Indigenous Canada Pt. 1: The Basics

Today, we will start a new blog series. One that will be just as diverse and wide-ranging as its topic: Canada’s Indigenous people. Simply because it would be like repeating colonial history all over again if we wouldn’t pay heed to them during our travels and on our blog. Yes, this might sound a liiiiittle dramatic to some of you but it’s a serious issue to many others and one we can’t and won’t ignore.

So, to break a huge issue down to comprehensible pieces, we will start with some key data.


Some Basics:


  • the National Household Survey (NHS) showed that 1,400,685 people identified as “indigenous” in 2011, representing 4.3% of the total Canadian population
  • it is believed that the number of Indigenous people shrank by more than half after the first European contact, mainly due to unknown diseases; further decimation followed
  • the 2011 Census of Population recorded over 60 distinct Aboriginal languages, belonging to very different language families – an indication of the diversity of Aboriginal languages in Canada. (This number does not include dialects!)
  • the terms “Indian” and “Eskimo” are NOT used anymore, they are considered highly unappropriate –> it’s generally OK to use “Aboriginal” or “Indigenous” People as an umbrella term

Colonial History:

Yeih, let’s celebrate Canada Day! Let’s just forget that there were people before we arrived!

This widespread attitude often makes us angry. Some people seem to forget Colonial History and that it was the European greed for land, resources and power that led to the death and suffering of many. The aftermath of Colonialism is huge and still obvious today – not only in North America. Again, we will try to stick to the basics and only give a limited overview.

lets-celebrate-columbus-day-by-walking-into-someones-house-and-telling-them-we-live-there-nowThe relationship between Indigenous groups and European settlers is not easily described since it varied greatly in different areas and over the years. Sometimes, the groups were ‘enemies’ and fought bloody wars, then, they were ‘business partners’ during the fur trading years and even important ‘allies’, for instance during the Seven Years War.

The relationship, however, steadily shifted to the disadvantage of the Indigenous population which was considered more and more inferior to the ‘new’ Canadians. Efforts were made to “civilize” them by teaching them other religions, languages, cultural values. In 1857, the British administration introduced the Gradual Civilization Act. This legislation offered 50 acres of land and monetary inducements to (literate and debt-free) indigenous people IF they abandoned their traditional lifestyle and adopted a “civilized” life. This dangerous and highly oppressive development continued until it finally climaxed in:


The “INDIAN ACT” of 1876

The odd thing about this act is the fact that it is still in force today. Many, many amendments were made but it is still out there – which really surprised us during our research.

In a nutshell, the act determines the (legal) differences between non-native and Indigenous Canadians. With its implementation, all Indigenous People became “wards of the state” which also meant that they were seen unfit to raise their own children. In the following years, many families were torn apart with the opening of so called ‘residential schools’ (we will tell you more about this sad chapter in Canadian history in the next post).

Today, it still defines a legal category for the Indigenous People of Canada: In fact, they even get their own status card in addition to the regular Canadian passport. And it’s actually important to get this! You need to have ‘registered Indian status’ in order to claim specific rights, e.g. for hunting or building licences. If you are a ‘not-registered Indian’, you can’t claim these specific rights!




The modern Indian Act also divides all Indigenous People into three legal groups:

  1. First Nations (former “Indians”)
  2. Métis 
  3. Inuit (former “Eskimos”)

Confused? This short video will help:


Please keep in mind that this division is made up by WHITE Canadians and that there are faaaaaaar more subgroups to these three categories, e.g. more than 630 different ‘first nation’ clans! So yeah, we agree with the speaker of this video and encourage you to simply ASK when you meet Indigenous People and want to know which clan they identify with. They might say Haida, Qalipu or Kwakwaka’wakw. And if they reply “Canadian” and that surprises you because they look like they have an indigenous background, make sure you understand the definition of “identity” because of course, Indigenous people – like everyone else – have the right to define their own identity! That way, you avoid misunderstandings…

Many people argue that the Indian Act is still necessary and actually important to protect the rights of the Indigenous population. We somewhat agree but also deeply understand why many Indigenous People oppose that stance: This way of categorization and definition is – again – a typical Western way of seeing the world: Forcing people to register, issuing special IDs, putting everything in neat, tidy, legal categories… Just to protect a variety of cultures which are (more often than not) based on completely different mindsets? Very Western indeed.

***** Part 2 about “Residential Schools” will follow soon *****



One thought on “Indigenous Canada Pt. 1: The Basics

  1. Pingback: High on Quadrenalin | Feeding Fernweh

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