First Nations, Inuit and Métis historical terminology
Use this terminology guide to find terms used in historical documents.
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- National Indian Residential School Crisis Line 1-866-925-4419
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This guide uses the term Indian as a legal term throughout. It is used in legislation that is in force today.
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A collective name for the original peoples of North America and their descendants. Section 35(2) of the Constitution Act, 1982 recognizes three distinct groups of Aboriginal peoples. “In this Act, ‘aboriginal peoples of Canada’ includes the Indian, Inuit and Métis peoples of Canada.” These are separate groups. Each has a unique and diverse heritage, language, cultural practices and spiritual beliefs. Today, people mostly use the term “Aboriginal” in a legal context. It's no longer considered appropriate when referring to people. For more information, see Indigenous.
Aboriginal and Treaty Rights
Rights that some Indigenous peoples of Canada hold as a result of their ancestors’ long-standing use and occupancy of the land. Examples include hunting, trapping and fishing rights on ancestral lands. Aboriginal rights vary from nation to nation. They are based on the customs, traditions, treaties and agreements which shape their cultures.
A legal term that recognizes Aboriginal interest in land. Aboriginal Title is based on the long-standing use and occupancy of land by Aboriginal peoples as the descendants of the original inhabitants of Canada.
A term used in the United States to describe the descendants of the original peoples of North America. Synonyms: North American Indian, Native American, Amerindian. These terms are not acceptable terminology in Canada.
Outdated term used most commonly in the United States to refer to First Nations peoples.
A term used by Indigenous peoples since the late 1960s. It describes their right to ownership over, and compensation for, lands they occupied. The Government of Canada recognized two broad classes of First Nation land claims—comprehensive and specific.
Comprehensive Land Claims Policy
Comprehensive claims are essentially the negotiation of new treaties. Wide in scope, these claims are based on the assessment that there may be continuing Indigenous rights to lands and natural resources.
Specific Claims Policy
Specific claims deal with precise grievances regarding the fulfillment of existing treaties and relating to the administration of lands and assets under the Indian Act. See Indian Act.
Department of Indian Affairs and Northern Development (DIAND)
DIAND was the federal department responsible for the administration of the Indian Act and managing the Government of Canada’s legal and financial responsibilities towards First Nations, as well as maintaining programs and policies relating to Indigenous Peoples in Canada. Additionally, DIAND was responsible for managing Northern Affairs, territorial governments and northern resources and science.
The department has previously been known as:
- Indian Affairs Branch within the Secretary of State of Canada (1868)
- Indian Affairs Branch within the Secretary of State of for the Provinces (1869)
- Indian Affairs Branch within the Department of the Interior (1873)
- Department of Indian Affairs (1880)
- Indian Affairs Branch within the Department of Mines and Resources (1936)
- Indian Affairs Branch within with the Department of Citizenship and Immigration (1950)
- Indian Affairs Branch within Department of Northern Affairs and National Resources (1965)
- Department of Indian Affairs and Northern Development (1966)
- Department of Crown-Indigenous Relations and Northern Affairs (2019)
- Department of Indigenous Services (2019)
The British established the Indian Department in 1755 to oversee relations between the British Empire and Indigenous peoples and counter French influence during the Seven Years War (French and Indian War). It is the direct predecessor of the Department of Indian Affairs and Northern Development.
A process that meant the government no longer considered a person as Indian under the Indian Act. The names of enfranchised individuals were removed from their band lists. Most enfranchisements happened upon request, but more reasons could include:
- getting a job off the reserve
- being away from the reserve too long
- getting a university education
- marrying a person without Indian Status
A legal term for a First Nation person who lost their Indian Status and Band membership, and became a British (and later Canadian) subject. They amended to the Indian Act in 1985 and abolished this process.
An honour or title identifying someone who is important. First Nations, Métis and Inuit elders are acknowledged by their respective communities as an ‘Elder’ through a lifetime of learned teachings and earned respect. Many communities have defined protocol and process for becoming an Elder. Gender and age are not factors in determining who is an Elder.
