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Long before Europeans arrived in North America and established Canada as a country, Indigenous Peoples lived and prospered on the land they called Turtle Island.

As many historians share, when Columbus first arrived in North America, he thought he was in India, which led to him calling the land’s existing population “Indians” — but of course he was nowhere near India. More importantly, this incorrect term that was used for centuries afterwards, failed to adequately capture the diverse communities of Indigenous Peoples, including First Nations, Inuit, and Métis.

Over the years, different terms have been used as the collective noun to encapsulate First Nations, Inuit, and Métis communities. In addition to “Indian,” these have included “Native” and “Aboriginal Peoples.” However, most recently, the government has embraced “Indigenous Peoples” instead of “Aboriginal.”

So you may be wondering which is the preferred term between Aboriginal and Indigenous Peoples, and which terms should we never use. Here’s a closer look at these questions and why language matters so much.

Aboriginal vs Indigenous Peoples

Before the term Indigenous was introduced, Aboriginal was widely used in Canada after 1982 when Section 35 of the Canadian Constitution defined the term as encompassing all First Nations, Inuit, and Métis Peoples of Canada. However, the term fell short.

To begin with, the “ab” in Aboriginal derives from a Latin prefix meaning “not” or “away from.” When partnered with “original,” this delivers a problematic—and misleading—impression as it can mean “not original.” While many people assume the word “Aboriginal” means something like “from the original” or another reference to the first inhabitants, the opposite is true.

Furthermore, the use of a singular word to encapsulate the diversity within Indigenous communities was met with disapproval from many Indigenous groups. The term is an oversimplification, which implies one singular, homogenized group as opposed to many unique and diverse nations, cultures, and languages. Take the Anishinabek Nation, for example. According to Chief Patrick Madahbee of Aundeck Omni Kaning, “Referring to ourselves as Anishinabek is the natural thing to do because that is who we are. We are not Indians, [N]atives, or [A]boriginal. We are, always have been and always will be Anishinabek.”

While referring to Nation-specific names is preferable, it’s not always possible. There are some instances where it’s necessary to refer to all Indigenous communities together—in the case of country-wide celebrations like National Indigenous Peoples Day. That’s where the “Indigenous Peoples” collective noun comes in.

Today, “Indigenous Peoples” is increasingly used as the preferred terminology because it acknowledges their international rights under the United Nations Declaration of the Rights of Indigenous Peoples. These rights include self-determination and control over their traditional lands’ natural resources. As such, Indigenous Peoples have the legal right to offer or withhold consent regarding the development of their land.

Additionally, the term “Indigenous Peoples” recognizes the many groups, nations, and communities of First Nations, Inuit, and Metis. As explained by Animikii, “While ‘Indigenous Peoples’ is still an English phrase that attempts to encompass Indigenous Peoples across the globe, it succeeds in many ways that “Aboriginal” does not.”

What about “Indian” and “Native”?

Over the years, there have been various settler terms to identify First Nations, Inuit, and Metis. Some of the most common were “Indian,” “Aboriginal,” and “Native.”

As mentioned earlier, the European colonizers’ original name for the original inhabitants of Canada was “Indian” due to Columbus’s mistaken belief that he was in India. Today, this term is considered outdated and even offensive in part because of the painful history it carries – for example, Indian residential schools and the Indian Act. That said, “Indian” is still actively used in many settings, so navigating its use (or non-use) is sensitive and can be tricky. Phrases like “status Indian” and “Indian status” are still part of the government classification system when referring to First Nations and may come up in legal or policy contexts. However, this doesn’t mean you should use them.

The Canadian Encyclopedia explains, “For some Indigenous Peoples, the term ‘Indian’ confirms their ancestry and protects their historical relationship to the Crown and federal government. For others, the definitions set out in the Indian Act are not affirmations of their identity.”

Note that in some situations, “The term remains in use because there are still many people who have been called, and have called themselves, Indians all their lives. Who is going to argue with an elder or a veteran who served their people and this country as an Indian and still wants to be known as that?” explains CBC. Some communities still include “Indian” in their First Nation name, such as the Osoyoos Indian Band.

In general, the term “Indian” should be avoided as much as possible by non-Indigenous Peoples because it doesn’t include the perspectives and experiences of the people and communities it refers to.

