CBC In Depth
CBC News Online | Nov. 23, 2005

Aboriginal people in Canada are descended from the original inhabitants of North America. The Canadian Constitution divides Aboriginal Peoples into three basic groups � Indians, Métis and Inuit. Each group is unique in its languages, cultural practices and spiritual beliefs.


Indians are aboriginal people who are not Inuit or Métis. Innu are Indian people, also known as Naskapi and Montagnais, and live in Northern Quebec and Labrador. They are sometimes confused with the Inuit.

The federal government's Indian Act divides Indians into two categories: Status and Non-Status Indians.
    Status Indians

    Status Indians are people who qualify for registration on an official list maintained by Ottawa.

    The reason this matters is that Status Indians are entitled to certain rights and payments not available to other Canadians � depending on the terms of their treaty. For example, some older treaties include money for ammunition and annuities, and hunting and fishing rights on unoccupied land. And some, but not all, Status Indians qualify for tax exemptions and free post-secondary education.

    There are rules that determine who qualifies as a Status Indian � usually based on evidence of descent from people Ottawa recognizes as members of an Indian band.

    While Indians have their own methods for determining who is a member of the band and who is not, the Indian Act is not as inclusive in its criteria for determining who is status and who is not.

    "It looks like you need an [Indian] grandmother or grandfather to be considered an Indian," says Jean-Paul Restoule, professor of aboriginal education at the University of Toronto and a Status Indian. "But the grandmother or grandfather could be mixed blood and still be considered an Indian. The first lists of Indians were fairly arbitrary. Before the [Indian] act, they used to make room for adoptions and those accepted by the community as Indian."

    Non-Status Indians

    Non-Status Indians are people who consider themselves Indians though Ottawa does not recognize them as such. This is usually because they can't prove their status or have lost their status.

    Non-Status Indians are not entitled to the same rights and benefits available to Status Indians.

    Historically, many Indian women lost their status when they married non-native men. While the act was changed in 1985 to avoid such sexual discrimination, it is still possible for the grandchildren of Status Indians to lose their designation.

    "If you have status, you retain it. Where it's lost is in the second generation," says Restoule. "The child [of a Status and Non-Status Indian] maintains status. But if the child marries someone who doesn't have status, their kids don't qualify for status."

    According to the Department of Indian and Northern Affairs' historian Jean-Pierre Morin, there was much social baggage that went along with being status or non-status.

    "Because you were status, you were not considered at the same level as everyone else. Today it's not the same, but it still has stigma," he says.

    Because historically the department's aim was to assimilate Indians, there was a time when it could take away an Indian's status if they had a university degree. "If you had a degree, you were deemed to be sufficiently assimilated that you surrendered your Indian status," says Morin.

Inuit are the aboriginal people of Northern Canada who live in Nunavut, Northwest Territories, Northern Quebec and Northern Labrador. The word means "people" in the Inuit language � Inuktitut. Inuvialuit are Inuit who live in the Western Arctic.

For centuries, outsiders called Inuit "Eskimos," an Algonquian Indian term meaning "eaters of raw meat." It is a term Inuit find unacceptable. The Indian Act does not cover Inuit, but the Supreme Court ruled in 1939 that the federal government's power to make laws affecting Indians extend to Inuit.


Métis identify themselves as aboriginal people. They are born of a mixture of European and aboriginal bloodlines but don't qualify as Status Indians. The Métis live primarily on the Prairies, and in Ontario and the Northwest Territories, but also in other areas of Canada.

Originally, "Métis" was used to describe the children of aboriginal women and French fur traders. As the fur trade expanded, English, Scandinavian, Scottish and Irish bloodlines also became part of the Métis Nation.

During the early history of Métis settlements, the Métis acted as intermediaries between Europeans and Indians. Working as interpreters, guides and mediators for forts and trading companies, they came to establish distinct settlements across the northern Prairie provinces. Louis Riel, seen by many as the founder of Manitoba, was a Métis.

After Manitoba became part of Canada in 1870 Métis suffered more than 100 years of struggle for recognition as a legally distinct nation. It wasn't until the Constitution Act of 1982 that they were recognized, along with Indians and Inuit, as one of the three Aboriginal Peoples of Canada.

Native, aboriginal or First Nations?

Any or all of them, depending on who you are referring to.

Canada's Constitution recognizes three aboriginal groups � Indians, Metis and Inuit. If you want to refer all those groups, you'd be talking about Canada's Aboriginal Peoples. The plural Peoples in this context refers to a lot of separate groups, each with distinct histories and cultures, and not merely to a number of people.

The word "native" can also be used to refer to the three aboriginal groups.

First Nations refers only to Indians, whether or not they have treaty status. It is not used to refer to Metis or Inuit people.

Do aboriginals pay taxes?

That depends.

In general, aboriginals pay taxes just like other people in Canada. However, there are exemptions under the Indian Act. The act says that the "personal property of an Indian or a band situated on a reserve" is tax exempt. Métis and Inuit are not eligible for this exemption.

The act says that a Status Indian working on a reserve is exempt from income taxes. However, there is a complicated formula involved here – the location of the duties and residence of the employee and employer must be taken into consideration.

And Status Indians do not generally pay the federal goods and services tax or provincial sales tax if they buy something on a reserve or if it is destined for a reserve.

"Off-reserve, we all get stuck with it," notes Restoule.

The Indian Act also forbids non-Indian governments from taxing the property of Status Indians on a reserve. But the act does gives Indian governments the power to impose some property taxes, and some land claims may also allow Indian governments to collect sales taxes on selected products.

Do aboriginals get free post-secondary education?

Again, it depends. And again, Inuit and Métis are exempted from the free post-secondary education that some Status Indians receive.

This is how it works: Ottawa provides education money to Indian bands, which in turn decide whose education to finance.

"Not everyone is entitled to the money � There's a cap. The money has been frozen for 20 years or so," says Victoria De La Ronde, director of treaty policy with the Department of Indian and Northern Affairs.

Because there is only so much money for post-secondary education, she says some bands may decide to fund only those pursuing their first degree, or perhaps only those living on the reserve.


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Total population of Canada: 31,414,000

Total people of aboriginal origin: 1,319,890


North American Indian:
More than one aboriginal origin:


People of aboriginal origin living on reserve: 285,625

People of aboriginal origin living off reserve: 1,034,260

People of non-aboriginal origin living on reserve: 36,230

(Source: 2001 Census, Statistics Canada)
*includes people of a single aboriginal origin and those of a mix of one aboriginal origin with non-aboriginal origins

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National Aboriginal Day (official website)

National Aboriginal Day by the Numbers, Statistics Canada

Gov. Gen. Rom�o LeBlanc's speech at Rideau Hall on June 13, 1996

Statistics Canada profile on aboriginal Canadians

Indian and Northern Affairs Canada

The Assembly of First Nations

Canadian Museums Association

Haisla Totem Pole Repatriation Project

Canadian Museum of Civilization Repatriation Policy

Sacred and Secular Artifacts - from the Royal Commission on Aboriginal Peoples

Metis National Council

Inuit Tapiriit Kanatami

Native Women's Association of Canada

Congress of Aboriginal Peoples

Grand Council of the Crees

Treaties - Text

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