Let’s look carefully at the word ‘aboriginal’. Ab – original. What does ‘original’ mean? It means ‘first’, right? So, aboriginal people were first people in Canada – British and French came later. Another interesting thing: it’s not ‘people’, it’s ‘peoples’. Why? Because there are many different groups of them.
There are 3 main groups of aboriginal people in Canada:
First Nations = Indians (65%)
Inuit = people of the North (4%)
Metis = mixed (30%)
When Christopher Columbus came to America, he thought that he came to India. So he called people whom he saw ‘Indians’. This was a historical mistake. The name ‘Indians’ was incorrect. So, in 1970s, Canadian government said: ‘Let’s stop using the word ‘Indians’. Instead, we should call these people ‘First Nations’.’
Where do the First Nations people live? Half of them live on reserve land (about 600 communities), and the other half in big urban centres. If you live in Toronto, for example, you can see these people as you walk along the street.
The word ‘Inuit’ means “the people”. They speak English, French and Inuktitut language. They used to be nomadic, continuously travelling across the Arctic, but now they live in 600 small, scattered communities. They hunt and gather most of their food: seals, whale, duck, caribou, fish and berries. Their knowledge of the land, sea and wildlife enabled them to adapt to one of the harshest environments on earth.
When British and French came to Canada 400 years ago, they were mostly men. Some of them married local First Nations women, and their children became the group called ‘Metis’. Most of them live in the Prairies. They speak English, French and their own dialect, Michif.
The ancestors of Aboriginal peoples are believed to have migrated from Asia many thousands of years ago. They were well established here long before explorers from Europe first came to North America. Diverse, vibrant First Nations cultures were rooted in religious beliefs about their relationship to the Creator, the natural environment and each other.
Aboriginal and treaty rights are in the Canadian Constitution. Territorial rights were first guaranteed through the Royal Proclamation of 1763 by King George III, and established the basis for negotiating treaties with the newcomers— treaties that were not always fully respected.
From the 1800s until the 1980s, the federal government placed many Aboriginal children in residential schools to educate and assimilate them into mainstream Canadian culture. The schools were poorly funded and inflicted hardship on the students; some were physically abused. Aboriginal languages and cultural practices were mostly prohibited. In 2008, Ottawa formally apologized to the former students. In today’s Canada, Aboriginal peoples enjoy renewed pride and confidence, and have made significant achievements in agriculture, the environment, business and the arts.
Arrival of Europeans
When Europeans explored Canada they found all regions occupied by native peoples they called Indians, because the first explorers thought they had reached the East Indies. The native people lived off the land, some by hunting and gathering, others by raising crops. The Huron-Wendat of the Great Lakes region, like the Iroquois, were farmers and hunters. The Cree and Dene of the Northwest were hunter-gatherers. The Sioux were nomadic, following the bison (buffalo) herd. The Inuit lived off Arctic wildlife. West Coast natives preserved fish by drying and smoking. Warfare was common among Aboriginal groups as they competed for land, resources and prestige. The arrival of European traders, missionaries, soldiers and colonists changed the native way of life forever. Large numbers of Aboriginals died of European diseases to which they lacked immunity. However, Aboriginals and Europeans formed strong economic, religious and military bonds in the first 200 years of coexistence which laid the foundations of Canada.