Aboriginal people

When referring to Aboriginal people with a lower case “people,” you are simply referring to more than one Aboriginal person rather than the collective group of Aboriginal Peoples.

Aboriginal Peoples

“Aboriginal Peoples” is a collective name for all of the original peoples of Canada and their descendants. Section 35 of the Constitution Act of 1982 specifies that the Aboriginal Peoples in Canada consist of three groups – Indian (First Nations), Inuit and Métis. It should not be used to describe only one or two of the groups.


A band is a community of Indians for whom lands have been set apart and for whom the Crown holds money. It is a body of Indians declared by the Governor-in-Council to be a band for the purposes of the Indian Act. Many bands today prefer to be called First Nations and have changed their names to incorporate First Nation (e.g., the Batchewana Band is now called the Batchewana First Nation).

Band Council

This is the governing body for a band. It usually consists of a chief and councillors who are elected for two- or three-year terms (under the Indian Act or band custom) to carry out band business, which may include education, health, water and sewer, fire services, community buildings, schools, roads, and other community businesses and services.

Unless you are naming a specific band (e.g., the Bonaparte Indian Band), the word band should remain lowercase.

Communities and Settlements

Inuit live in communities and settlements. Inuit never lived on reserves, therefore the terms on-reserve and off-reserve do not apply to Inuit, only to First Nations. Wording that is supposed to cover all Aboriginal communities—for example, a reference to people living on a reserve, off a reserve or in urban areas—must add in Inuit communities in order to be inclusive of Inuit living in the North.

There are four Inuit comprehensive land claims regions covering more than one-third of Canada: the Inuvialuit Settlement Region in the Northwest Territories, Nunavut, Nunavik in northern Quebec, and Nunatsiavut in Labrador. Nunavut has three sub-regions—Kitikmeot, Kivalliq and Qikiqtani—which are called regions. These are not referred to as Inuit Regions nor Inuit Territories.

First Nation

Some communities have adopted First Nation to replace the term band. Many bands started to replace the word band in their name with First Nation in the 1980s. It is a matter of preference and writers should follow the choice expressed by individual First Nations/bands.

First Nation(s)

The term First Nation came into common usage in the early 1980s to replace band or Indian, which some people found offensive (see Indian). Despite its widespread use, there is no legal definition for this term in Canada.

First Nations People

Many people prefer to be called First Nations or First Nations People instead of Indians. The term should not be used as a synonym for Aboriginal Peoples because it doesn’t include Inuit or Métis. Because the term First Nations People generally applies to both Status and Non-Status Indians, writers should take care in using this term. If they are describing a program that is only for Status Indian youth, for example, they should avoid using First Nations youth as it could cause confusion.

First Peoples

First Peoples is another collective term used to describe the original peoples of Canada and their descendants. It is used less frequently than terms like Aboriginal Peoples and Native Peoples. Some use lowercase peoples, but both words uppercased appear to be the dominant spelling.


The term Indian collectively describes all the Indigenous People in Canada who are not Inuit or Métis. Indian Peoples are one of three peoples recognized as Aboriginal in the Constitution Act of 1982 along with Inuit and Métis. In addition, three categories apply to Indians in Canada: Status Indians, Non-Status Indians and Treaty Indians.


Indigenous means “native to the area.” In this sense, Aboriginal Peoples are indeed indigenous to North America. Its meaning is similar to Aboriginal Peoples, Native Peoples or First Peoples.

The term is rarely used, but when it is, it usually refers to Aboriginal people internationally. The term is gaining acceptance, particularly among some Aboriginal scholars to recognize the place of Aboriginal Peoples in Canada’s late-colonial era and implies land tenure. The term is also used by the United Nations in its working groups and in its Decade of the World’s Indigenous People.

As a proper name for a people, the term is capitalized; otherwise, it is lowercase.


Innu are the Naskapi and Montagnais First Nations Peoples who live in Quebec and Labrador. They are not to be confused with Inuit or Inuk.


Inuit are a circumpolar people, inhabiting regions in Russia, Alaska, Canada and Greenland, united by a common culture and language. There are approximately 55,000 Inuit living in Canada. Inuit live primarily in the Northwest Territories, Nunavut, and northern parts of Quebec and coastal Labrador. They have traditionally lived for the most part north of the treeline in the area bordered by the Mackenzie Delta in the west, the Labrador coast in the east, the southern point of Hudson Bay in the south, and the High Arctic islands in the north.

The Indian Act does not cover Inuit. However, in 1939, the Supreme Court of Canada interpreted the federal government’s power to make laws affecting Indians—and lands reserved for the Indians—as extending to Inuit.


Inuk is the singular form of Inuit. Use Inuk when referring to one person. When referring to two people, the correct term is Inuuk. For three or more people, it is Inuit.


Inuit have a strong cultural identity, including usage of traditional languages. For example, 70 per cent of Inuit can carry on a conversation in Inuktitut—the Inuit language. In the eastern Arctic and Nunavik, Inuktitut is the language people read, speak and use on a daily basis.