Another term once used as a collective noun for the original inhabitants of Canada was “Native.” However, it is now considered outdated as it is a very broad term that can refer to anything or anyone originating from a particular place. For instance, someone born in Toronto can be “native” to that city. The term is still widely used in this regard, so it fails to account for and acknowledge the unique identities of First Nations, Inuit, and Metis.  

Why Indigenous Peoples is the preferred terminology

The term “Indigenous” came into wide usage when Indigenous groups united across borders to press for greater representation in the UN. “In the UN, ‘Indigenous’ refers broadly to peoples of long settlement and connection to specific lands who have been adversely affected by incursions by industrial economies, displacement, and settlement of their traditional territories by others,” explains Indigenous Foundations.

You may also be wondering why “Peoples” is included in the collective term. “The plural ‘Peoples’ recognizes that more than one distinct group comprises the Aboriginal population of Canada. For example, ‘Aboriginal people’ (singular) might mean each Aboriginal individual, whereas ‘Aboriginal peoples’ (plural) indicates a number of separate Aboriginal populations,” continues Indigenous Foundations.

And then, there is the question of capitalization. While there’s no hard line on whether or not to capitalize the terms, capitalization is viewed as a nod of respect to the people and communities being referenced. As explained on the Government of British Columbia’s website, “Capitalizing Indigenous terms is a sign of respect for the identities, governments, institutions, and collective rights that have been historically considered illegitimate. We recognize that part of reconciliation is the recognition and respect of these terms.”

One additional note on the use of “Indigenous Peoples”? Steer clear of using the possessive when referring to Canada’s relationship with Indigenous Peoples. Instead, use “Indigenous Peoples in Canada” rather than “Canada’s Indigenous People” because the latter inappropriately suggests ownership.

Why language matters

You may be wondering if language really matters. And the truth is it does. 

While the familiar children’s rhyme insists that “sticks and stones may break my bones but names will never hurt me,” this isn’t necessarily the case. Words play an important role in how we define and identify ourselves. And if they’re not wielded correctly, they can do damage. For Indigenous Peoples, words are especially important because they play a role in reclaiming their identity, which European colonizers and the Canadian government have repeatedly tried to take from them.

And don’t forget: While Indigenous Peoples is the most appropriate umbrella term, it is best reserved only for situations when you’re talking about the collective group. Whenever possible, you should use specific words, such as Inuit, Metis, Anishinabek, Cree, and so on.  Perhaps Gwawaenuk Nation member and Indigenous Corporate Training Inc. founder Bob Joseph puts it best in summing it up: “Go with what they are calling themselves.” 

Ultimately, the words you choose to use do matter. And we must be intentional—both in terms of using the correct language and calling out the use of incorrect language. This brings us to one very useful tip from Queen’s University: “When in doubt as to what is the most appropriate term to use, ask the person or group involved, learn what is in use in your area or subject field, or simply ask someone knowledgeable.”

Stand in solidarity with Indigenous communities in Canada

We all play a role in moving toward truth and reconciliation. The first step in doing so is committing to educating ourselves about Indigenous communities in Canada. Using the term “Indigenous Peoples” is part of this. However, it’s just one part. We can also transform that understanding into action by standing with Indigenous communities.

Indigenous Peoples Solidarity Fund

One powerful way to stand in solidarity is to donate to the Indigenous Peoples Solidarity Fund.

Indigenous communities face profound challenges resulting from modern injustices and the legacy of colonialism, the Indian Act, and Residential Schools. Leading the way in tackling these critical issues are Indigenous-led organizations, which you can support by donating to the Indigenous Peoples Solidarity Fund. It comprises over 40 Indigenous-led organizations that provide essential services to foster healing, growth, and truth and reconciliation. 

Indigenous Culture and Language Resurgence in the Canadian North Fund

You can also donate to the Indigenous Culture and Language Resurgence in the Canadian North Fund. 

Indigenous cultural practices are disappearing. This is the result of colonialism, assimilation, and racism. Thankfully we are in a period of cultural resurgence, and many community-led organizations are advancing this movement. But for them to continue, your help is needed. Donate to the Indigenous Culture and Language Resurgence in the Canadian North Fund today. Your contribution will support multiple programs that revitalize traditional practices and advocate for policies which protect and promote Indigenous culture and language.

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