First Nations is a term used to describe Indigenous peoples in Canada who are not Métis or Inuit. First Nations people are original inhabitants of the land that is now Canada, and were the first to encounter sustained European contact, settlement and trade. According to the 2016 census by Statistics Canada, 977,230 people in Canada identified as being of First Nations heritage, a growth of 39.3 per cent since 2006. There are 634 First Nations in Canada, speaking more than 50 distinct languages.
For more detailed information on specific First Nations, see Indigenous Peoples in Canada.
Section 35 of the Constitution Act of 1982 declares that Aboriginal peoples in Canada include Indian (First Nations), Inuit and Métis peoples. First Nations people are often known by other names, like Indians, Natives or Amerindians. These names may be problematic, as some have negative connotations, while others (Indian in particular) have specific legal meanings in Canada. Using any general term almost always requires further clarification. For the most part, First Nations people are Status or Treaty Indians registered with their home reserve, band or community.
“First Nations” should be used exclusively as a general term, as community members are more likely to define themselves as members of specific nations, or communities within those nations. For example, a Mohawk (Kanienkehaka) person from Akwesasne who is a member of the Bear clan may choose any number of identifiers, which would all be more accurate than simply “First Nations person” “Indigenous.” When discussing groups of people from differing backgrounds, it is appropriate to use First Nations as a general group name, (e.g., a group of First Nations chiefs) provided that there are no Inuit or Métis members.
Before the 1980s, the most popular term for a person of First Nations heritage in Canada was Indian. In 1980, hundreds of chiefs met in Ottawa and used “First Nations” for the first time in their Declaration of the First Nations. In 1982, the National Indian Brotherhood became the Assembly of First Nations, the political voice for First Nations people in Canada. Symbolically, the term elevates First Nations to the status of "first among equals" alongside the English and French as founding nations of Canada. It is also reflective of the sovereign nature of many communities, and the ongoing quest for self-determination and self-government. The term is not used by Indigenous peoples outside Canada.
Indigenous peoples have been in Canada since time immemorial. They formed complex social, political, economic and cultural systems before Europeans came to North America.
With colonization and white settlement, traditional Indigenous ways of life were forever altered. Colonial practices and policies, such as the Indian Act, pass system, reserves and residential schools, sought to control and assimilate Indigenous peoples. These have had historic and ongoing impacts on generations of Indigenous peoples.
Such practices and polices, when combined with racism, acts of segregation, loss of land, and declining or unequal access to food resources and public services, have had devastating consequences on the health and socio-economic well-being of Indigenous peoples. (See also Social Conditions of Indigenous Peoples and Economic Conditions of Indigenous Peoples.)
Many First Nations have signed treaties with the Crown. These agreements have allowed for the use of Indigenous lands in exchange for annual payments and/or other benefits. Treaties form the constitutional and moral basis of alliance between Indigenous peoples and Canada.
Population and Communities
First Nations people may live on or off reserve, they may or may not have legal status under the Indian Act, and they may or may not be registered members of a band or nation. Communities may be large or small, and relatively urban or extremely remote, and exist throughout Canada, though only the Gwich’in and Sahtu extend north of the Arctic Circle.
According to the 2016 census by Statistics Canada, 977,230 people in Canada identified as being of First Nations heritage. There are 634 First Nations communities in Canada, speaking more than 50 distinct languages.
Socio-economic conditions, including health, income, education, employment and community, contribute to the well-being of all people. Among First Nations peoples (as well as Indigenous peoples, in general), socio-economic conditions have been impacted by the dispossession of cultural traditions, social inequities, prejudice and discrimination. While progress with respect to socio-economic conditions is being achieved, gaps between the socio-economic conditions of Indigenous people and non-Indigenous people in Canada persist.
In July 2019, a report co-authored by the Assembly of First Nations (AFN) and the Canadian Centre for Policy Alternatives revealed that 47 per cent of the 254,100 status First Nations children in Canada live in poverty. Nationally, status First Nations children are nearly four times more likely to live in poverty than non-Indigenous, non-racialized children. The study, titled Towards Justice: Tackling Indigenous Child Poverty in Canada, was published by Upstream Institute, a national communication think tank. The authors of the report, Natasha Beedie, David Macdonald and Daniel Wilson tracked child poverty using Statistics Canada ’s 2006 Census, 2011 National Household Survey and 2016 Census.The also study revealed differences in the poverty rate for status First Nations children living on-reserve (53 per cent) and those living off-reserve (41 per cent). (See also Reserves.)
Poverty rates were highest on the Prairies, with status First Nations children in Manitoba and Saskatchewan living on reserves facing extreme poverty rates of 65 per cent. In comparison, recent studies reveal that non-Indigenous children in Manitoba and Saskatchewan have poverty rates of 15 per cent and 16 per cent, respectively. In Quebec, the poverty rate for First Nations children living on reserves has fallen to 29 per cent, most likely due to the results of agreements between First Nations and the province to share natural resource revenues (such as Hydro-Québec revenues). The national poverty rate for the 4.5 million non-Indigenous children (not including racialized and recent immigrant children), the biggest group in the country, is 12 per cent.
AFN National Chief Perry Bellegarde declared that “The findings of this report are shameful and underscore the urgent need to invest in First Nations children, families and communities. Our children face the worst social and economic conditions in the country.… It’s beneficial to all Canadians to close the gap in quality of life between First Nations and Canada.” The AFN and authors of Towards Justice believe that a “national poverty strategy,” with self-determination for Indigenous peoples, increased government funding and resource revenue sharing arrangements between Indigenous peoples and government, should be implemented immediately to tackle and reduce child poverty among Indigenous children.