Knowledge keepers are those people who may not be considered an Elder but carry traditional knowledge and expertise in different spiritual and cultural areas.
The knowledge, study or anthropological interpretation of history. This especially applies to histories of oral societies, who produce few written records. This process compares and interprets many different sources of information.
Federal Indian Day School (1860s-1990s)
The Canadian government and Christian churches created and ran Indian day schools. Unlike residential schools, students stayed in their communities and went home at night. They started to transfer control of these schools to the territories and provinces in the late 1960s.
Federal Interlocutor for Métis and Non-Status Indians
The Minister of Crown-Indigenous Relations and Northern Affairs serves in this role for Métis and Non-Status Indians. The Federal Interlocutor helps to find practical ways to improve federal programs and services for Métis, Non-Status Indians and urban Aboriginal people.
Former residential schools converted into residences or hostels. Indigenous youth lived in them while attending provincial or territory run day schools.
A collective term used to describe the original peoples and their descendants.
According to Section 35(2) of the Constitution Act, 1982 “‘aboriginal peoples of Canada’ includes the Indian [First Nation], Inuit and Métis peoples of Canada.” “Indian” is also a historical term used to describe the hundreds of distinct nations of Indigenous Peoples throughout North, Central and South America and the Caribbean. It traces back to Christopher Columbus in the fifteenth and sixteenth centuries during his expeditions to find Asia. Widely used by explorers and missionaries, the term was later adopted by the Government of Canada and incorporated into the Indian Act, 1876. It is often used in the context of historical government departments, documents, policies and laws.
Today, the term “Indian” is used mostly in a legal sense. Most other uses are discouraged and considered offensive.
Canadian federal legislation, first passed in 1876, and amended several times since. It sets out specific federal government obligations and regulates the management of Indian reserve lands, Indian moneys and other resources. Among its many provisions, the Indian Act currently requires the Minister of Indigenous Services to manage certain moneys belonging to First Nations and Indian lands and to approve or disallow First Nations by-laws.
Indian agents were the federal government’s officers on First Nation reserves. They were responsible for implementing Department of Indian Affairs policies and informing the central office of reserve activities. For example, Agents directed farming activities, managed Band governance, distributed supplies and finances, as well as controlled movement on and off the reserve. The position was phased-out in the 1960s as First Nations gained more power over their own affairs.
The Indian Agents, Superintendents, Deputy Superintendents General and Superintendents General of Indian Affairs were part of an invasive, administrative federal structure which controlled all aspects of the lives of First Nations people and through which every effort was made to eradicate their culture, language, governance structures and spirit.
The next level up from Indian Agent. In charge of a region. They were either responsible for a superintendency, an agency, or a district. They informed the central office of regional activities and implemented government policies in their regional units.
Deputy Superintendent General
Second in command of the Department of Indian Affairs. The Office of Deputy Superintendent General was created in 1862, thus providing Indian Affairs with a permanent head (with the status of a deputy minister). Until 1902, the person holding that post was the Deputy Minister of the Interior. The position disappeared in 1936, with the reduction of the Department of Indian Affairs to Branch status within the Department of Mines and Resources. At that time, the permanent head took on the title of Director, Indian Affairs Branch.
Head of the Department of Indian Affairs. The office of Superintendent General of Indian Affairs was created in 1868, before the Department of Indian Affairs was created by statute in 1880. Starting in 1868 to the present day, the Minister responsible for Indian Affairs carries the title Superintendent General of Indian Affairs (SGIA). The Minister of Indigenous Services Canada currently carries the title of Superintendent General of Indian Affairs. The position of SGIA was held by various Ministers ex officio over time, for the longest period by the Minister of Interior. The office of Superintendent General of Indian Affairs was abolished in 1936 when the Department of Indian Affairs was reduced to Branch status within the Department of Mines and Resources.
A centralized record of all persons registered as Indians in Canada under the Indian Act established in 1951. Indigenous Services Canada maintains the Indian Register and Band Lists.
A term referring to the First Peoples, including First Nations, Inuit and Métis Nation. It refers to the original inhabitants of a territory. Here, the term refers to people classified as Indigenous under international law. It is most appropriate to refer to Indigenous peoples by the proper names of their communities or nations.
