First Nations is a term of ethnicity that refers to the Aboriginal peoples in Canada who are neither Inuit nor Métis. There are currently over 600 recognised First Nations governments or bands spread all across Canada, roughly half of which are in the provinces of Ontario and British Columbia. Under the Employment Equity Act, First Nations are a designated group along with women, visible minorities, and persons with disabilities. They are not a visible minority under the Act and in the view of Statistics Canada.
The term First Nations (most often used in the plural) has come into general use for the Indigenous peoples of the Americas located in what is now Canada, except for the Arctic-situated Inuit, and peoples of mixed ancestry called Métis. The singular, commonly used on culturally politicised reserves, is the awkward First Nations person (when gender-specific, First Nations man or First Nations woman). A more recent trend is for members of various nations to refer to themselves by their tribal or national identity only, e.g. “I’m Haida,” “we’re Kwantlens,” in recognition of the distinctiveness of First Nations ethnicities.
Although the indigenous peoples had thousands of years of cultures in North America, written documentation about them started with the arrival of European explorers and colonists. European accounts by trappers, traders, explorers, and missionaries give important evidence of early contact culture. In addition, archaeological and anthropological research, as well as linguistics, have helped scholars piece together understanding of ancient cultures and historic peoples.
Although not without conflict or slavery, European-Canadians’ early interactions with First Nations and Inuit populations were peaceful compared to the history of American native peoples. Combined with later economic development, this relatively peaceful history has allowed First Nations peoples to have a strong influence on the national culture, while preserving their own identities.
The term First Nations can be confusing. Collectively, First Nations, Inuit, and Métis peoples constitute Aboriginal peoples in Canada, Indigenous peoples of the Americas or first peoples. First Nations is a legally undefined term that came into common usage in the 1980s to replace the term Indian band. Elder Sol Sanderson says that he coined the term in the early 1980s. A band is a legally recognised “body of Indians for whose collective use and benefit lands have been set apart or money is held by the Canadian Crown, or declared to be a band for the purposes of the Indian Act”.
As individuals, First Nations people are officially recognised by the Government of Canada by the terms registered Indians or status Indians only if they are listed on the Indian Register and are thus entitled to benefits under the often controversial Indian Act, or as non-status Indian if they are not so listed and thus not entitled to benefits, according to the Canadian state. Administration of the Indian Act and Indian Register is carried out by the federal government’s Department of Indian and Northern Affairs.
While the word “Indian” is still a legal term, its use is erratic and in decline in Canada. The term may be regarded as offensive, while others prefer it over Aboriginal person/persons/people. According to the 2006 Census, there are more Canadians who identify as being of East Indian ethnicity than there are members of First Nations. The use of the term Native Americans is not common in Canada as it refers more specifically to the Aboriginal peoples of the United States. The parallel term Native Canadian is not commonly used, but natives and autochthones (from Canadian French) are. Under the Royal Proclamation of 1763, also known as the “Indian Magna Carta”, the Crown refers to indigenous peoples in British territory as tribes or nations. The term First Nations is capitalised, unlike alternative terms. Bands and nations may have slightly different meanings.