The word Métis is French for “mixed blood.” Section 35 of the Constitution Act of 1982 recognizes Métis as one of the three Aboriginal Peoples.

Historically, the term Métis applied to the children of French fur traders and Cree women in the Prairies, of English and Scottish traders and Dene women in the North, and Inuit and British in Newfoundland and Labrador.

The name Métis, in Canada, is constitutionally applied to descendants of communities in what is now southern Manitoba along the Red River Valley and Winnipeg. The name has also been constitutionally applied to the descendants of similar communities in what are now Quebec and Labrador, although these groups’ histories are different from that of the western Métis, as well as a community of Métis in Northeastern British Columbia on a settlement called Kelly Lake. Today, the term is used broadly to describe people with mixed First Nations and European ancestry who identify themselves as Métis. Métis organizations in Canada have differing criteria about who qualifies as a Métis person.

Accent or no accent? Many people and groups, particularly in the west and the north, have dropped the accent in Métis. The Métis National Council uses the accent, but it’s always best to check the names of individual Métis organizations before you publish them.

Métis Settlements: In 1938, the Alberta government set aside 1.25 million acres of land for eight Métis settlements; however, Métis never lived on reserves. Therefore the terms on-reserve and off-reserve do not apply to them, only to First Nations. Wording that is supposed to cover all Aboriginal communities—for example, a reference to people living on a reserve, off a reserve, or in urban areas—must add Métis settlements to be inclusive.


Native is a word similar in meaning to Aboriginal. Native Peoples is a collective term to describe the descendants of the original peoples of North America. The term is increasingly seen as outdated (i.e. not acceptable as a noun) and is starting to lose acceptance.

Non-Aboriginal people

This term refers to anyone who is not an Aboriginal person. Note that the “non” stays lowercase.

Aboriginal nations: The Royal Commission on Aboriginal Peoples (RCAP) used this term in its final report. RCAP defines Aboriginal nations as “a sizeable body of Aboriginal people with a shared sense of national identity that constitutes the predominant population in a certain territory or collection of territories.” The term has gained acceptance among some Aboriginal groups.

Despite the wide use of Aboriginal as a proper noun by many Canadian and Aboriginal media, only use the term as a modifier.

        Incorrect: The government’s new strategy will support increased business with Aboriginals.

        Correct: The government‘s new strategy will support increased business with Aboriginal Peoples.

Non-Status Indians

Non-Status Indians are people who consider themselves Indians or members of a First Nation but whom the Government of Canada does not recognize as Indians under the Indian Act, either because they are unable to prove their Indian status or have lost their status rights. Non-Status Indians are not entitled to the same rights and benefits available to Status Indians.


A reservation is land set aside by the U.S. government for the use and occupation of a group of Native Americans. The term does not apply in Canada.


A reserve is the land that is set aside by the Crown for the use and benefit of a band in Canada. Many First Nations now prefer the term First Nation community and no longer use reserve.

Only capitalize reserve when used as part of a name, otherwise it should remain lowercase.

On-reserve/off-reserve: These terms are modifiers to qualify people or things that are or are not part of a reserve. Avoid moving the on-reserve/off-reserve modifier after the noun and removing the hyphen.

Status Indians

Status Indians are people who are entitled to have their names included on the Indian Register, an official list maintained by the federal government. Certain criteria determine who can be registered as a Status Indian. Only Status Indians are recognized as Indians under the Indian Act and are entitled to certain rights and benefits under the law.

Treaty Indians

Treaty Indians are descendants of Indians who signed treaties with Canada and who have a contemporary connection with a treaty band.

The term Indian is considered outdated by many people, and there is much debate over whether to continue using this term. Use First Nation instead of Indian, except in the following cases:

  • in direct quotations
  • when citing titles of books, works of art, etc.
  • in discussions of history where necessary for clarity and accuracy
  • in discussions of some legal/constitutional matters requiring precision in terminology
  • in discussions of rights and benefits provided on the basis of Indian status or
  • in statistical information collected using these categories (e.g., the census)

The term is acceptable as both a noun and a modifier.

Tribal Council

A tribal council is a group made up of several bands and represents the interests of those bands. A tribal council may administer funds or deliver common services to those bands. Membership in a tribal council tends to be organized around geographic, political, treaty, cultural, and/or linguistic lines.


A tribe is a group of Native Americans sharing a common language and culture. The term is used frequently in the Unites States, but only in a few areas of Canada (e.g. the Blood Tribe in Alberta).

Additional Resources

The National Aboriginal Health Organization Terminology Guidelines: a glossary of terms describing or relating to Aboriginal Peoples in Canada.

Strategic Alliance of Broadcasters for Aboriginal Reflection (SABAR): includes terminology for journalists and information on identity and citizenship, culture and traditions, governance, and rights, policy & politics.