The media sometimes refers to these terms without always providing either a background or a basic definition. It is important that those visiting this website have access to at least some basic terminology.

As the website is expanded over time, I will make this Terminology section much larger and include items like key concepts, legal terms, and statistics for example. If visitors to this site have any specific terms or categories they think should be added, please email me at the address provided in the contact section.


1) Indigenous peoples

While it must be stated that there is no generic term that captures the diverse identities, cultures and backgrounds of Indigenous peoples around the world, it was Indigenous peoples themselves who choose this word at the United Nations level to best describe the original peoples of a territory. The United Nations prefers to rely on self-identification as opposed to trying to “define” people. At the United Nations, the term “Indigenous” includes the following considerations:

Self-identification as indigenous peoples at the individual level and accepted by the community as their member.

• Historical continuity with pre-colonial and/or pre-settler societies
• Strong link to territories and surrounding natural resources
• Distinct social, economic or political systems
• Distinct language, culture and beliefs
• Form non-dominant groups of society
• Resolve to maintain and reproduce their ancestral environments and systems as distinctive peoples and

Despite this term, the (general) preference is to refer specifically to the Indigenous Nation, community or peoples from which the individual belongs – for example, I am Mi’kmaw from the Mi’kmaw Nation.

2) Aboriginal Peoples

Section 35(2) of the Constitution Act, 1982 defines Aboriginal peoples as “including the Indian, Inuit and Métis peoples of Canada.”

INAC defines the term as: “a collective name for the original peoples of North America and their descendants. The Canadian constitution recognizes three groups of Aboriginal people: Indians (commonly referred to as First Nations), Métis and Inuit. These are three distinct peoples with unique histories, languages, cultural practices and spiritual beliefs. More than one million people in Canada identify themselves as an Aboriginal person, according to the 2006 Census.”

The Gage Canadian Dictionary defines the term as: “of or having to do with the original or earliest known inhabitants of a region or country.”

3) Indian

Section 2(1) of the Indian Act, 1985 defines the term “Indian” as: “a person who pursuant to this Act is registered as an Indian or is entitled to be registered as an Indian.”

INAC defines the term as: “Indian peoples are one of three groups of people recognized as Aboriginal in the Constitution Act, 1982. It specifies that Aboriginal people in Canada consist of Indians, Inuit and Métis. Indians in Canada are often referred to as: Status Indians, non-Status Indians and Treaty Indians.”

The Gage Canadian Dictionary defines the term as: “a member of any of the peoples who are the original inhabitants of the western hemisphere south of the Arctic coast region: Amerindian.”

4) Non-Status Indian

INAC’s website defines the term as: “An Indian person who is not registered as an Indian under the Indian Act.”

I defined the term as including: “unregistered persons of Aboriginal ancestry… That term is not found in the Indian Act, but is widely recognized as referring to this group who have mixed ancestry but who will not or cannot be registered as Indians under the current legislation.”

(An Empty Shell of a Treaty Promise, p.109)

Professor and lawyer, Dr. Joseph Magnet, defines the term as: “The consistent narrowing of the definition of ‘Indian’ in various amendments to the Indian Act created a large population of Aboriginal people without Indian status, or the rights and entitlements that attach to it – the non-status Indians… The population of non-status Indians is larger than is discerned by considering the legal exceptions in the various Indian Acts, however. It also includes people of Aboriginal ancestry and culture who were never entitled to register in 1876, as well as Aboriginal people entitled to register who chose not to submit themselves to the Department’s control.The non-status population includes the historical Indians and their descendants.”

(Who Are the Aboriginal Peoples of Canada?, p.44)

5) Inuit

INAC’s website provides this definition: “An Aboriginal people in Northern Canada, who live in Nunavut, Northwest Territories, Northern Quebec and Northern Labrador. The word means “people” in the Inuit language — Inuktitut. The singular of Inuit is Inuk.”

The Inuit Tapiriit Kanatami (ITK) provides this definition: “Canada is home to 50,480 Inuit. They live in 53 Arctic communities in four geographic regions: Nunatsiavut (Labrador); Nunavik (Quebec); Nunavut; and the Inuvialuit Settlement Region of the Northwest Territories. Inuit regions constitute the majority in what amounts to 40 percent of Canada’s land mass.”

(ITK website)

The Supreme Court of Canada (SCC) decided in 1939 that the term “Indian” in section 91(24) of the Constitution Act, 1867 included “Eskimos” (now Inuit). Despite this decision, Canada amended the Indian Act to include section 4, which specifically excludes the Inuit from the Act’s application.

(Re Eskimos [193] S.C.R 104)

6) Métis

Gage Canadian Dictionary defines Métis as: “a person of mixed blood, especially a person of French and North American Indian ancestry belonging to or descended from the Saskatchewan river valleys during the nineteenth century, forming a cultural group distinct from both Europeans and Indians.”

The SCC defined the Métis as: “The term “Métis” in s. 35 does not encompass all individuals with mixed Indian and European heritage; rather, it refers to distinctive peoples who, in addition to their mixed ancestry, developed their own customs, way of life, and recognizable group identity separate from their Indian or Inuit and European forebears. Métis communities evolved and flourished prior to the entrenchment of European control, when the influence of European settlers and political institutions became pre-eminent.”

