Aboriginal Identity & Terminology


In a field of complex and contentious issues, understanding Aboriginal identity in Canada is one of the most challenging tasks. Perceptions of Aboriginal identity can be complex.  Definitions may have legal implications that often operate in surprising ways. In this section, we go over the various ways in which Aboriginal peoples in Canada self-identify and are defined by the state—and the ways in which these two systems of definition, one based in law and legislation, the other in family tradition and community practice, are frequently in conflict.


For many people who live in traditional communities or who have deep and clear roots within them, identity can be, at least in some ways, straightforward.  They identify themselves within a particular family, clan, band, or nation and may prefer to use the traditional terms and names that locate them within those circumstances.  When introducing themselves, people may identify themselves by their genealogy, noting parents, grandparents, and more distant ancestors, by clan, or by the traditional name of their community or nation.  Those identifications, however, often have deeper dimensions and reflect a strong and spiritual connection to the land and other cultural traditions. 

Identification based on connection to land and territory can become very difficult, however, for communities who have lost their land base, as, for instance, many tribes in the US did in the 1950s under a government policy known as Termination, or might have in Canada under the Trudeau’s proposed White Paper policies.  These forms of identification may also become complex when people leave their ancestral communities or are born in cities or other locations.  In some cases, their right to claim membership may be challenged.  In the United States, tribal communities decide membership and the standards of inclusion vary widely.  In Canada, while the government decides “Indian status” (see below), community acknowledgment is also a critical factor in determining personal identity, even when legal status is denied.

It is possible that people less familiar with the specific context of their community may not recognize the traditional community name, or might know the community or nation by another name than the one the community uses:  many common names others use for Aboriginal communities and nations derive from terms used by other nations or groups (e.g., “Sioux” is commonly used for Dakota people, although it is thought to derive from a pejorative term used by Anishinaabe neighbors with whom they were historically in conflict), or used by Europeans (e.g, “Nootka” for Nuu-chah-nulth people, a name thought to derive from the European misapplication of a place term in the Nuu-chah-hulth language).

People who locate themselves in this manner may not have any affinity or use for terms such as “Indian,” or “Aboriginal,” which derive from European sources and may be regarded as the impositions of an external and hostile system of authority.  Others retain their family or clan identifiers within their communities, but use the name of a band, nation, or larger cultural group (e.g., Musqueam Indian Band, Okanagan Nation, Anishinaabe), or these other more general terms in other contexts, such as in speaking to people from other communities, or people from other non-Indigenous cultural backgrounds.  Many people also use terms such as “Aboriginal” to identify themselves as part of larger collective identity, shaped by a common history both of long ancestral traditions on the land, and of a long and similarly troubled relations with European settlement and various forms of government authority.

Among terms that refer to people more generally, such as “Aboriginal,” some have current use, some are regarded more as depreciated historical legacy terms, and all are used with varying degrees of specificity in different circumstances.  As with most things in language, their meanings are determined by use and the grounds of their application are constantly shifting.


For instance, for the last few decades the most inclusive term in general usage in Canada has been “Aboriginal,” a term that gained significant currency with its use in the repatriated Canadian Constitution of 1982.  The Constitution itself was a site of struggle for Native rights in Canada, and in the negotiations leading to the inclusion of section 35, which acknowledges Aboriginal rights, “Aboriginal” became the mutually accepted term. In the Constitution, “Aboriginal” is used to include three groups previously defined by earlier categories:  “Indian,” “Inuit,” and “Métis.”  Each of these three predecessor terms had existing functions in Canadian law.  “Indian,” for instance, is the generic term used in the Indian Act, a centerpiece of state identity regulation, since 1876.  The Indian Act and its later amendments define who is an “Indian” and who isn’t under Canadian Law.  “Status” under the Act, confirmed by registration and a government-issued status card, confers certain rights and privileges, such as exemption from taxes under certain circumstances and eligibility for certain government services, though its primary purpose throughout most of Canadian history has been to regulate and restrict those it has defined and to deny them the rights accorded to citizens, since “Indians” could not simultaneously be citizens.  In past times, status has been necessary to live on legally-defined Indian reserves.

Inuit & Métis Identity

The other categories of identity used in the Canadian constitution, “Inuit” and “Métis,” each also have a prior history.  Of all of the terms used in the constitution, “Inuit” may be the least controversial, since it is a community-based term that refers to a relatively consistently to an ethnic and linguistic group in the far north. 

“Métis,” on the other hand, is a term with a history at least as complex and contentious as “Indian.”   In the most general sense, the term “Métis” has been used since the eighteenth century to refer to people of mixed Aboriginal and European ancestry, and particularly to those people with family roots deriving from intermarriages arising from the fur trade.  This general definition glosses over the more specific histories and traditions of people of mixed ancestry whose family roots lie in specific and distinct communities with specific cultural and linguistic traditions.  The term “Métis” is popularly associated with the specific Red River communities that participated in the Northwest Rebellion of the later nineteenth century that was led by Louis Riel and Gabriel Dumont.  For some people who identify as Métis, traceable ancestry to these communities is requisite, and the wider application contentious.  For other Métis communities, the popular misconception that a traceable ancestry to the Red River is a requirement of being “authentically” Métis is problematic. The use of “Métis” as either a generic or very specific term seems to vary across community and geographic regions.  It is always worth paying attention to local context before committing oneself to a particular use in conversation.

