In 1973, federal policy divided Indigenous legal claims into two broad categories: comprehensive (known as modern treaties); and specific, which make claims based on pre-existing treaties or agreements.

Comprehensive claims deal with Aboriginal rights. These claims are based on the traditional use and occupancy of land by First Nations, Métis and Inuit who did not sign treaties. From 1871 to 1921, Canada entered into a number of treaties with Indigenous peoples. These historic treaties cover much of Ontario and the Prairie Provinces, and parts of British Columbia, Yukon and Northwest Territories. Non-Aboriginal settlement and development of most of the Yukon, the Northwest Territories, British Columbia, Québec, eastern Canada and the northern parts of some provinces proceeded without addressing or extinguishing Aboriginal title to lands. Comprehensive claims settlements from these areas of Canada usually take the form of modern-day treaties and include a variety of terms such as money, land, forms of self-government, rights to wildlife, and provisions for the joint management of lands and resources.

Specific claims originate in First Nations’ claims that the Government of Canada did not fulfill its obligations either under historic treaties or the Indian Act. Types of claims include the inadequate allocation of reserve land, the failure to protect reserve land from unlawful disposition or lease, fraud on the part of government employees, and the misadministration of First Nations’ funds and other assets. Specific claims are settled by negotiation or by court action, and settlements can consist of monetary compensation or land. The Specific Claims Tribunal was formed in 2009 to expedite the final settlement of these grievances, many of which were first pressed by First Nations decades ago.