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Ethnic Groups, Indigenous Peoples

Gustafson Lake, European Canadians, indigenous Canadians, territorial court, Bearlake

Indigenous peoples, designated in the census as “Aboriginal,” made up about 3 percent of Canada’s inhabitants in 1996. They live across Canada in every province and territory, with about 45 percent concentrated in the Prairie provinces, according to the 1996 census. Less than half of Canada’s indigenous peoples live on reserves set aside for Indian bands. In the Arctic and sub-Arctic, where the climate has discouraged permanent European settlement, they are the majority. They divide themselves into nations, each with a traditional territory, language, and culture. The groupings and homelands have changed over time. For example, the Bearlake only became a nation in the 20th century; the Neutral and several neighboring nations were broken up in the 17th century; and the Sioux did not arrive in Canada until the 19th century.

The federal Indian Act recognizes four categories of indigenous people: Status Indians, who are registered on an official roll; Inuit; Metis, people of mixed European and indigenous heritage; and non-Status Indians, people of indigenous descent who are not on the official roll. For administrative purposes, indigenous peoples in Canada are also divided according to band. A band is the smallest indigenous political unit; there are about 600 bands in Canada, corresponding roughly to local indigenous communities.

The indigenous peoples speak many different languages, engage in different cultural processes, pursue economic well-being in diverse ways, and have created a variety of governing systems. Yet they have historically shared many characteristics and conditions of life. The land continues to have social and cultural significance for a large proportion of them. Their relation to the land has not been well understood by European Canadians.

Land and resource development has had social costs for indigenous people, particularly those living in the north. In the first place, it often destroys fragile physical environments. With the loss or reduction of traditional hunting and fishing lifestyles comes damage to indigenous identities and self-esteem. Furthermore, the economic benefits of development mostly accrue to developers rather than local people. Even where indigenous Canadians have negotiated a share in the profits, economic benefits tend to be only temporary while the social problems associated with a rapid influx of people and money are often of longer duration.

Tensions have sometimes erupted into violence. The most serious confrontations have occurred in Oka, Quebec, and Gustafson Lake, British Columbia, where armed standoffs with police lasted many days. Smaller incidents, such as blockades across access roads to resource sites, are becoming more common. Problems are generally related to disagreements over land use and ownership. The situation is unlikely to improve until land negotiations between governments and indigenous peoples are complete.

The Canadian government, through the Department of Indian Affairs and Northern Development (DIAND), administers the Indian Act and other legislation relating to Status Indians. The Department is responsible for meeting the federal government’s treaty obligations, negotiating with Status Indian communities regarding increased autonomy for these communities, supporting indigenous people’s economic development and self-sufficiency, and negotiating with them to resolve their land claims.

DIAND has begun transferring to indigenous reserves the responsibility of managing their own affairs. These communities now control 77 percent of all funding from Indian and Inuit Affairs, one of the four programs within DIAND. The program provides funds for housing; education; economic development; child, family, and adult care services; and other social services, including initiatives to prevent family violence and substance abuse.

Since 1986 the Canadian government has negotiated with indigenous communities to develop self-government. As of March 1993, two such communities, the Cree-Naskapi of Quebec and the Sechelt Band of British Columbia, are self-governing in the sense that they have their own local political entities, which have municipal status and are accountable to an indigenous electorate. This model, however, is not accepted by all indigenous peoples. Some indigenous organizations have demanded a much broader set of powers that would recognize their inherent right to be self-governing, independent of the jurisdiction of the provinces.

In November 1992 Ottawa and the Inuit of the eastern Arctic signed a comprehensive agreement to resolve outstanding grievances. This agreement also authorized the new territory of Nunavut to be created in 1999 from the eastern part of the Northwest Territories. About 80 percent of the people are Inuit (Nunavut is the Inuit word for “our land”), and Nunavut became the first large political unit in North America with an indigenous majority. It is governed by its own legislative assembly, territorial court, and civil service.

Article key phrases:

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