Gotta Know 'Em, Eh? - Aboriginal Peoples

The constitution defines the term "aboriginal peoples of Canada" to include the (North American) Indian, Inuit and Métis peoples of Canada. A lot of people don't like this usage of the word "Indian", but we use it because it occurs in the constitution and in Canadian law.

Four hundred years ago, 100% of the population of Canada was made up of aboriginal peoples. Today that proportion has declined to 4.4%, but they constitute a much higher fraction of the population in some of the more sparsely populated parts of the country.

  1. Métis: people of mixed European and North American Indian descent. The word métis is old French and means "mixed", just like the Spanish word mestizo used in Latin America. In the broad sense, there are Métis communities in all provinces and territories of Canada, but they are most concentrated in the Prairie provinces. They began as the offspring of French and English and Scottish traders and explorers, and native women, married or living together "according to the custom of the country" (à la façon du pays) — meaning without church blessing, but with a well-defined set of mutual obligations to in-laws and other members of an aboriginal community. Such unions were welcomed by many native groups, but not by the French colonial authorities, who wanted to be able to control their settlers, or by the Hudson's Bay Company, which did not want responsibility for employees' dependants. Métis traders worked for both the HBC and its rival North West Company, and the origin of the Métis as a distinct people is often traced to a violent clash in 1816 between Métis NWC traders and Euro-Canadian HBC settlers at Seven Oaks, in present-day Manitoba. In 1870, when the HBC territories were about to be transferred to Canada, the Métis who made up most of the population of the Red River Colony staged the Red River Rebellion to secure their rights. Their leader, Louis Riel, negotiated the entry of Manitoba as a province. In Saskatchewan in 1885, discontent among Métis resulted in the North West Rebellion, led by Riel, which was crushed by the Canadian government. Unlike North American Indians and Inuit, Métis do not have any treaty rights. The 2001 census enumerated 292,310 people who identified themselves as Métis.
  2. Inuit: populate a vast area of Arctic Canada, plus Greenland, much of Alaska, and eastern Siberia. The word "inuit" means "the people", and the singular "inuk" means a person in their language, Inuktitut, which is still spoken at home by 65% of Canadian Inuit. They have also been known as Eskimo, but in Canada they prefer to be called Inuit. The term "Eskimo" comes from an Algonquian language and was once thought to mean "eater of raw meat." Although this is an erroneous etymology, it is a correct description of their traditional diet, based on caribou, seals, walruses, whales and fish. What distinguishes Inuit from North American Indians is their environment: Indians live south of the treeline, and Inuit live north of it. There are also some genetic differences between the two groups, such as the B blood type that occurs frequently among Inuit but not at all among Indians. Artistically, Inuit are known for their soapstone carvings. The Canadian greeting "chimo" is derived from Inuktitut. Recreationists worldwide can thank the Inuit for the kayak, and those in snowy climates can thank them for inventing the igloo. In 1999, the new territory of Nunavut was established over an area with an 85% Inuit population. There are also high concentrations of Inuit in Nunavik (northern Quebec) and Labrador. The 2001 census counted 45,070 Inuit in Canada, distributed as: 50% Nunavut, 21% Quebec, 10% Newfoundland and Labrador, 9% Northwest Territories, 10% elsewhere.
