Aboriginal Canadians and the First Nations

By most standards, Canada is a very young country, and Canadians are a very new people. The vast majority of the country’s population is descended from European immigrants who only arrived in North America in the 18th century or later, and even the most “historic” Canadian cities are rarely more than 200 years old.

But thousands of years before any of this happened, there were still people living in Canada. Aboriginals, also known as nativesFirst Nations peoples, or North American Indians are the descendants of the original inhabitants of North America, and today survive in the form of a small, but influential and important minority group that help remind Canadians of their country’s ancient past— and their contemporary responsibilities to its first residents.

History of Canada’s First Peoples

Micmac Tepee

Early aboriginal tribes were famous for their unique styles of housing, particularly cone-shaped tepees made of hide and sticks (seen here) as well as ice igloos and "long house" wood cabins.

Everyone has to come from somewhere, and most archaeologists believe the native peoples of Canada migrated from east Asia to western North America sometime between 40 000 and 10 000 B.C., back when the two continents were still connected by a massive land bridge. In the centuries that followed, these peoples spread all across the lands that now comprise the United States and Canada, forming hundreds of distinct tribes, communities and nations scattered across the vast landscape. Though population estimates vary wildly, they undeniably numbered in the millions.

The exact character of aboriginal societies varied a fair bit depending on where exactly they were located, but most shared certain common characteristics, particularly hunter-gatherer sustenance lifestyles, strong respect for nature, egalitarian and communal social values, and deep and detailed spiritual beliefs. Many eventually formed sophisticated communities, complete with permanent housing, farms and stable political structures, as well as rich cultures with distinctive traditions in art, fashion, song and dance. At the same time, however, their societies tended to be lacking in other important fields, and most native communities lacked a written language, used only primitive weapons and had mostly simplistic and superstitious understandings of basic scientific concepts.

Residential schools

Until the 1970s, many young native children were raised in what were known as "residential schools," church-run institutions that taught their students to embrace Christianity and abandon their traditional cultures and languages. Far from solving anything, these schools ended up being terrible places of disease, abuse and neglect, and in 2008 the Canadian government granted massive reparations to anyone unfortunate enough to have attended one.

It was for these reasons and others that when Europeans first came to North America in the mid-1500s, most regarded the aboriginals as a hopelessly backwards people greatly inferior to themselves. Missionaries sought to aggressively convert this supposedly “godless” race to Christianity, while early French and British colonists saw them as a useful and easily-exploited source of cheap labour for the fur trade, or soldiers for the battlefield. As the European powers began to fight more actively amongst themselves for control of North America, aboriginal nations grew in nuisance, and were eventually forced into signing lopsided treaties that surrendered political control of their land in exchange for measly financial compensation or dubious promises of protection or safety.

Awful as all this political displacement and expulsion was, in the end it was disease that effectively weakened the aboriginals beyond recovery. Unexpectedly exposed to dozens of new European illnesses to which they had no immunity or cure, millions of natives would ultimately perish from plagues like smallpox, Typhoid and influenza. By the close of the 19th century, Canada’s aboriginal population had declined by more than 90 per cent, with the traditional native culture of North America having been all but eclipsed by the triumphant Europeans.

Canada’s Aboriginals Today

Bill Reid sculpture

The creation of aboriginal artwork has proven to be incredibly lucrative for many native Canadians well into the present day, where such works are much-sought by collectors and tourists. Seen here is one of the most famous sculptures by master Haida artist Bill Reid (1920-1998).

Only when Natives were firmly in the minority did Canada’s aboriginal policy begin to become a bit more compassionate. Having displaced the natives from most of the country’s good land, in the mid-1800s the reserve system was introduced, isolating Canada’s surviving aboriginal population into small, protected areas where they would finally be free to govern themselves and protect their traditional way of life in a semi-independent fashion. In 1876, the Government of Canada further clarified the rights and powers of aboriginals through an elaborate piece of legislation known as the Indian Act, which still remains in effect to this day, albeit with many amendments and updates.

Today, Canada is home to about one million citizens of aboriginal descent (or about two per cent of the total population), comprising over 500 distinct tribes or bands, many of which exist within larger aboriginal nations. The majority of these are located in rural areas of Canada’s prairies and west coast, though native communities can be found nearly everywhere across the country, even the most remote regions of the far-north. Most aboriginals speak English as their first language, though efforts to preserve and strengthen traditional aboriginal tongues remain strong, with five native languages (Algonkin, Athapascan, Salishan, Siouan and Inuktitut) being fairly well known and widely spoken.

