First Nations is a legally undefined term that came into common usage in the 1980s to replace the term Indian band. Elder Sol Sanderson says that he coined the term in the early 1980s. A band is a legally recognized "body of Indians for whose collective use and benefit lands have been set apart or money is held by the Canadian Crown, or declared to be a band for the purposes of the Indian Act". There are currently over 600 recognized First Nations governments or bands in Canada, roughly half of which are in the provinces of Ontario and British Columbia.
As individuals, First Nations people are officially recognized by the Government of Canada by the archaic terms registered Indians or status Indians only if they are listed on the Indian Register and are thus entitled to benefits under the often controversial Indian Act, or as non-status Indian if they are not so listed and thus not entitled to benefits, according to the Canadian state. Administration of the Indian Act and Indian Register is carried out by the federal government's Department of Indian and Northern Affairs.
While still a legal term, the use of the word Indian is erratic and declining in Canada. Some see the term as offensive while others prefer it to terminology such as Aboriginal person/persons/people. Another reason for the decline in the use of this term is purely practical – according to the 2006 Census, there are now more Canadians who identify as being of East Indian ethnicity than there are members of First Nations. The use of the term Native Americans is not common in Canada as it is seen to refer to the Aboriginal peoples of the United States specifically . The parallel term Native Canadian is not commonly used, but natives and autochthones (from Canadian French) are sometimes used. Under the Royal Proclamation of 1763, also known as the "Indian Magna Carta", the Crown refers to indigenous peoples in British territory as "tribes" or "nations". The term First Nations is capitalized, unlike many of the alternative terms. Bands and nations may have slightly different meanings.
There is some controversy over the use of the term First Nations to either self-describe indigenous peoples within Canada, or for non-indigenous peoples to refer to indigenous peoples in this fashion. Under international law covenants, "First Nations" per se have no standing, whereas "indigenous peoples" or "nations" do. The Canadian government, many indigenous people within Canada, and many non-indigenous people use the term First Nations out of respect for the right of indigenous people to describe themselves. In general, indigenous peoples within Canada who identify themselves as "First Nations" do not believe in the status of indigenous peoples as nation-states, while those who do not use the term, or insist on the term indigenous peoples, are sovereigntists. There are also indigenous people in Canada who use the term First Nation for any tribal and/or nomadic ethnic group deprived of self-determination as a political recognition of colonization. Those groups work internationally on minority rights and self-determination.
A national representative body is the Assembly of First Nations. Its chief, Phil Fontaine, and many others, have argued that a citizenship-based membership for each First Nation is needed, instead of only memberships based on bloodlines, race theories, and records of ancestry. If one has to always be a quarter or eighth "Indian", then over a long period of time and mixing with others, there might be very few official "Indians" or natives. Citizenship could be based on other factors, like loyalty to one's community, knowledge and education about the history and politics of that traditional territory, language spoken, and close family and friendship bonds with community members.
Despite an ancient history of their own, First Nations cultures are sometimes written about as if their history begins with the encroachment of Europeans onto the continent. Nevertheless, First Nations' written history, in fact begins at the hands of European authors, as in accounts by trappers, traders, explorers, and missionaries (cf. the Codex canadiensis).
Aboriginal people in Canada have interacted with Europeans as far back as 1000 AD, but prolonged contact came once permanent European settlements were established. These accounts, though biased, generally speak of friendliness on the part of the First Nations, some of whom profited in trade with Europeans. Such trade generally strengthened more organized political entities like the Iroquois Confederation.
As far back as the late 18th century, First Nations have been targeted for assimilation into what is referred to as the European/Canadian culture. These attempts reached a climax with the establishment of the Canadian residential school system, the prohibition of Indigenous cultural practices, and the Indian Acts of the late 19th and early 20th century.
The situation for Indigenous people in the prairies grew very grave, very quickly. Between 1875 and 1885, the North American Bison were hunted almost to extinction; the construction of the Canadian Pacific Railway brought large numbers of white settlers west; governments, police forces, and courts of law were established; and various epidemics continued to devastate Indigenous communities. All of these factors had a profound effect on Indigenous people, particularly those from the plains who relied on the return of the bison every year. Most of those nations that agreed to treaties had negotiated for a guarantee of food, and help to begin farming. Just as the bison finally disappeared (the last Canadian hunt was in 1879), Lieutenant-Governor Edgar Dewdney cut rations to reduce government costs. Between 1880 and 1885, approximately 3,000 Indigenous people starved to death in the Northwest Territories.