  3. Iroquois: had their first contact with Europeans in 1534 when Jacques Cartier arrived in the Gulf of St. Lawrence. Cartier kidnapped Domagaya and Taignoagny, two sons of the Iroquois Chief Donnacona, and took them to France. Returning in 1535, the two captives gave Cartier directions to "kanata", which was simply their word for village (in this case Stadacona, now Quebec City), but Cartier assumed it was the name of the whole region — hence "Canada". History does not record what happened in the area between 1542, when the French were chased out, and 1603, when they returned and found that the previously thriving Iroquois villages on the St. Lawrence River had been abandoned. But some time during this period, five other Iroquois groups in what's now New York State had ended their constant feuding and formed the Iroquois Confederacy of the Mohawk, Oneida, Onondaga, Cayuga and Seneca (joined by the Tuscarora in 1722). In a series of wars in the 17th century, the Confederacy was generally supplied by the Dutch and English against the French and some native peoples of the St. Lawrence and Ottawa valleys and the Great Lakes, such as the Huron, whom the Iroquois destroyed. During the American Revolution, Mohawk war chief Joseph Brant and his sister, tribal elder Molly Brant, rallied the Iroquois Confederacy in support of the Loyalist cause, but the Oneida and the Tuscarora supported the rebels instead. With the division of British North America, the Confederacy effectively ended, and the Brants and many other loyalist Iroquois moved to Canada. Traditionally, the Iroquois were horticulturists who subsisted mostly on the "three sisters" of corn, squash, and pole beans, and lived in villages in longhouses. Family status was inherited through the female line.
  4. Cree: are by far the most numerous single North American Indian group in Canada, including about 200,000 people today. Their traditional territory extends from Quebec all the way to Alberta. The Cree in this wide area can be divided by environment and dialect into groups known as the Woods Cree, the Swampy Cree, the Moose Cree, and the Plains Cree. With the arrival of Europeans, many Cree worked in the fur trade and also mixed with the newcomers to form a large component of the Métis people. Although the Cree had generally hostile relations with neighbouring peoples such as the Inuit, the Iroquois, and the Dakota, they did not clash with the Europeans until 1885 when, led by Big Bear, Cree in Saskatchewan joined the North West Rebellion. The Cree language has the most speakers of any aboriginal language in Canada today (92,630 according to the 2001 census). Cree-owned businesses include Air Creebec, an airline serving northern Quebec and Ontario.
  5. Huron: inhabited a rather small area between Georgian Bay and Lake Simcoe, but are important in Canadian history for their alliance with the early French colonists and for the short-lived 17th-century Jesuit mission Sainte-Marie among the Hurons, which was the first European settlement in what is now Ontario. Although they called themselves Wyandot or Wendat, the French gave them a name derived from the word hure, meaning a boar's head, for their characteristic bristled hairstyle that we identify today with the Mohawk (an Iroquois people). The Huron Confederacy was formed by the Bear and Cord nations in about the year 1400, joined in the late 1500s by the Rock and Deer peoples who had been driven out of the St. Lawrence River area by the Iroquois. Culturally, the Hurons were similar to their Iroquois enemies. They spoke a similar language and lived in villages where they grew corn, beans, and squash. In their wars against the Iroquois, the Hurons found an ally in the French under Samuel de Champlain from 1609, and they soon became the principal suppliers of furs to French traders. The Sainte-Marie among the Hurons mission was established in 1639, near present-day Midland, Ontario, more than 1000 km by canoe from Quebec. At first prospering, the settlement was weakened by disease and wiped out by the Iroquois in 1649. The surviving Huron people lived among their captors or dispersed to the west. The most important ceremony in Huron life was the Feast of the Dead, held every ten or twelve years, when each of the four Huron nations would bring the remains of their dead to a common place, clothe them in furs, tell stories about them and give presents to the living persons in attendance.
  6. Beothuk: were the original inhabitants of the island of Newfoundland. The landing of John Cabot and his crew in 1497 was the first recorded interaction between Europeans and any North American aboriginal group, and the expression "Red Indians" may have originated at this time after the visitors saw Beothuk who had smeared their bodies with red ochre, as was their custom. Coastal dwellers who hunted and fished, the Beothuk are remembered for intricately carved pendants made from bone, many uncovered at archaeological sites such as Dildo. With a population that never totaled more than a thousand over the whole island, the Beothuk succumbed to attacks by European people and diseases, becoming extinct in 1829 with the death of Shanawdithit.
  7. Haida: the original inhabitants of the temperate rainforest of British Columbia's Queen Charlotte Islands, which they call Haida Gwaii. The Haida have never been one of the more numerous aboriginal groups on Canada's west coast, but they had a reputation as being the "Vikings of the North Pacific", launching raids on villages from Alaska to northern California. The Haida also became the first northwest coast Indians to have contact with Europeans when in 1774 they traded with the Spaniard Juan Perez Hernandez. But by 1930, they were reduced to just a few hundred people in two villages, Skidegate and Old Massett. Like the other aboriginal inhabitants of Canada's west coast, the Haida had grand potlatch gift-giving ceremonies and totem poles, and made much use of Western redcedar, with the wood going into canoes and houses, and the bark and roots into baskets, mats, clothing, and medicines. Haida sculpture and carving have become especially well known in Canada thanks to people like Bill Reid (1920—1998), who was probably Canada's most celebrated artist working in traditional aboriginal art forms.
  8. Mi'kmaq: also with the simplified spelling Micmac, were the largest group in the Maritime provinces and the Gaspé Peninsula at the time of European arrival. Their name means "allies", and they were organized in a loose confederacy with seven districts, each under a chief called a Saqamaw. The Grand Council of Saqamaws selected one of their own to be Grand Chief, of whom the most famous was Membertou, who was a young man during Cartier's visits in 1534—1542 and as a very old Grand Chief helped Champlain and his men when they arrived in 1604, beginning a long-standing Mi'kmaq alliance with the French. Around this time, they also began to extend their territory to Newfoundland, where they came into conflict with the Beothuk. The Mi'kmaq were seasonally nomadic. During the summer, they lived on the coast, where they fished, gathered shellfish, and hunted seals. For the winter, they moved inland and hunted caribou, moose, and small game, and got around by snowshoe and toboggan (which is originally a Mi'kmaq word).
  9. Dakota: also known as Sioux (the Ojibway name for them), was a confederation of peoples of the Prairies. The name "Dakota" means "allies". Archaeological evidence indicates that they were present in the plains of Saskatchewan and Manitoba before many of them moved to the woodland areas of eastern Manitoba and western Ontario, up to Lake Superior, by around the year 1200. Around 1400, they spread west, and those who were in the prairie territory of the bison lived off this animal for food, clothing, and shelter — including tepees (a Dakota word). In 1659 the Dakota met Europeans for the first time when Radisson and Des Groseilliers visited. Around this time the Dakota were being driven west by their Ojibway enemies, who had firearms from the French. The acquisition of the horse around 1730 allowed the Dakota to expand their territory further in what is now the United States, and to become the dominant group in the Great Plains. In the War of 1812, the Dakota sided with the British, who betrayed them by not consulting them before signing the Treaty of Ghent to end the war. The Dakota scored their biggest military victory against the United States later, in 1876, at the Battle of Little Big Horn. Amid massive U.S. reprisals, Chief Sitting Bull fled with his followers to Saskatchewan, but they were not really welcomed, and were considered "American Indians". Facing starvation, many of these newly arrived Dakota left Canada, as did Sitting Bull himself. However, thousands of Dakota remained in Saskatchewan and Manitoba, where their people had a centuries-long presence.
  10. Ojibway: also called Chippewa or Anishinabe, today number about 140,000 in Canada and are the second most numerous North American Indian group after the Cree. In the 17th century, they lived in the area north of Lakes Superior and Huron, centred on Sault Ste. Marie. After the demise of the Huron people, the Ojibway took over much of the fur trade with the French, spreading southeast in Ontario and also, beginning in the late 18th century, into Manitoba and Saskatchewan, where they pushed their Dakota enemies even further westward. The Ojibway people were divided into seven clans, each with an animal symbol known as a totem (an Ojibway word): Crane, Loon, Fish, Bear, Deer, Marten, and Bird. The typical Ojibway band had members of all seven clans, and marriage within a clan was forbidden. Shania Twain (born Eileen Edwards) is of European ancestry, but was raised in Timmins, Ontario, by an Ojibway stepfather, and chose to call herself "Shania", which means "I'm on my way" in Ojibway.

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