Native Reserves and Special Rights

Aboriginal Canadians have been dubbed “citizens-plus” in recognition of the fact that they enjoy access to a variety of rights other Canadians do not, as part of the federal government’s efforts to protect their traditional way of life and improve their welfare after years of abuse and neglect. An aboriginal who has confirmed his native identity with the government of Canada is declared to be a “status Indian,” and is entitled to various benefits and privileges stemming either from colonial-era treaties, or other, more modern arrangements negotiated with the state. Many of these unique rights, in turn, flow directly from Canada’s aboriginal reserve system.

The highest representative body for aboriginal interestes in Canada is the Assembly of First Nations, whose chairman is usually treated as a national spokesperson for native rights. Seen here, Assembly chair Shawn Atleo (b. 1967) with Prime Minister Stephen Harper (b. 1959).

A native reserve or reservation is a legally protected area where aboriginal Canadians can live in a state of semi-exemption from a number of federal and provincial laws and participate in a society organized according to native traditions. In practice, most reserves are small, isolated communities, resembling anything from a trailer park to a small village, with populations of no more than a few hundred residents each. Governance of the reserve is legally entrusted to the local band council, which has considerable power to determine how their community will be run, and what sorts of benefits their residents will receive. Most reserves still receive some sort of regular treaty payment from the federal government, and this money is used by the band council to provide residents with basic services such as housing, education, roads, police, and — in many cases — employment.

Living on the reserve also exempts natives from having to pay federal or provincial taxes, and, in most cases, entitles them to special grants to help pay for health care, post-secondary education, public transportation and other social services. Aboriginal hunters and fishermen are likewise usually exempt from size and quantity restrictions, and if a reserve’s territory is lucky enough to contain natural resources such as oil or minerals, then the residents may be eligible to earn a cut of the royalties, too. These days, some of Canada’s savvier native bands have taken to exploiting the legal exemptions of their reserves to operate tax-exempt malls or casinos that make a lot of money for the tribe, as well as selling untaxed cigarettes or legally dubious products like fireworks, which may be banned by the surrounding city or province.

Troubles

One of the great tragedies of modern Canada is how poor the quality of life remains for Canadian aboriginals, even after several decades of aggressive government efforts to redress the sins of the past. Despite a multitude of social programs and special privileges, the life of a typical aboriginal in 21st century Canada remains significantly worse than that of any other demographic group, with rates of poverty, addiction and mental illness grossly disproportionate to their percentage of the population. Statistics show that an aboriginal Canadian is almost 10 times more likely than a non-aboriginal to wind up in prison, and aboriginal youths are five to six times more likely to kill themselves than their non-native peers.

Oka standoff

In 1990, the city of Oka, Quebec approved a plan to build a golf course on a traditional burial ground of the Mohawk tribe, and in doing so helped trigger one of the most infamous episodes of native conflict in modern times. The tense 78-day standoff between aboriginal protesters and government forces ultimately only ended once the army was called in.

The root causes of all these social ills are obviously quite complicated and hard to define, but there are a number of popular targets. Many blame the reserve system itself. In most cases, any native who chooses to live on a reserve is willingly opting into a much lower standard of living than he would enjoy elsewhere, as many reserves simply lack the quality of housing, education, medical care and even basic amenities like clean water and electricity that other Canadians take for granted.

Increasingly, it has become popular for critics to characterize many reserves as having “third world” living conditions, with blame pointed at either the federal government (which neglects to provide adequate funding to bands), corrupt band councils (which embezzle funds and misspend), or both. Others have gone further and argued that Canada’s entire system of dealing with aboriginals is hopelessly backwards and anachronistic. By continuing to place so much responsibility on the Canadian government and treaties to fund, regulate and supervise aboriginal affairs, they say, Canada’s natives remain in a perpetuate state of infantile dependence, unable to do much of anything without government support and consent.

Many aboriginal leaders would doubtlessly like to see their nations assert greater independence from Canada, but without an alternative source of funding to make this vision a reality, the dependence on government sponsorship must continue. This is part of the reason why many Canadian native bands are now trying to place a greater emphasis on securing royalties from natural resources harvested from their traditional lands, or gain a cut of corporate profits from things like oil pipelines, mines, dams or fisheries from companies operating within their tribal borders.

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