Background on Canada’s Aboriginal Population

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Background on Canada’s Aboriginal Population

The term "Aboriginal" is used in Canada to refer collectively to people who are descendants of the first populations to inhabit North America. Aboriginal populations include First Nations (North American Indians), Inuit, and Métis. First Nations are the largest of the three groups. They accounted for approximately two-thirds of the 800,000 Aboriginal people living in Canada in 1996. They also have the longest history and are the most cultural and geographically diverse Aboriginal population. Ancestors of the First Nations migrated from Asia to what are now the state of Alaska and the Yukon Territory between 15,000 and 35,000 years ago during the last ice age. At this time, sea levels were 100 metres lower than present, making it possible to move overland between the two continents. Approximately 10,000 years ago, as the ice sheets melted, these populations could move south to the unglaciated regions of North America. Possible migration routes were an ice-free corridor along the eastern slopes of the Rocky Mountains and exposed islands and beaches along the Pacific coast. As the continental ice fields later retreated northward, big game and the First Nations people followed, eventually occupying most of the plains, valleys, coastlines, and plateaus of contemporary Canada. Adaptation to local geographies and the vast distances and barriers of Canada's physical landscape worked over time to create many distinct cultural groups. Over 600 First Nations-representing 52 cultural groups-live in Canada.

Inuit are Aboriginal people who live in the Arctic. Numbering 40,000 in 1996, 90 percent of the Inuit live in either the Northwest Territories, northern Quebec, the Labrador coast of Newfoundland, or Nunavut (slightly more than 50% of the total). Nunavut, which means "Our Land" in the Inuktitut language, was officially established in 1999. The boundaries of this new territory roughly correspond to the ancestral lands of the Inuit of the central and eastern Arctic. Inuit and other arctic cultures, migrating in several waves from Asia and Alaska, have lived in this area for 5000 years. Three-quarters of Nunavut's present population are Inuit.

Métis are people with a mixed Aboriginal and European ancestry (Métis means "mixed blood"). The word is used by many Canadians to refer to the descendants of the First Nations and fur traders in western Canada, especially those associated with French communities in southern Manitoba. However, while recognized as Aboriginal people in the Canadian constitution, there is no accepted, legal definition of a Métis. As a result, population estimates can vary widely. The 1996 census defined a Métis as anyone who identifies themselves as a Métis. This definition suggests there are just over 200,000 Métis in Canada, 75 percent of whom live in the four western provinces. Other estimates suggest that the descendants of the first Métis could now number in the millions.

All Aboriginal populations were deeply affected by the resettlement of North America by Europeans. In 1500 AD, at the time of first contact, the Aboriginal population living in present day Canada is estimated to be roughly 500,000. Four hundred years later, the total was 100,000. This dramatic decline was the result of warfare, the loss of traditional lands and food sources, and disease. Lacking natural immunities and knowledge about how to treat "Old World" diseases, Aboriginal communities across Canada were devastated by tuberculosis, small pox, influenza, and cholera. It was not unusual for an epidemic to claim one-half of a group's members. A chilling reminder of the disastrous consequences of these factors is the empty chair reserved for the Beothuk at First Nation assemblies. The last Beothuk-a First Nation that hunted big game and fished along Newfoundland's rocky shores-died of tuberculosis in a St. John's hospital in 1829.

Aboriginal populations have been, until recently, primarily located in rural and isolated areas of Canada. This distribution is partly attributable to the historic pattern of occupation and the practice of traditional ways of life. It is also a product, especially for members of First Nations, of the establishment of Indian Reserves. Reserves are treaty and non-treaty lands that were set aside ostensibly to protect Aboriginal people. However, their unstated purpose was to expedite settlement and resource exploitation. In central Canada and on the prairies, First Nations gave up their ownership of vast territories-as acknowledged in the Royal Proclamation of 1763-in exchange for reserves and attendant economic and social benefits. In British Columbia, reserves were established for the most part without negotiation or compensation. The failure to obtain proper legal consent is the basis for ongoing land claims in this province. In either case, the lands First Nations bands received were often small, out-of-the way parcels of marginal quality (the combined area of the 2300 reserves in Canadian provinces is less than half that of the large Navajo reservation in the United States). Reserves situated on better land, especially those in expanding urban areas, were, in some cases, expropriated without compensation. The physical and economic isolation of reserves was reinforced by the Indian Act of 1876 and its distinction between "status" and "non-status" Indians. Status Indians were allowed to live on reserves and receive the benefits of treaty settlements; they could not, however, vote, serve in the military or on juries. Non-status Indians, in contrast, effectively chose to relinquish their treaty rights for Canadian citizenship. Women who married non-First Nations persons automatically lost their status as Indians. The government hoped these policies, along with residential schools, and restrictions on some political and ceremonial activities, would assimilate First Nations people into Canadian society. The policies ultimately failed. Most First Nations people kept their rights even in the face of poor housing, inadequate services, and high unemployment on many reserves.

While Aboriginal people are collectively still the most rural ethnic population in Canada, they have also moved to urban areas in large numbers over the past 50 years. In 1996, 35 percent of the Aboriginal population, and almost 50 percent of Métis, lived in Canada's 43 largest cities. Winnipeg, Manitoba has the largest Aboriginal population (45,000) while Saskatoon, Saskatchewan has the highest proportion (7.5 percent of the city's residents are Aboriginal people). There are many push and pull factors for this urban migration. Perhaps the most important have been the gradual changes to the Indian Act. Aboriginal people now enjoy the same rights and freedoms as other Canadians while many who had voluntarily or involuntarily given up their Indian status have been reinstated. Employment and educational opportunities, social contacts, and urban support networks have also encouraged migration. Population pressures and natural increase may also play a factor. Aboriginal populations are growing at a rate of 3 percent annually, more than double the rate for the general population. More than half of this growth occurs off-reserve.

-Dr. Ross Nelson, University College of the Cariboo

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