Indigenous Peoples in Canada: A Primer for Career Development Professionals

Truth and reconciliation, hand-crafted bead work

There is a rich and diverse Indigenous population in the land that is now known as Canada. More than one-and-a-half million strong, Indigenous people make up the youngest and fastest growing population in Canada. Career practitioners have professional responsibilities to serve these clients in culturally appropriate ways. Building an understanding of Indigenous Peoples, culture, and issues in Canada is a critical first step to serving Indigenous clients and communities ethically.

My Heritage

Names are a representation of our identity, both individually — as in our personal names — and collectively, as a group of people with a common belief system, history, and culture. In short, names are important to who we are. So, I’ll start by introducing myself.

My name is Gabrielle LeClair, and I am a career professional of Métis (Ojibwe) and Dutch (Fresian) ancestry. The daughter of a Métis Nation of Ontario rights holder, I am a direct descendant of the Solomon and Gordon-Landry Métis family lines, with ancestral connections to Henvey Inlet First Nation. I am on a path to reconnecting with my family, my kin, and my community.

Know the Three Groups of Indigenous Peoples in Canada

The Canadian Constitution recognizes three groups of Indigenous (Aboriginal) Peoples, each with their own unique identities:

  • First Nations – Across the land that makes up Canada, there are more than 50 distinct Nations whose creation stories locate their origin as Peoples to the land that is now Canada. Each Nation has a unique culture, belief system, and history. The term First Nations includes a person or group of people who are members of any of these 50+ Nations.
  • Inuit – Inuit, meaning “people” in the Inuit language of Inuktitut, are Indigenous Peoples whose territory spans four countries: Alaska, Canada, Greenland, and Chukotka (Russia). There are 53 Inuit communities in Inuit Nunangat, which means “the place where Inuit live”, a region that stretches across the northern part of Canada.
  • Métis – More than 400 thousand Canadians across Canada self-identify as Métis, a mix of Indigenous and non-Indigenous ancestry. However, the Métis National Council, and the respective provincial bodies, define Métis citizens as individuals who are direct descendants of the historic Métis Nation with its origins in the Canadian Northwest, includes established Métis communities through Manitoba, Saskatchewan, and Alberta, and extends into Ontario, British Columbia, the Northwest Territories, and the northern United States. The Métis National Council and its provincial affiliates are the government-recognized representatives of the Métis Peoples.

Legal Definitions in Canadian Law

An important Canadian law, The Indian Act governs in matters pertaining to Indian status, bands, and reserves. The Act creates two important legal definitions that can be confusing for people trying to learn correct terminology.

  • Status Indians — A status Indian is a First Nations person who is a registered member of one of the 634 federally-recognized bands within Canada. Status Indians are eligible for federal programs and services reserved for Indians.
  • Non-Status Indians — A non-status Indian is a person of First Nations ancestry who does not have federal government recognition of their identity, either because they do not meet the government’s definition of status Indian, or their Nation is not among the recognized bands of Canada. In addition to this, and up until the very recent past, status Indians could have their status revoked by the federal government through a system known as enfranchisement, which forced Indians to abandon their legal status to serve in the Canadian military, attend post secondary education, or vote in federal elections. Non-status Indians are not eligible for federal programs and services reserved for Indians.

Although less common, some First Nations do identify as Indian, and at times, it may be important for you to clarify your client’s legal Indian status; however, if you are not a member of this group, it is best to avoid referring to a person of First Nations descent as “Indian.” The word has a negative connotation and may be seen as derogatory.

The Importance of Using the Right Names and Language

Creating professional relationships based on trust and respect begin by using the right names; however, it can seem difficult because language has changed over time. For example, words like “Aboriginal” that were commonly used less than a decade ago, have begun to be replaced by new terms, like “Indigenous”. Many organizations, including the United Nations, use the term Indigenous as a synonym for Aboriginal. The reasons for this evolution of language are as numerous as the terms used to describe Indigenous Peoples themselves. The National Aboriginal Health Organization (NAHO) Journal of Aboriginal Health (JAH) provides a guide with recommended usage for terms used by and for Indigenous peoples within Canada. Because language usage changes over time, paying attention to the date of publication can help to contextualize the different names you will encounter in print.

The University of British Columbia’s Indigenous Foundations initiative advises that certain Indigenous people may not identify with generic terms such as “Aboriginal,” “Indigenous,” or “Indian”, in general. They prefer to identify themselves by culturally-specific terms which  describe who they are using traditional languages and names. While these names may be unfamiliar at first, they often help us to better understand our clients’ unique identity and worldview, to better appreciate how their specific cultural histories, traditions, languages, and beliefs have shaped who they  are. Wikipedia offers a partial list of First Nations peoples of Canada, organized by linguistic-cultural area. It also provides some introductory information on Métis and Inuit.

There are many nuances of the various terms that we use in Canada. Indigenous Peoples are still grappling with an ongoing legacy of oppression and dispossession, and they are protective of their identity – rightly so! Chelsea Vowel, a Métis legal scholar, author, teacher, and intellectual from Lac Ste. Anne, Alberta, gives a fresh perspective as to why some terms for Indigenous Peoples in Canada are “loaded”. Certain terms may appear innocuous but they might not be appropriate to use. Chelsea summarizes this in an easy to digest, conversational but unapologetic way. In her award-winning book Indigenous Writes, Chelsea helps average Canadians understand the complexities and nuances of Indigenous topics, helping to prepare readers with basic knowledge and thoroughly-researched facts.

Know Your Client

When working with clients, using appropriate language is essential. Indigenous names respect our identity, but they also have specific legal meanings and connotations, which makes using the right Indigenous name and term complex. It goes without saying that we must avoid terms that may be discriminatory or offensive, but we also need to build respectful and positive relationships with our Indigenous clients.

A good starting point would be to learn a bit about your client’s background. Then, study guidelines for the correct usage of terminology related to Indigenous Peoples. As your relationship develops, you should take responsibility to seek out information and resources to better understand your client’s cultural identity. If you are writing about or for Indigenous Peoples, this style guide might also be helpful.

In Summary: CPC’s Goal

As a community-driven social enterprise, CPC members collaborate to maximize our collective social impact. CPC is working very hard to add benefits and resources designed to make our profession more inclusive. This article is part of a series to help develop a better understanding of the Indigenous population in Canada and the career professionals who support them.

Gabrielle LeClair is Master-Certified Career Strategist of Métis and Dutch ancestry. Founder and Principal Consultant of GDL Consulting, a boutique consulting firm, Gabrielle specializes in the confluence of career development and adult education. In online and in-person classrooms, Gabrielle supports and mentors professionals in all stages of their career to increase their impact with clients. As senior advisor, certification chair, and standards manager of Career Professionals of Canada, Gabrielle has developed course curriculum and supports career practitioners in expanding their professional competencies.

Photo by Tom Grundy on 123RF

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Great Work.
by Land Owner