(R. Powley, [2003] 2 S.C.R. 207)

The Royal Commission on Aboriginal Peoples (RCAP) described Métis as follows: “Intermarriage between First Nations and Inuit women and European fur traders and fishermen produced children, but the birth of new Aboriginal cultures took longer. At first, the children of mixed unions were brought up in the traditions of their mothers or (less often) their fathers. Gradually, however, distinct Métis cultures emerged, combining European and First Nations or Inuit heritages in unique ways. Economics played a major role in this process. The special qualities and skills of the Métis population made them indispensable members of Aboriginal/non-Aboriginal economic partnerships, and that association contributed to the shaping of their cultures. As interpreters, diplomats, guides, couriers, freighters, traders and suppliers, the early Métis people contributed massively to European penetration of North America.

The French referred to the fur trade Métis as coureurs de bois (forest runners) and bois brulés (burnt-wood people) in recognition of their wilderness occupations and their dark complexions. The Labrador Métis (whose culture had early roots) were originally called ‘livyers’ or ‘settlers’, those who remained in the fishing settlements year-round rather than returning periodically to Europe or Newfoundland. The Cree people expressed the Métis character in the term Otepayemsuak, meaning the ‘independent ones’.”

(RCAP, vol.4, pp.199-200)

7) First Nations:

Defined by INAC as: “A term that came into common usage in the 1970s to replace the word ‘Indian,’ which some people found offensive. Although the term First Nation is widely used, no legal definition of it exists. Among its uses, the term ‘First Nations peoples’ refers to the Indian peoples in Canada, both Status and non-Status. Some Indian peoples have also adopted the term ‘First Nation’ to replace the word ‘band’ in the name of their community.”

Defined by the First Nations and Inuit Regional Longitudinal Health Survey as: “Following current general practice and usage, the term First Nation has replaced the term Indian. A First Nation community refers to a relatively small group of Aboriginal (i.e. Indian) people residing in a single locality. “First Nations”, a self-used term by Indians who have status, was not in wide usage as recently as 1982 when the current legal definitions of Aboriginal people were provided in the Constitution Act.”

Most often the term First Nation refers to the individual Indian Act band versus the larger, traditional Aboriginal Nations. There are over 630 Indian Act bands in Canada, compared to the estimated 60-80 traditional Aboriginal Nations.


8) Treaty Indian

The term Treaty Indian is defined by INAC as “A Status Indian who belongs to a First Nation that signed a treaty with the Crown.”

However, this can be a confusing term as explained by Jack Woodward: “It is common for status Indians to be called ‘treaty Indians’ in those parts of Canada covered by treaties, especially the numbered treaties in the prairie provinces. However, status under the Indian Act does not necessarily entail entitlement under a treaty. Since 1951, no statute has attempted to define ‘treaty Indians’, although the term is still encountered in case reports. Similarly, ‘non-treaty’ may be used in the prairie provinces to mean ‘non-status’ or Métis. Elsewhere in Canada, where there are many status Indians not party to treaties, ‘non-treaty’ can include status or non-status.” (Woodward, Native Law, p.8)

It should also be noted that in the Atlantic Provinces, non-status Indians consider themselves to be treaty Indians as they enjoy the benefits of the peace and friendship treaties. (NBAPC)

9) Band

INAC defines the term band as: “A body of Indians for whose collective use and benefit lands have been set apart or money is held by the Crown, or declared to be a band for the purposes of the Indian Act. Each band has its own governing band council, usually consisting of one chief and several councillors. Community members choose the chief and councillors by election, or sometimes through custom. The members of a band generally share common values, traditions and practices rooted in their ancestral heritage. Today, many bands prefer to be known as First Nations.”

Section 2(1) of the Indian Act, 1985 defines the term band:

2. (1) In this Act, “band” means a body of Indians

a for whose use and benefit in common, lands, the legal title to which is vested in Her Majesty, have been set apart before, on or after September 4, 1951,
b for whose use and benefit in common, moneys are held by Her Majesty, or
c declared by the Governor in Council to be a band for the purposes of this Act.”

Woodward further explains: “To be a band, a particular group of Indians must first constitute a ‘body’. ‘Body’ is not defined, but the use of this word indicates organization or common cause in the affairs of government, in the same sense as in the expression ‘body politic’. The definition provides for three ways by which a body of Indians becomes legally recognized as a band. A body of Indians is a band if it has reserve lands, government trust funds, or is the subject of a Cabinet declaration.”

(Woodward, Native Law, p.13)

Writing Tips

Always capitalize: Aboriginal, Indigenous, First Nation; Inuit, Mohawk, Mi’kmaq, etc – it’s a matter of respect;

Use the word: “peoples” (plural) in relation to Indigenous peoples as it reflects multiple Nations/peoples, not the general term “people” which refers to individuals;

Say: Aboriginal peoples in Canada, not “of” Canada – our Nations pre-date Canada by thousands of years;

Never say: “Canada’s Aboriginal peoples” – Canada does not own us;
Avoid the phrase “Aboriginal Canadians” or “Indigenous Canadians” as some First Nations and Indigenous peoples do not consider themselves Canadian, and/or they consider themselves citizens of their Nations first;

Never use the term “Aboriginals” – it’s improper even though many media outlets use it;

Use terms in their proper legal and/or political context:
i.e. “Indian” for Indian Act, “Aboriginal peoples” for Constitution Act;

Don’t mix terms, i.e. there is no such thing as “Aboriginal status”, it is “Indian status or registration”, and;

Statistics related to Indigenous peoples are NOT interchangeable, i.e. the statistics for First Nations specifically are not the same as statistics for Aboriginal peoples generally.