Schools established in the 1840s aimed to transform Indigenous societies. They were meant to both educate students and to teach them a trade but with little success.
A term that refers to a person of Indigenous ancestry. It refers to First Nations, Inuit, or Métis Nation.
Oral history refers to two related but distinct concepts. First, it's a research method to gather information about the past through interviews. This approach sees interviews themselves as historical texts. The second concept refers to the historical record of a distinct group of people. This record is often memorized, and passed down unchanged from generation to generation. It contains vital information about people, places, events, and cultural traditions. Oral histories are more accurate for recording information over the long term.
The verbal transmission of a people’s cultural heritage, histories, stories and accounts passed on from generation to generation through narratives, songs, chants, music, literature and other forms. Most oral traditions are a closed practice. What this means is that only certain individuals are permitted to share certain aspects of it, and during certain periods of the year. For example, in some communities, creation stories can only be shared by Knowledge Keepers under specific circumstances. Practices vary from nation to nation and community to community. There are established protocols and practices in place to respect the sanctity of this information.
Reconciliation is an attempt to find a path forward for both Indigenous and non-Indigenous peoples. Reconciliation must begin with an understanding of shared truths regarding our colonial past and present as we work towards a better future. It is not a single act, but rather an ongoing process based on the principles of mutual respect, honesty, and good will.
“Reconciliation is about establishing and maintaining a mutually respectful relationship between Indigenous and non-Indigenous peoples in this country. In order for that to happen, there has to be awareness of the past, an acknowledgement of the harm that has been inflicted, atonement for the causes, and action to change behaviour.”
- The Truth and Reconciliation Commission
A network of institutions that included:
- industrial schools
- cottage schools
- boarding schools
- student residences
The colonial administrations (later the federal government) and Christian churches developed a system of residential schools in Canada from the 1830s onward. They were government-funded and run by churches. They schools were set up to assimilate Indigenous peoples into Euro-Canadian culture. They eliminated parental and community involvement in the education and socialization of Indigenous children. These schools caused irreparable harm to Indigenous peoples and communities that persists to this day. The last Indian residential school closed in 1996.
Royal Commission on Aboriginal Peoples (RCAP)
After the conflict at Kanesetake in 1990 (previously know as the Oka Crisis), the federal government established the Royal Commission on Aboriginal Peoples. The commission’s report was a survey of relations between Indigenous and non-Indigenous peoples in Canada. Its final report in 1996 made 440 recommendations.
Rupert’s Land or Rupertsland
In 1670, the Hudson’s Bay Company was granted a charter by Charles II of England establishing a trading monopoly over territory consisting of the Hudson Bay drainage basin. This represents the land with rivers that drain into Hudson’s Bay including Manitoba, parts of Ontario, Quebec, Saskatchewan, Alberta, Minnesota, North Dakota, and parts of Nunavut and the Northwest Territories.
A term originally conceived and used by Indigenous peoples and governments since the late 1970s to describe Indigenous rights to govern their own affairs. The Department of Indian Affairs and Northern Development, at that time, first adopted the term when developing the Community-Based Self-Government Policy of 1984. In 1995, the DIAND adopted the Inherent Rights policy that confirmed that Government of Canada recognizes the inherent right of self-government as an existing Aboriginal right under section 35 of the Constitution Act, 1982. As a result, an Indigenous government is designed, established and administered by Indigenous peoples under the Canadian Constitution through a process of negotiation with Canada and, where applicable, the provincial governments.
Indigenous peoples' right to self-determination, including the right to freely pursue their own economic, political, social, and cultural development, free, according to the principles of non-interference.
This term goes back to the journals of explorers and missionaries. It has connotations of “violent unstructured peoples” with little or no social organization. It considered certain peoples as less refined than Europeans and not Christian. Settlers generally viewed First Peoples to be uncivilized in comparison to themselves.
Urban Indigenous person
Indigenous peoples who live in urban areas.
