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The First Nations 101: Getting the Facts

Updated on April 13, 2017

It is unfortunate stereotypical generalizations still exist about the First Nations in Canada. Over 72% of aboriginal people now live in urban centers, only a small proportion of the population have stayed on reserves in Canada. Admittedly, being a person of Metis Heritage and an advocate on mental health and addictions recovery issues, there are certainly many issues that have affected the First Nations. Truth be told. First, let us look at heritage to understand where we come from....

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An Ancient People

According to scientific research, specifically recent Anthropological DNA research clearly indicates the First Nations were once a unique tribe who originated in Africa and then migrated. They are indeed a genetically unique group who share the same Alleles within their chromosomal structures. Of course, the other three groups that came out of Africa besides the First Nations were the Africans, Caucasians and Asians.

The First Nations migrated to Asia and Siberia and then other areas between 30,000 to 50,000 years ago. Scientists speculate this occurred by land at the end of the last ice age or by ocean. During this time period, they dispersed and some migrated through out North, Central and South America. The North American woodland aboriginals settled 12,000 years ago while the plains and grassland aboriginals are thought to have settled about 10,000 years ago in their respective destinations. Historical estimates for the population of North America, pre-Columbian period, are about 100 million Indigenous people. This is a high number considering the population of Canada is 35 million.

Typically, ancient aboriginals were hunter gatherers yet migration to different lands and climate provided opportunity for adaptation.Each unique aboriginal community adapted to their northern lands in creative ways, The eastern woodland aboriginals developed tools and horticulture growing beans, corn and squash and also tobacco. In the Maritimes, they relied predominantly on fishing. In the northern regions, aboriginals migrated with the seasonal migration of animals and hunted buffalo, moose, deer and beaver. Aboriginal communities relied heavily on trade between regions and some groups served as facilitators and intermediaries.

Turtle Island: North American Aboriginal Settlements Before Colonization

North American First Nations civilizations were organized  and connected through trade and migration. The North American Tribes referred to North America as Turtle Island after an ancient creation myth in their mutual culture.
North American First Nations civilizations were organized and connected through trade and migration. The North American Tribes referred to North America as Turtle Island after an ancient creation myth in their mutual culture. | Source

Justice: Why we can't just 'get over it'.

First Nations Facts

  • 1,400,685 people had an Aboriginal identity in 2011, representing 4.3% of the total Canadian population.
  • In 2011, 451,795 people identified as Métis. They represented 32.3% of the total Aboriginal population and 1.4% of the total Canadian population.
  • There are more than 600 First Nations/Indian bands in Canada
  • The census metropolitan areas with the largest populations of First Nations people with registered Indian status who lived off reserve were Winnipeg (25,970), Edmonton (18,210) and Vancouver (15,080)
  • First Nations people who were not Registered Indians represented 25.1% (213,900) of the total First Nations population in Canada.

Reference: 2011 Census, Statistics Canada

New France

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Disambiguation of History

Often history is rewritten and edited by the winners of conquest. There are variations that exist in different books and sites. Let us clarify...

Before the arrival of any explorers, the land area of North America and it's aboriginal civilizations was called "Turtle Island' named after a creation story in aboriginal legend. Legend and folklore also indicates that the first visitors to the North American coast were the Norse Vikings in the tenth century. The Canadian and British Governments uphold, however, that the first formal discovery was made by John Cabot in 1497. John Cabot was an Italian navigator under the commission of Henry VII of England. At that time, Britain had chosen to settle the southern parts of the Atlantic Coast and Newfoundland. (See Map).

In 1524, King Francis I of France sent Italian-born Giovannii Verranzzo to explore the western coast seeking a route to the Pacific. Verrazzano gave the names Francesca and Nova Gallia to that land between New Spain and English Newfoundland. Later in 1534, Jacques Cartier explored the the coast and the St. Lawrence River. The French settled peaceful colonies with First Nations peoples and Acadia which resulted in the country of New France. .(See Map).

The Wabanaki Confederation of First Nations people who lived in Acadia included the Mi'kmaq, Maliseet, Passamaquoddy, Abernaki and Penobscot nations. Nations in the Confederacy were also closely allied with the Innu and Algonquin, and Wyandot. They intermarried with the French and created mixed blood people called the Metis. After 1783, Negro settlers, refugees from the U.S also settled in this region.

