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.”