A Band is an administrative entity created by the Indian Act. A Band includes members of a First Nation or group for whom lands have been set apart, and for whom money is held by the Crown. Many Bands prefer to be called First Nations. Some have changed their names to reflect this. For example, the Batchewana Band is now called the Batchewana First Nation.
The leader of a local Band and Band Council. Different communities elect their Chiefs in different ways. It could be by eligible voters in the community or members of the Band living off-reserve; by councillors according to the regulations of the Indian Act or according to Band custom.
The governing or administrative body of a Band, elected according to Band custom or procedures specified in the Indian Act. It usually consists of a chief and councillors.
A list of the members of a particular Band. The list is controlled by the Band and maintained by the federal government.
When a person is recognized as, or entitled to be, part of a Band and whose name appears on an approved Band or First Nation list of members.
Bill C-31, 1985
A Bill that amended the Indian Act by changing the “Indian” registration system so that entitlement to status was no longer based on gender, and to restore the status of women who had lost it through marriage to non-Indian Status men. However, the amendments resulted in a complicated array of categories of Indians and restrictions on status which was further challenged. See Bill C-3, 2010, and Indian Act, 1876.
Bill C-3, 2010
This bill amends provisions of the Indian Act found to be unconstitutional in the case of McIvor vs. Canada. Previously if status women married anyone other than a man with Indian status, she lost her status. Bill C-3 intended to ensure that eligible grandchildren of women who lost status would become entitled to registration (Indian status).
British North America Act, 1867
Section 91(24) of the British North America Act, 1867 states that legislative authority for “Indians and Lands Reserved for the Indians” rests with the federal government.
A legal action provided for in the Indian Act. An Indian woman who married anyone other than a man with Indian status lost her right to annuities, or any other regular cash payments. Instead, she accepted a lump-sum payment, ending her financial connections to a Band. See Bill C-31, 1985 and Bill C-3, 2010.
Constitution Act, 1982
Section 35 of the repatriated Constitution Act, 1982 states the following:
- The existing aboriginal and treaty rights of the aboriginal peoples of Canada are hereby recognized and affirmed.
- In this Act, “aboriginal peoples of Canada” includes the Indian, Inuit and Métis peoples of Canada.
- For greater certainty, in subsection (1) “treaty rights” includes rights that now exist by way of land claims agreements or may be so acquired. (4) Notwithstanding any other provision of this Act, the aboriginal and treaty rights referred to in subsection (1) are guaranteed equally to male and female persons.vii
A term that came into common usage in the 1970s to replace the word “Indian,” which some people find offensive. The term refers to the Status, non-Status and Treaty Indians in Canada.
Some First Nations have replaced the words “Band” and “Reserve” in the name of their community with the term “First Nation”.
Interest Distribution Pay List(s)
These records were created to document periodic payments (“distributions”) to Band members of money held in a Band’s Trust Fund Account. As Band’s generated money from the sale or lease of collectively-held reserve resources (e.g., timber sales, land surrenders), this money was deposited in Trust Fund Accounts, and this money generated interest. Under the terms of the Indian Act, some of this interest money could be made available to Band members by means of periodic distributions of cash. Paylists were generated to document such “interest distribution” payments.
A tract of land set apart for the use and benefit of an Indian Band or First Nation. The Crown still holds its legal title. Some Bands or First Nations have more than one reserve.
A term used to describe First Nations living on a reserve
A term used to describe Status First Nations people who live off their reserve. It may also refer to services or funding that are not part of the reserve or territory but relate to First Nations.
Land set aside by the U.S. government for the use and occupation of a group of Native Americans. The term does not apply in Canada.
Status Indian (Registered Indian)
The legal standing of a person who is registered under the Indian Act and who is included on the Indian Register. Status Indians according to the Indian Act, which defines an Indian as “a person who is entitled to be registered as an Indian.” Status Indians are entitled to certain rights and benefits under the law.
A person who identifies as a member of a First Nation or Band but is not entitled, for various reasons, to registration under the Indian Act of the federal government.