Beginning in 1688, members of the Wabanaki Confederacy and Acadians participated in six major wars allied with the French before the British defeated them in North America:

New France had about 70,000 inhabitants but the British American colonies outnumbered them with over a million people. Their numbers dwindled due to lengthily wars, famine and illness. After defeat of Acadia in 1710, the Acadian Expulsion (1755–1764) by the British Military took place deporting over 11,500 people out of the country. The British government continued to use military, diplomatic and economic force to secure control of additional territories from Aboriginals especially in the West which lead to the Metis rebellions in the 1800s.

References: Wikipedia and CBC

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Concerning Facts

  • Suicide is the leading cause of death for First Nations people between the ages of 10 and 44.
  • Almost half (48.1%) of all children aged 14 and under in foster care were Aboriginal children.
  • A child born in a First Nations community is twice as likely to live in poverty,
  • Is four times more likely to drop out of school
  • Aboriginals are eight times more likely to be unemployed
  • Aboriginals are nine times as likely to know prison or addiction compared to a non-First Nations child down the street.
  • Aboriginal women are almost three times more likely to be killed by a stranger than non-Aboriginal women are

The Drive to Civilize the Aboriginal

The Indian Act was imposed upon First Nations peoples in 1876 and remains as the federal government's response to past treaties. It outlines how 'assigned' lands owned by the Crown are to be occupied and utilized by Aboriginal Bands. These lands, for the most part, were lands assigned that had little value such as stony lands unsuitable for farming. The same can be said of lands granted under the Metis Settlement Act. Natural resources belong to the Crown so reserves are poor places with no formal education system or infrastructure for children and very few employment opportunities for youth and adults.

Life on a Reserve: Hobbema/Maskwasis

A Traumatized People

In the 1900's, the Canadian government developed an 'aggressive assimilation' policy creating industrial schools for aboriginals where over 1,500 children were apprehended, some kidnapped, and forced into 130 church-run schools. Children were subjected to mental, physical and sexual abuses at the hands of members of the Catholic, United, Anglican and Presbyterian Churches.

Canada Dodges the Issues

It seems the federal government of Canada, charged with First Nations negotiations as outlined in the Indian Act, are dodging the issues. Canada was the only country that refused to sign the U.N Declaration on Indigenous Rights. Canada has refused to create a formal inquiry into the over 1,000 cases of missing and murdered aboriginal women over the past 30 years in the country. Canada refused to implement the 444 recommendations made by the Royal Commission on Aboriginal people in 1996. This plan is the framework required to restore fairness but Canada did not invest in it.

Canada pursues to exploit natural resources on reserve lands yet refuses to share the benefits with the First Nations. Canada refuses to implement proper and equal educational opportunities for aboriginal children. Canada's most unhealthy and failing infrastructure is on aboriginal reserves yet refuses to address it. All of this compounds the situation that this is a desperate and struggling people in need of recognition and healthy intervention- not assimilation tactics.

From generations of self-defense wars to assignment on hopeless reserves to residential schools and modern foster care- the aboriginal people of Canada are a traumatized, stigmatized and marginalized people that deserve fairness, reconciliation and restorative justice.

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About the Author

Claudine L. Fleury is a person of Metis Heritage (Sioux/French Acadian), a former political aide and is now a market researcher, lobbyist and public advocate. She celebrates her heritage with participation in aboriginal culture and resides in Red Deer, Alberta, Canada.

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    • profile image

      Doug Cunningham 

      18 months ago

      In a land so blessed and rich, that we have people without access to potable water or adequate fire protection is absurd and shameful. To quote the idiot Trump, "Sad".

    • Claudine Fleury profile imageAUTHOR

      Claudine Fleury 

      4 years ago from Alberta, Canada

      It is true of both our countries and hopefully with further education, communication and advocacy, we can work together to solve some of the issues we face. Thanks for your comments. :)

    • profile image

      Howard Schneider 

      4 years ago from Parsippany, New Jersey

      Very interesting and informative Hub, Claudine. I never knew that Canada had similar problems in dealing with Native peoples as the U.S. does. I should call them mishandlings. The U.S. eventual herding of Native Americans into tribal reservations was and is simply a crime that these people still deal with. Unfortunately Canadian indigenous people are suffering the same fate.

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