The Constitution of 1982 recognizes Métis as an Aboriginal people, but it was not until the Powley case of 2003 in which the question of Métis rights was at stake that the Supreme Court established legal criteria for Métis identity, including: self-identification as a Métis individual, ancestral connection to an historic Métis community, and acceptance by a Métis community.  This process of legal definition is likely to continue as questions of rights are further contested.  Despite the continued development of this term, one thing is certain:  once again, in Canadian society, two sets of definition, one based in law and legislation, the other in family tradition and community practice, operate on parallel, and often conflicting paths. For more information on this, see our section on Métis identity.

“Indian,” status, and the Indian Act’s role in defining identity

Not all people who might identify as “Indian” have status.  Prior to 1961, for instance, an “Indian” who acquired an education could be forcibly “enfranchised,” becoming a Canadian citizen, but losing status as an “Indian.”  Prior to 1985, an Indian woman who married a non-Indian man also lost status. This meant that legally, she ceased to be an “Indian,” as did all of her children.  Conversely, a non-Indian woman who married a status Indian man gained status and became an “Indian,” even though she had no ancestral relation to any Indian community.  The restoration of status to Indian women and their descendants by Bill C-31 was not without controversy, since the corresponding legal increase in community membership was not accompanied by a matching increase in resources. 

In addition, throughout the 20th century, residential schools and policies of forced adoption, such as the “60s Scoop” during the 1960s, in addition to general patterns of migration to cities and intermarriage, resulted in the alienation of many people from their communities of ancestral origin.  People might well know that they had Indian ancestry, but not know their community background and not be able to demonstrate their “status.”  Identity for people in this situation is often far from simple, and that legacy of ambiguity and uncertainty has often been passed to their descendants.  And even though many Aboriginal people viewed the entire system of government-conferred status with wide skepticism as a colonial incursion into Indigenous identity, possession of a status card, ironically, is still often the ultimate arbiter in identity debates and challenges.

The complexities of this system and its many amendments and other provisions are described further on our Indian Act page.  Although the question of access to certain rights remains, the general recognition that there are “Indian” people who are both “status” and “non-status” (and both “treaty” and “non-treaty”) is now common in both community discussions and in government policy.  The spectrum of Indian identity, however, remains wide and complex, and affected by many determinants.

It is most critical to recognize that this system of the regulation of “Indian identity” by the Canadian state formed a separate system, over-layering and at many points over-writing community practice, and participating, in a more general sense, in a system designed, at times very explicitly, to supersede and undermine community traditions.  Because of its association with punitive laws and state control, the term “Indian” is now often regarded as having very negative connotations when used in any setting invoking government policy or involving interactions with people or entities outside of communities.  “Indian,” therefore, is not a term that should be used for people who would not use it to refer to themselves.  It is also worth noting, however, that at least for people in older generations, “Indian” is still a term that people use to refer to each other or themselves within community contexts, and that it can be used in these contexts with some level of affection.  And in the US, given a different social and regulatory history, “Indian” or “American Indian” is still a preferred term, though “Native American,” a term deriving from the US civil rights era, is also widely used. In the US, terms such as “Aboriginal” are not recognized at all.  More generally, though, dissatisfaction with this history and with terms that are sometimes associated with older, racist discourses (such as “Indian” and “Native), is part of what has led to the ascendancy of “Aboriginal” as a preferred term in Canada.

“First Nations” as a term

In recent decades in Canada, the term “First Nations” has gained considerable currency.  At times, it has had something of the broad usage now accorded to “Aboriginal,” and has appeared to be a more respectful successor to “Indian” (as “Native American” did in the US).  More recently, "First Nations" has shifted towards a more restrictive usage based upon identification with legally recognized reserve communities, and in that sense it refers specifically to people who are recognized members of them.  In this restricted sense, “First Nations” refers to status Indians who are members of a First Nation.  In this usage, it excludes non-status Indians, Inuit, Métis, and those who have Aboriginal ancestry, but less clear identification with a particular community.  This usage also at times encodes a political divide:  the Assembly of First Nations, for instance, though the largest and most established Aboriginal political organization in Canada, is composed of elected chiefs from First Nations, and does not directly represent any of these other groups.  The term “First Nations,” or alternatively “First Peoples,” is also used occasionally in international venues, but neither is used outside of Canada.


Finally, “Indigenous,” has gained prominence as a term to describe Aboriginal peoples in an international context through the increasing visibility of international Indigenous rights movements.  ”Indigenous” may be considered by some to be the most inclusive term of all, since it identifies peoples in similar circumstances without respect to national boundaries or local conventions, but it is, for some, a contentious term, since it defines groups primarily in relation to their colonizers. 

