and how we use these words. Similarly, though the words Aboriginal and Native have generally fallen out of favour, for quite compelling reasons, there are organizations, agencies, and other entities that still use these words because they have a legacy of good work that is not diminished by the name or acronym they are known by. For example, a well-known program in Brandon University, PENT, is the Program for the Education of Native Teachers. It has welcomed and educated hundreds of students who have gone on to be educators in their communities and beyond. Similarly, BUCARES, the Brandon University Centre for Aboriginal and Rural Education Studies, is a research centre that supports and facilitates applied research to improve educational strategies for rural and Indigenous learners. The Brandon Urban Aboriginal Peoples Council, BUAPC, is another well-known organization with a record of relationship-building work in the community. It can be difficult to change the names of these long-standing organizations.

What is important for non-Indigenous peoples to understand is that what matters are relationships. Most people are very understanding of people who are learning, especially if they approach humbly and with a good heart. If you make a mistake, simply apologize, correct, and move on. Wherever possible, though, you should use the specific names of the Nations and communities,  especially if you are acknowledging territory and identity. “What do you call yourself?” is a more respectful inquiry than, “What should I call you?”

Remember as well that this advice refers to more than just what people call themselves. It also refers to communities. In Canada, the legal term for land set aside for First Nations is “reserve,” not “reservation,” a term used in the United States. Most people, however, use the term “community” when inquiring where someone is from. Another common mistake is to refer to powwow or dance regalia as a “costume”. Again, a humble approach, good heart, and willingness to catch your own mistakes goes a long way to building and maintaining good relationships. Accept that mistakes will happen; it is how we recover and move forward that sets the tone for trust.

What’s in a Name? Indian, Native, Aboriginal, or Indigenous?1


  1. What’s in a Name? Indian, Native, Aboriginal, or Indigenous? (


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