What You Need to Know About Terminology

Status Card


After an audience gets past their unease about asking “the question,” and feels comfortable asking me a question, the most common question I get is “What do I call you? Is it Aboriginal? Indigenous? First Nation?” My response, “Mi’kmaq.” Let me explain.

For many people, that is their burning question because they recognize the derogatory nature of older terms, such as “Indian,” but are unsure about what to use instead. I can understand the confusion when several terms are used in the media and pop culture. The reality is, there are several terms that should be used, depending on the circumstance. And let me also remind you that we, the Indigenous People, are not one homogenous group. We are several tribes, nations and communities. Let me put it this way, are you always a Canadian and nothing more? No, of course not. Sometimes you’re a New Brunswicker, Albertan, Newfoundlander. Sometimes you’re a Haligonian, Torontonian, Winnipegger. Sometimes you’re a Joseph, Wilson, Campbell. All Canadians aren’t part of the same giant group, and so different terminology is needed to reflect the circumstances and context.

Here are some brief definitions to get you started:

Indigenous: is an inclusive term that refers to the collective group of people that were the original inhabitants of the land. More and more communities are embracing this term because it crosses international borders, recognizing the shared history with many other colonized countries. The term “Indigenous” is used by the United Nations and is understood to include the historical continuity with pre-colonial and/or pre-settler societies, strong links to territories and surrounding natural resources, distinct social, economic or political systems, and distinct language, culture and beliefs (Source: http://www.un.org/esa/socdev/unpfii/documents/5session_factsheet1.pdf)

Aboriginal: is an inclusive term which referring to the original inhabitants of this land. It includes 3 groups: Metis, Inuit and First Nation People, as defined Section 35 of the Constitution Act of 1982. However, it is increasingly being met with strong resistance by many communities. We take issue with the prefix “ab” which means “away.” This would mean ab-original means away from original, as in abnormal, abduct, absent.

Metis: is a term that means more than just mixed French and European ancestry. Originally, the term Métis applied to the children of French fur traders and Cree women around the Red and Saskatchewan Rivers, in the Prairies, who went on to create a new culture/community, the Metis Nation.

Inuit: are the People of the Artic and reside primarily in the Yukon, Northwest Territories, Nunavut, northern parts of Quebec and coastal Labrador. They were formerly referred to as “Eskimos,” which came from a word that means 'eater of raw meat'. Now, the Inuit people are officially known as the Inuit, which means 'the people', or singularly, Inuk, which means 'the person' (source: https://www.itk.ca)

First Nation: is a term without a legal definition. It generally refer to the Aboriginal People who lived south of the Arctic. In the 1970’s communities began to use the term “First Nation” to more accurately reflect their identity, replacing the term “Indian” or “band.” It should be noted that this term is not used to refer to Inuit or Metis People.

Native: is a broad term that can be synonymous with “Aboriginal.” It is a collective term to describe the original peoples of this land, but is seen as outdated and is slowly losing acceptance.

Indian: is term used by the first Settlers, who believed they had landed in India, to describe the people they encountered. Due to its historical origins, many feel this term is derogatory and should not be used. However, it is still used, legally, as defined by the Indian Act 1876 and has wide-spread legal implications. Many feel it should be highly restricted to use in legal circumstances, and not used on a daily basis in everyday language.

Band: is a community of Indigenous people, for whom strict areas of land have been set aside by the Crown, for the purposes of the Indian Act 1876. Many communities now prefer to be called First Nations and have changed their names to incorporate First Nation, as in Bear River First Nation rather than Bear River Band.

NOTE: Remember, become familiar with the communities and people around you. If they refer to themselves as Mi’kmaq, Cree, Indigenous, First Nation, then mirror their terminology.

For more discussions and perspectives on terminology and definitions: