Briefing Note on Terminology
Concept Note – Terminology Related to Indigenous Peoples
By Celeste McKay Consulting ©2015
April 2015

This briefing notes sets out terminology related to the original peoples of the land and their descendants, commonly referred to as “Aboriginal Peoples” or “Indigenous Peoples,” and provides background on how these terms came to be and the distinctions in meaning between the terms.

Terminology and Identity
“Aboriginal.” “Native.” “Indigenous.” Many terms are used to describe the original peoples of this land and their descendents. The choice of words is important. All Indigenous Nations have words in their own languages that they use to define themselves. These names are expressions of pride and a symbol of the continued resilience of Indigenous identity.  For example, Métis in Manitoba use the term “Le mechif ” in Western Canada.  In contrast, terms imposed by others, by the Canadian government and by settler society have often had the intent or the effect of disparaging Indigenous peoples or restricting their rights and status.  Thus, the question, “What is in a name, or a term” is an important one in this context. 

Aboriginal or Indigenous? The terms “Aboriginal” and “Indigenous” are both collective terms encompassing all the original peoples of the land in Canada. First Nations, Métis and Inuit (see below) are all Aboriginal or Indigenous peoples.

 “Aboriginal” is a term most commonly used in Canada, although it is seldom used in other countries. The term “Aboriginal” came into use in the 1980’s when the government of Canada selected it as the term to use to codify the rights of First Nations 1, Métis and Inuit under section 35 of the Constitution Act of Canada.  Some organizations and peoples today prefer to use this term for clarity in relation to the law and government policies. At the same time, the close association with the government and Canadian law and the history of the term as developed by government, leads others to rely on different terms, such as “Indigenous.”   

“Indigenous” is the term most often used around the world and it’s the term used in international human rights instruments such as United Nations Declaration on the Rights of Indigenous Peoples. In meaning, the term is fully interchangeable with “Aboriginal.” One advantage of the term “Indigenous” is that it has no negative connotations or associations. The term does have positive associations with self-determination and human rights more generally and is parallel to other positive terms such as “Indigeniety” which express continued pride and resilience of culture and identity. For these reasons “Indigenous” is increasingly preferred in Canada.

The term “Native,” once commonly used as a general term to refer to the Indigenous peoples of Canada, is used less and less often. It entered into common use through the Indigenous movement as an expression of pride and self-determination in the 1960’s and 1970’s.  The term has acquired negative associations for some people because it has so often been used in public discourse in hostile remarks, such as “the Natives.”  However, in the United States, the term “Native American” is still the mostly commonly used term.

Another respectful collective term that is sometimes used is “First Peoples.” There is risk of confusion between “First Peoples” and “First Nations” which have distinct meanings (see below).

People or peoples: The word “people” is ambiguous. The everyday use of the word refers to any group of more than one individual, like “the people in the office.” The word “people” may also refer to a single Nation or society, as in the Dakota people or the Métis people. When talking about more than one Indigenous Nation, as in the Indigenous Nations of Manitoba, the proper term is “peoples.” Referring to multiple nations not as “peoples” but as “people” denies their legal and cultural identity as nations. It’s an easy mistake to make, but it’s potentially very sensitive because governments sometimes deliberately refer to multiple nations as “people” rather than “peoples” as a way to deny or denigrate their legal status. For clarity, it’s helpful to say “Indigenous persons or Indigenous women and men” when talking about individuals. It’s correct to say “an Indigenous people” when speaking of a single nation, and “Indigenous peoples” when talking about more than one nation.

Capitalization: There is no hard and fast rule about whether or not to capitalize words like “Indigenous” or “Aboriginal.” The argument for capitalization is that the terms, although encompassing a broad range of diverse cultures and nations, should still be treated as comparable to other words referring to nations and cultures such as Canadian and European. 

Pluralization:  The pluralisation of a term, such as “Aboriginals” or “Natives” often has a condescending implication, connoting that the speaker generalizes all Indigenous peoples in one way.  It infers that the speaker is talking about multiple individuals instead of the more respectful way of speaking about distinct collectivities or specific cultures or nations.  Thus, this terminology should be avoided. 

First Nations: This term encompasses a wide diversity of Indigenous nations or societies across Canada but specifically does not include Inuit and Métis peoples. The term has been adopted as a replacement for the term “Indian” which is both historically inaccurate and offensive to many. One distinction between First Nations as a group and Inuit and Métis peoples is that the provisions of the federal Indian Act apply specifically to First Nations. First Nations may have reserves or “status” under the Indian Act (see below). Because the term “First Nations” excludes Inuit and Métis peoples it is not interchangeable with “Indigenous” or “Aboriginal.”

Métis: This refers to the distinct society that emerged through the union of Indigenous and non-Indigenous cultures during the period of European expansion in Western Canada. Broader use of the term “Métis” – in reference simply to mixed heritage and not to the distinct culture of the Métis people – may be seen as disrespectful. The Métis National Council has adopted the following definition:

“Métis” means a person who self-identifies as Métis, is distinct from other Aboriginal peoples, is of historic Métis Nation Ancestry and who is accepted by the Métis Nation.”

Similarly, the Supreme Court of Canada has applied the term “Métis” as identifiable on the basis of three components:  self-identification as a community, a connection to the historic Métis community and community acceptance.

Inuit: This term refers to the common cultural and linguistic (Inuktitut) identity of distinct groups of Indigenous peoples whose traditional territories are in the Arctic regions of Canada, Alaska and Greenland.

Status: The term “status” or “status Indian” is used to describe those First Nations individuals recognized to be entitled to specific rights and benefits set out in the federal Indian Act, including residence on a First Nations reserve. The status provisions of the Indian Act impose a model of First Nations identity and citizenship foreign to First Nations. This included the historic denial of status to women who married outside their community. Challenges to the Indian Act led by First Nations women have resulted in two major revisions to the status provisions, each resulting in status being restored to large numbers of First Nations women and men. The work of addressing this historic discrimination against First Nations women under the Act is ongoing with tens of thousands of individual still seeking recognition of their status.  The term “status” is not synonymous with First Nations identity and should be used carefully, in respect to the complex and still contentious legal, political, economic and social issues surrounding the term. Many individuals without status identify as First Nations and are accepted as such by their communities. However, many people without status also often describe feeling excluded as a consequence of the denial of their status.

General Guidelines
As a general principle, respectful use of terminology means:

  • Using the terms that Indigenous peoples chose to use themselves;
  • Acknowledging the diversity of Indigenous cultures and societies by using the most specific term appropriate to the circumstances (for example, not using a general term like Indigenous when you are referring specifically if you are actually referring to a specific Indigenous people like the Métis or Cree);
  • Avoiding the use of the terms “Aboriginals” or “Natives”; and
  • Demonstrating knowledge of the distinct meanings by avoiding erroneous phrases like “Aboriginal and Métis peoples,” which tells the person you are conversing with that you do not understand that “Aboriginal” refers to “First Nations, Inuit and Métis peoples.”

1 As set out in greater detail above, the term “Indian” was used in section 35, rather than the term “First Nations.”