First Nations is a term to describe the Indigenous people that were the original inhabitants of the land that is now Canada. First Nations does not include the Indigenous people who are Métis or Inuit. The First Nations people are sometimes referred to as Aboriginal people.
“First Nations” should be used only as a general term, as members are more likely to define themselves as specific nations or communities within nations.
Symbolically, the term equates the First Nations with the French and the British as “first among equals” as the founding nations of Canada.
There were six main geographical groups among the early First Nations:
- Woodland First Nations
- Iroquoian First Nations
- Plains First Nations
- Plateau First Nations
- Pacific Coast First Nations
- First Nations of the Mackenzie and Yukon River Basins
History of the First Nations
The First Nations were the first to encounter European contact, settlement, and trade.
The First Nations occupied North America for thousands of years before European explorers arrived. The first explorers were Norse, traveling from Scandinavia to Iceland, Greenland, and finally landing in Newfoundland in the 11th century. Europeans returned to North America to establish settlements during the 1500s, attracted by the plentiful fishing. These explorers were more permanent than the first.
Colonial practices and policies of the Europeans aimed to assimilate and control the Indigenous people. These policies include the Indian Act of 1876, a consolidation of previous ordinances that sought to eradicate First Nations culture in favor of assimilation into Euro-Canadian society. Another policy called the pass system controlled the movement of Indigenous people by requiring them to present an authorized travel document to leave and return to their reservations. Other oppressive policies included [reserves[(https://www.thecanadianencyclopedia.ca/en/article/aboriginal-reserves) and residential schools.
The well-being of Indigenous people has been devastated by these policies and practices in combination with segregation, loss of land, racism, and declining or unequal access to resources and public services.
In 1980, hundreds of Indigenous chiefs met in Ottawa and used “First Nations” for the first time in their Declaration of First Nations. The Assembly of First Nations was formed in 1982 as the political voice for First Nations people in Canada.
First Nations People Today
According to the 2016 census, 977,230 people in Canada identify as being of First Nations Heritage, an increase of 39.3% since 2006. As of 2020, the Canadian government recognizes 619 First Nations, speaking more than 50 languages.
First Nations people today may live on or off reservations, may or may not have legal status under the Indian Act, and may or may not be registered members of a nation or band (bands function as municipalities).
As aforementioned, the socio-economic status and overall well-being of First Nations (and Indigenous people in general) have been negatively impacted for years and problems persist today. Dispossession of cultural traditions, discrimination, racism, prejudice, and social inequities have led to these poor conditions for First Nations.
The gap between the socio-economic status and conditions between Indigenous people and non-indigenous is significant, although it is improving. The Assembly of First Nations co-authored a report in 2019 that revealed that about 47% of the 254,100 First Nations children in Canada live in poverty. Additionally, First Nations children are almost four times as likely to live in poverty than non-Indigenous children.]]