Some Cree chiefs resisted these treaties, offended by the very idea. Big Bear refused to sign Treaty 6 until starvation among his people forced his hand in 1882. His attempts to unite Indigenous nations made some progress, and in 1884, two thousand Cree from several reserves met near Battleford in an attempt to organize themselves into a large cohesive resistance. Discouraged by the lack of government response but encouraged by the efforts of the Metis at armed rebellion, Wandering Spirit and other young militant Cree attacked the small town at Frog Lake, killing Thomas Quinn, the hated Indian Agent and eight others. Big Bear actively opposed this violence, but was put on trial for treason and sentenced to three years in prison.
Those nations who managed to maintain their ownership of good lands often farmed successfully. Indigenous people living near the Cowichan and Fraser Rivers, and those from Saskatchewan managed to produce good harvests. Since 1881, those living in the Prairie Provinces required permits from Indian Agents to sell any of their produce, and a pass system was later introduced in the old Northwest Territories requiring indigenous people to seek written permission from an Indian agent before leaving their reserves for any length of time. Those laws, as well as bans on sun dances and potlatches, were regularly defied, as indigenous people attempted to retain their freedom and their culture.
The 1930 Constitution Act or Natural Resources Transfer Agreement allowed for provincial control of crown land and allowed Provincial laws respecting game to apply to Indians, but ensures that "Indians shall have the right ... of hunting, trapping and fishing game and fish for food at all seasons of the year on all unoccupied Crown lands and on any other lands to which the said Indians may have a right of access.
A response by Harold Cardinal and the Indian Chiefs of Alberta (entitled "Citizens Plus" but commonly known as the "Red Paper") explained the widespread opposition to Chrétien's proposal from Status Indians in Canada. Prime Minister Trudeau and the Liberals began to back away from the 1969 White Paper, particularly after the Calder case decision in 1973.
In 1981, Elijah Harper, a Cree from Red Sucker Lake, Manitoba, became the first "Treaty Indian" in Canada to be elected as a provincial politician. In 1990, Harper achieved national fame by holding an eagle feather as he took his stand in the Manitoba legislature and refused to accept the Meech Lake Accord, a constitutional amendment package negotiated to gain Quebec's acceptance of the Constitution Act, 1982. The accord was negotiated in 1987 without the input of Canada's Aboriginal peoples. That was made more irksome given the recent conclusion of the third, final and unsuccessful constitutional conference on Aboriginal peoples. To proceed with its intention, the Manitoba assembly was required to unanimously consent to a motion allowing it to hold a vote on the accord, because of a procedural rule. With only twelve days before the ratification deadline for the Accord, Harper began a filibuster which prevented the assembly from ratifying the accord. Because Meech Lake failed in Manitoba, the proposed constitutional amendment failed. Harper also opposed the Charlottetown Accord in 1992, even though Assembly of First Nations Chief Ovide Mercredi supported it.
Bill C-31 also gave elected bands the power to regulate who was allowed to reside on their reserves and to control development on their reserves. It abolished the concept of "enfranchisement" by which First Nations people could gain certain rights by renouncing their Indian status.
In 1991, Prime Minister Brian Mulroney created the Royal Commission on Aboriginal Peoples. Their report was issued in 1996; its most revolutionary proposal was the creation of a government for (and by) the First Nations that would be fully responsible within its own jurisdiction, and with which the federal government would speak on a "Nation-to-Nation" basis. This proposal offered a far different way of doing politics than the traditional policy of assigning all First Nations matters under the jurisdiction of the Indian and Northern Affairs, managed by one minister of the federal cabinet. The report also recommended providing the governments of the First Nations with up to $2 billion every year until 2010, in order to reduce the economic gap between the First Nations and the rest of the Canadian citizenry. The money would represent an increase of at least 50% to the budget of Indian and Northern Affairs. Finally, the report insisted on the importance of First Nations leaders to actively think of ways to cope with the challenging issues their people were facing, so the First Nations could take their destiny into their own hands.
The federal government, then headed by Jean Chrétien, responded to the report a year later by officially presenting its apologies for the forced acculturation the federal government had imposed on the First Nations, and by offering an "initial" provision of $350 million.
