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No perfect answer: Is it First Nations, Aboriginal or Indigenous?

|March 06, 2019

Photo Credit: Lindsay Visitor / Facebook

Written by

Marie-Céline Charron

Photo Credit: Lindsay Visitor / Facebook

As an expert in Indigenous Affairs, I often get asked about the appropriate, or “politically correct” term to describe Indigenous people, First Nations and Aboriginal people.

There isn’t a “one size fits all” answer to this question. As there are over 50 different Indigenous Nations in Canada, living in over 600 communities, it can be challenging to find a single, all-encompassing word. Keeping in mind that there are always exceptions, here are some general guidelines to help you better understand the nuances and to help improve your relationships with these communities.

First, it is usually preferable to avoid using the terms “Indian” and “Amerindian”, since it was how Christopher Columbus called Indigenous people when he arrived in America back in 1492, erroneously believing that he had landed in India. There are of course some exceptions, such as communities that still have the official name of “Indian band” and there are individuals who may still use the word “Indian” among themselves, but the term has colonial connotations for many Indigenous people in Canada.

Mistaken usage of this incorrect term is still common. Until recently, the word “Amerindian” was used in Quebec history books, and was rectified at a significant cost for the province. This episode could have been avoided with an effort to review the sensitive nature of terms related to ethnic and cultural identity.

Exploring the federal government’s terminology also enlightens us about the search for an “all-encompassing” term. The following can be read on the website for Crown-Indigenous Relations and Northern Affairs Canada:

‘Indigenous peoples’ is a collective name for the original peoples of North America and their descendants. Often, ‘Aboriginal peoples’ is also used. The Canadian Constitution recognizes three groups of Aboriginal peoples: Indians (more commonly referred to as First Nations), Inuit and Métis. These are three distinct peoples with unique histories, languages, cultural practices and spiritual beliefs.

(Note: In Quebec, there are no recognized Métis groups. The only recognized groups are the Inuit and First Nations.)

While the Government of Canada still uses the term “Indian” on their websites and in certain documents, for instance referring to Indigenous lands as “Indian reserves”, or to the proof of status as the “certificate of Indian Status”, we can see they acknowledge the general movement to replace the term “Indian” with “First Nation”.

Without getting into the controversial discussions around the creation of distinct departments for Indigenous and Northern Affairs, the term “Indigenous” remains in the name of the two departments currently in place: Crown-Indigenous Relations and Northern Affairs Canada, and Indigenous Services Canada.

Although the terminology used by the Government can be a good guideline for understanding the differences between Métis, Inuit and First Nations (which all fall under the terms “Aboriginal” or “Indigenous”), the best guideline comes directly from Indigenous people.

The term “Indigenous” is increasingly replacing the term “Aboriginal”, as the former is recognized internationally, for instance with the United Nations’ Declaration on the Rights of Indigenous Peoples. However, the term Aboriginal is still used and accepted.

While I’ve sought to address the often-asked question of appropriate “all-encompassing” terms in this text, it’s important to remember that Indigenous Nations, communities, organizations, and people are distinct, and to remain sensitive to the respective name, spelling, and identity of each.

In conclusion, working with experts in Indigenous Affairs can help avoid any misunderstandings linked to terminology, and ensure a smooth, adapted, and sensitive approach that promotes mutually beneficial, trustworthy relations.

Note: Marie-Céline Charron is a member of the Naskapi Nation of Kawawachikamach.

——— Written by Marie-Céline Charron, former Associate, NATIONAL Public Relations