Agreements and accords made between the Crown and Indigenous peoples in what is now Canada, that establish and define specific rights, benefits and obligations of treaty signatories, solidified relations between the two parties or addressed issues related to land title and usage, and address outstanding legal rights and title over unsurrendered lands.
Treaty Annuity Pay List(s)
A list created to record the names of members (generally the heads of families) of a Band signatory to a treaty that has a clause for the the payments of an annuity of money. From 1893, to the creation of the Indian Register of 1951, pay lists included the names of other members of a Band. However, this was not a common practice, and was used in cases where individuals from another Band residing on the reserve might have already received an annuity. The government used these lists as Band membership lists when the Indian Registrar was established in 1951. Treaty Paylists continue to be used to this day.
A Status Indian who is recognized by or belongs to a First Nation that signed a treaty with the Crown.
Treaty rights are rights set out in either a historic or modern treaty agreement and are recognized and affirmed by Section 35 of the Constitution Act, 1982. Specific rights, benefits and obligations for the signatories that vary from treaty to treaty. Treaties and treaty rights also vary depending on the time and circumstances in which they were negotiated.
A group of Native Americans sharing a common language and culture. The term is frequently used in the United States but only rarely in Canada. An example of this is the Kainai Tribe in Alberta.
A regional group made up of members of several Bands or First Nations and representing their respective interests. The Council administers funds or delivers common services to the group such as health, educational, social, technical or financial services. Membership in a Tribal Council tends to be organized around geographic, political, or cultural and linguistic lines.
Manitoba Act, 1870
A statute that established Manitoba as Canada's fifth province. The Act came after months of tension between Canadian and Métis Provisional Governments in a conflict that has come to be known as the Red River Resistance. It protected specific rights of residents in Red River. The Act was given constitutional status in the British North America Act, 1871.
There are two existing definitions of Métis, one self-defined and one (largely) legal. The Métis are a post-contact Indigenous community that is connected to the fur trade in the area around Red River. This community mostly specialized in the bison hunt and associated industries.
With respect to the legal system, someone who identifies as "Métis Nation", is someone who:
- self-identifies as Métis
- is distinct from First Nation and Inuit
- is of historic Métis Nation ancestry and accepted by a Métis community
The Métis are one of three recognized Aboriginal peoples in Canada according to Section 35(2) of the Constitution Act, 1982.
Historically, the name is synonymous with Country Born, Mixed Blood and Half-Breed.
The term metis (without an accent on the e and often a small “m”) means one who is of combined First Nation and European descent. This term comes from the French word, metisse, which means “mixed.” These individuals are not necessarily part of the Métis Nation.
A historical term used that was used widely by most English speaking people in Canada during the late nineteenth and early twentieth centries. The federal government also previously used the term to refer to the English-speaking Métis, as opposed to the term “Métis” was used to refer to the French-speaking Métis.
The terms "Métis" and "Half-Breed" are sometimes used synonymously in historical documents to refer to a collectivity of people in western Canada with interracial ancestry. These peoples refer to themselves as the Métis Nation. They were enumerated by federal Commissions with the authority to issue them land or money scrip in exchange for their Indian (Aboriginal) title to their lands.
Historically, archival records don’t' use the terms "Métis" or "Métis Nation".
The term Half Breed is offensive.
A group of Métis people who live in, or who have come from, the same geographic area. A community may include more than one settlement, town or village in an area.
The Supreme Court of Canada, in the 2003 case of R. vs. Powley, affirms and recognizes that Section 35 of the Constitution Act, 1982 “is a substantive promise to the Métis that recognizes their distinct existence and protects their existing Aboriginal rights.”
A Métis settlements are small villages established by the Métis, such as Batoche, Saskatchewan. More formally, the term refers to the eight Alberta Métis settlements. These settlements are the only recognized Métis Nation land base in Canada.
Original White Settler(s)
A historical term applied to the residents of the Province of Manitoba who came into the Red River Settlement between 1813 and 1835 under Lord Selkirk. It also applied to the children of these residents. While related, it is distinct from the modern concept of “Settlers.” See also: Scrip.
Red River (Settlement)
A settlement area on the Red and Assiniboine Rivers known today as Manitoba and North Dakota. First Nations and Métis inhabit the area. In 1811, the Hudson’s Bay Company granted Selkirk some 300,000 km2 of the land it had claimed in the Winnipeg River Basin, which he called Assiniboia. The Métis Nation consider Red River their home. In some records, it is also called the Red River Colony, or the Selkirk Settlement.
Scrip was a coupon or an entitlement to land or money. In 1870, the Canadian government developed a system of scrip, referred to as Métis scrip.
At various times, the government issued scrip to:
- Métis residents (called Half-Breed Scrip in the records of the Department of the Interior)
- Original White Settlers
- members of the militia and the North-West Mounted Police.
A term to describe one of eleven Half-breed Scrip Commissions. Each dealt with the claims of Métis people who, were living in territory on or before July 15, 1870, that had since been transferred to the federal government. Military Scrip: See Scrip.
A highly respected individual within the Métis Nation. People recognize them for their knowledge, values and experience. Senators share their traditions and ways of life with members of their communities and the general public. This is not the same as the Senators in the Federal Senate.
The Distant Early Warning Line, or DEW Line, was a series of radar stations across the Arctic, from the United States (Alaska), Canada, Greenland to Iceland. The American Government built the DEW line because they thought they could detect enemy bombers coming over the North Pole that could threaten North American cities.
In 1941 the federal government adopted an identification system by issuing discs as a way to keep track of every Inuk. This allowed government officials to provide healthcare, such as the Family Allowance Program and education and to document hunting and trapping. The discs were roughly the size of a quarter. The discs contained either the letter “E” for “Eastern Arctic” or “W” for “Western Arctic.” These letters were followed by a number representing one of the 12 geographic locations in the Arctic. The last portion of these numbers was a personal identification number.
A term that the northern-most Indigenous peoples used to refer to themselves. It means “The people.” It refers to all Indigenous peoples living in the arctic regions. In Canada, it refers to those living in communities across the Inuvialuit Settlement Region (Northwest Territories), Nunavut, Nunavik (Northern Quebec), and Nunatsiavut (Northern Labrador) land claim regions. Inuit Nunangat is their homeland.
The singular form of the term “Inuit.”
Inuit Naming Practices
Before the first half of the 20th century, Inuit did not use last names. Traditionally, Inuit naming was genderless and children were/are often named after significant or recently deceased family members, regardless of gender or namesake. Until the 1970s there were no surnames.
A counter-approach by Inuit to maintain their culture and language. During the 19th and 20th centuries, missionaries and other southerners living and working in the Canadian North found Inuit naming traditions confusing. They claimed that Inuit names were difficult to pronounce and spell. Missionaries told Inuit to adopt Christian names. Often biblical names were given. This new system introduced gender-specific, Euro-Christian names to Inuit communities.
Many Inuit were unable to pronounce the biblical names enforced by missionaries and the church. Instead, they “Inuktized” their Christian names by changing them, for example, Mary to Miali and Abel to Aipilli.
In the late 1960s, the federal government, along with the Northwest Territories Council, introduced Project Surname. The purpose of the project was to replace the Disc Number system. Between 1968 to 1971, every Inuk in the Northwest Territories, Nunavut and Nunavik (northern Quebec) was required to adopt a surname for identification purposes.
Southern interventions to Inuit Nunangat were connected to the increased military presence in the North during the Cold War. The most well-known relocations took place in the High Arctic, but also happened in other areas. These relocations were accomplished through a mixture of coercion and force with the goal of establishing a human presence in the North. The Government depended upon the cooperation and assistance of Inuit to carry out Canadian claims to sovereignty. From 1953 to 1955, the Royal Canadian Mounted Police moved 92 Inuit from Inukjuak (Port Harrison) in Northern Quebec, and Mittimatalik (Pond Inlet), in what is now Nunavut. The goal was to settle these individuals in Grise Fiord (Autjuittuq) and Resolute Bay (Qausuittuq) in the High Arctic. The government assured the Inuit there would be plentiful wildlife. As it turned out, living conditions were much harsher and different than what they were used to.