In the spirit of the Eramus-Dussault commission, several tripartite (federal, provincial, and First Nations) accords have been signed since the report was issued. Several political crises between different provincial governments and different bands of the First Nations also occurred in the late 20th century, notably:
In 2001, the Quebec government, the federal government, and the Cree Nation signed "La Paix des Braves" (The Peace of the Braves, a reference to the 1701 peace treaty between the French and the Iroquois League). The agreement allowed Hydro-Québec to exploit the province's hydroelectric resources in exchange for an allocation of $3.5 billion to be given to the government of the Cree Nation. Later, the Inuit of northern Quebec joined in the agreement.
In 2005, the leaders of the First Nations, various provincial governments, and the federal government produced a working paper called the Kelowna Accord, which would have yielded $5 billion over 10 years, but the new federal government of Stephen Harper (2006) did not fully follow through on the working paper.
At present, many First Nations, along with the Métis and the Inuit, claim to receive inadequate funding for education, and allege their rights have been overlooked in many instances. Recently James K. Bartleman, Lieutenant Governor of Ontario, listed the encouragement of indigenous young people as one of his key priorities. During his term that began in 2002, he has launched several initiatives to promote literacy and bridge building. Bartleman himself is the first Aboriginal person to hold the Lieutenant Governor's position in Ontario.
As of 2006, over 75 First Nations communities exist in boil-water advisory conditions. In late 2005, the drinking water crisis of the Kashechewan First Nation received national media attention when E. coli was discovered in their water supply system, following two years of living under a boil-water advisory. The drinking water was supplied by a relatively new treatment plant built in March 1998. The cause of the tainted water was a plugged chlorine injector that was not discovered by local operators, who were not qualified to be running the treatment plant. When officials arrived and fixed the problem, chlorine levels were around 1.7 mg/l, which was blamed for chronic skin disorders such as impetigo and scabies. An investigation led by Health Canada revealed that the skin disorders were likely due to living in squalor. The evacuation of Kashechewan is largely viewed by Canadians as a cry for help for other underlying social and economic issues which Aboriginal people in Canada face.
On June 29, 2007, Canadian Aboriginal groups held countrywide protests aimed at ending First Nations poverty, dubbed the Aboriginal Day of Action. The demonstrations were largely peaceful, although some groups disrupted transportation with blockades or bonfires; a stretch of the Highway 401 was shut down, as was the Canadian National Railway's line between Toronto and Montreal.
The 2006 census counted a total Aboriginal population of 1,172,790 (3.75%) which includes 698,025 North American Indians (2.23%).
There are many distinct First Nations cultures in Canada, originating from all regions of the country. Indian reserves, established in Canadian law by treaties such as Treaty 7, are the very limited contemporary lands of First Nations recognised by the non-indigenous governments. Some reserves are within cities, such as the Opawikoscikan Reserve in Prince Albert, Saskatchewan and such as the Huron-Wendat village in Québec City. There are more reserves in Canada than there are First Nations, as some First Nations were ceded multiple reserves by treaty.
The Indigenous peoples of the Pacific Northwest Coast were centred around ocean and river fishing; in the interior of British Columbia, hunting and gathering and river fishing. In both of these areas the salmon was of chief importance. For the people of the plains, bison hunting was the primary activity. In the subarctic forest, other species such as the moose were more important. For peoples near the Great Lakes and St. Laurence river, shifting agriculture was practised, including the raising of maize, beans, and squash.
Today, First Nations people work in a variety of occupations and many also live outside their ancestor's homes. Nevertheless, the traditional cultures of their ancestors, shaped by nature, still exert a strong influence on their culture, from spirituality to political attitudes.
While a number of First Nation languages are still found in Canada, many of them are presently endangered, with decreasing numbers of speakers.
Today's political organizations are largely the by-product of interaction with European-style methods of government. As well, First Nations political organizations are spread throughout Canada and vary in political standing, viewpoints, and reasons for forming. Most First Nations political organizations arise from the need to be united and to have their opinions heard. First Nations negotiate with the Canadian Government through Indian and Northern Affairs Canada in all affairs concerning land, entitlement, and rights.
However, not all first nation groups belong to these groups. Some groups operate independently.
Life expectancy at birth is significantly lower for First Nations babies than for babies in the Canadian population as a whole. As of 2001, Indian and Northern Affairs Canada estimates First Nations life expectancy to be 8.1 years shorter for males and 5.5 years shorter for females.