It is worth noting, however, that “Indigenous,” like “Aboriginal” or even “Indian,” is not itself an “Indigenous” term in the sense of deriving from an Indigenous traditional practice or language, though it is very much a term that Indigenous people have worked hard to define.  And though it is often thought to refer to people who have some form of primary or first claim to a territory, it is not solely based on that primacy.  In United Nations (UN) documents and in common usage, it tends to refer to people with long traditional occupation of a territory, but who are now under pressure as minorities or disenfranchised populations within an industrialized or industrializing nation-state.  This definition is designed to maintain a utility to a term that confirms the long and prior status of groups resisting colonial incursions, while distinguishing them from non-Aboriginal groups who are “native” to a certain area—as for instance Germans are to the Rhineland, or Han Chinese are to parts of China (China, however, does include several non-Han Indigenous groups).  “Indigenous” is, in these ways, very much a relational term, and also the result of the political organization of Indigenous groups on the international level who have sought ways to define their common purpose and advance a common cause. For more on the development of this term and its current usage, see our section on Global Actions.

Shifting Usage of Terms

You may have noticed that even in this short account, the terminology used has been to some extent necessarily circular:  one term has been used in the process of defining another, while that second term may, at some later point, contribute to the definition of the first one.  This apparent circularity is the result of at least three factors.  Firstly, the complexity that is involved in the usage of any of these terms must be taken into consideration. All of these terms may be used in different ways by different people or in different circumstances:  these terms are all defined by usage, and usage is variable.  Secondly,, like “Indigenous,” all of these terms are relational:  they are defined as much by what they are not as by what they are or appear to describe more directly.  Indigenous peoples are not, for instance, “colonizers,” even though at some prior points they may have made incursions on the territories of their Indigenous neighbors.  “Indians” are not typically “Métis,” even though they may share common ancestors.  Finally, and for those readers with more theoretical interests, these terms may be seen to operate these ways, arguably, because all processes of definition do—a common premise of many linguistic theories (e.g., Saussure; language as systemically constituted in difference rather than positive identity).  In the case of these terms, that differential relativity is only more visible through the intensity of its social operation.  These terms, in short, are not always stable, but they are the best we have.


To summarize:

1.      Many Indigenous people prefer to identify themselves by specific local terms based on family and community location and traditional names.  They may or may not be supportive of more general terms such as “Aboriginal,” “Indigenous,” or “Indian” that arise out of European or international legal frameworks, and group them in with other groups who they may not consider related.

2.      “Aboriginal” is the least contentious and most inclusive general term currently used in Canada.  In most conversations, it is preferable to “Indian” or “Native.”  In many contexts, the use of “Indian,” may be viewed as offensive.

3.      “First Nations” is a widely accepted term and may be used sometimes generally, but is increasingly used specifically for First Nations—reserve communities and the people living in them or closely associated with them.  It is sometimes used more generally as a contemporary replacement for “Indian,” but may not always be taken to apply to non-status Indians.  Métis people often view “First Nations” as an exclusive designation that does not include them, and some Inuit people may feel the same way.

4.      “Métis” may sometimes be used to describe any person of mixed European and Indian ancestry.  That definition is, however, frequently challenged by Métis people who trace their own lineage to particular historic Métis communities. The broader usage to describe general mixed ancestry is not supported by current Canadian case law.

In thinking through these complexities and the changing status of many of these terms, it is often worth retaining a historical perspective:  noted above is the reality, for instance, that the term “First Nations” is now considered exclusionary or prejudicial in some contexts by some Inuit, Métis, and non-status Indians, and yet buildings, organizations, and programs such as the UBC First Nations Studies Program that has developed this site, still use this term, even when their inclusion is wider.  In these contexts, names often simply reflect the conventions in operation when the naming was done, and may best be regarded as historical legacies:  since the terminology can change rapidly, changing the name of a building or established program often may only cause confusion or weaken its recognized identity without much functional gain.  Similarly, documents written at an earlier point may use terms, such as “Indian,” in ways that would not be popular now, but those documents may still be highly valued for their information, analysis, or the viewpoint they present.  Recognizing that terms have histories is a way to resolve these apparent conflicts and come to a useful understanding of language in context.

In common usage and in conversation, however, attention to current practice is an important part of being clearly understood and avoiding misunderstandings. Beyond the basics presented here, experience may be the best guide in your use of these terms. It is a matter of time and experience to become more comfortable with the usage of these terms and concepts.  It is important to recognize the potential these words may hold— but it is also important and very possible to understand these terms well enough to feel confident in using them and creating dialogue.  By understanding how identity is created and defined, one begins to see the implications of these criteria in policy, legislation, and mainstream conceptions, and their impacts on the day-to-day experiences of Aboriginal peoples.

By Dr. Linc Kesler

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