Before you set sail on your Canadian holiday, you might be interested to know a little more about one of Canada’s most vibrant communities. First Nations are an Aboriginal group in Canada and are one of the country’s original inhabitants. They are a fascinating people with a vibrant culture and rich history. There’s a lot to learn about them but with this introductory guide, we hope to give you an interesting insight into the First Nations of Canada, acting as a useful primer for any holiday or escorted tour of Canada.
Indigenous people in Canada
First Nations are one of three Aboriginal groups in Canada, with the term ‘aboriginal’ referring to First Nations, Inuit, and Métis. Each of the three groups were Canada’s first inhabitants but should not be confused with one another – First Nations, Inuit, and Métis each have their own history, culture and communities. The Aboriginal Canadians that reside in the Arctic area are known as Inuit while the Métis developed after relations between First Nations peoples and Europeans, and today have their own distinct culture.
Image credit: Indigenous Walks
Indigenous Walks, which hosts wonderfully educational and fascinating walking tours through downtown Ottawa, talks about all three of Indigenous groups in Canada. We asked the team at Indigenous Walks what they believe is the first thing people should know about Canada’s Indigenous peoples. They told us:
“First and foremost that there is more than one group of Indigenous peoples in Canada. First Nations are a very diverse group but Métis and Inuit Indigenous people are important Indigenous groups in Canada as well. There are over 800 First Nation reserves in Canada; there are also First Nation Territories and communities, both rural and urban. There are Métis settlements in Canada and Inuit people who, though are from the north, have the largest urban population outside of the north.”
The staff at Indigenous Walks are a great group to learn about Indigenous peoples from. Their walking tours, as they explained to us, look at monuments, landscapes, architecture and artworks “while exploring social, political and cultural issues from an Indigenous perspective.”
Who are Canada’s First Nations?
First Nations are the predominant Aboriginal Canadians south of the Arctic and have been in Canada for at least 12,000 years. The term ‘First Nations’ came into common use in the 1980s, replacing the term ‘Indians’. First Nations is quite a general term as community members will likely refer to themselves as being members of specific nations and even communities that reside within those nations. However, the term First Nations, as a general group name of Aboriginal people from different backgrounds, is indeed appropriate (excluding, as mentioned, Inuit and Métis peoples).
First Nations communities and Population
There are a vast number of First Nations communities in Canada – 634 being the current number registered. More than half of First Nations communities are found in British Columbia and Ontario. As of 2011, 1.3 million people are identified as being of First Nations heritage, which equates to roughly 4% of Canada’s population (35 million as of 2016). A 2011 survey also found that First Nations make up 61% of Canada’s Aboriginal population. First Nations communities vary widely in size, being both large and small and existing in both very remote and urban locations across the country. Demonstrating just how general the term First Nations can be, out of the 634 communities, more than 50 distinct languages are spoken.
First Nations reserves
Reserves are tracts of land that have been set aside purely for First Nations and today, approximately 40% of First Nations people reside on these reserves. Due to the remote nature of some reserves, employment can be an issue which has led to gas stations being one way in which communities support themselves as these provide regular employment opportunities. Some First Nations reserves have even opened themselves up to the public, allowing visitors to learn more about Canada’s Indigenous peoples and culture – perfect for those wanting to learn more during their Canadian holiday.
Tsleil-Waututh Nation in North Vancouver, BC, home to the Coast Salish peoples, is one such reserve. Known as ‘The People of the Inlet’, this community has inhabited the lands and waters of this area for generations. Today this nation stands at over 500 people and has increased by more than 200% in the last 30 years. Visitors can experience Tsleil-Waututh Nation first hand and enjoy the majestic natural environment with Takaya Tours – a First Nation canoe and kayak company who operate canoe tours around the inlet.
Another reserve is Six Nations of the Grand River, situated just outside of Toronto and home to a vibrant Haudenosaunee community of First Nations peoples. This reserve welcomes visitors, encouraging people to come and experience their rich history, traditions and the largest area of untouched Carolinian forests left in Canada. At Six Nations, visitors can canoe the Grand River, go hiking and hear the story of this grand community.
Six Nations is also home to Chiefswood National Historic Site – a fascinating location that reveals a lot about the history of the area and of First Nations in Canada. “Chiefswood National Historic Site (CNHS) was built between 1853 and 1856 and was home to the Johnson family,” the site’s cultural co-ordinator told us. “The site was also the birthplace and childhood home of the famous poetess, E. Pauline Johnson, whose poetry and performances highlighted her Haudenosaunee and British background.
“CNHS is known for its Georgian architecture and is the only one of its kind on the Six Nations Reserve. Chiefswood provides guided tours and school programming that educates community members and visitors of all ages about the Johnson family, their Haudenosaunee and British heritage, the house’s unique architecture and insight into how the family spent their time at home.
“Chiefswood National Historic Site is located on the Six Nations of the Grand River Reserve and also educates visitors on Haudenosaunee culture, traditions and heritage which is integrated into all forms of the site’s programming that includes tours, education workshops, pamphlets and events. The site strives to inform and educate all visitors about Haudenosaunee and British culture, Victorian period lifestyle and the history of the Johnson family.”
Visiting First Nations communities
Image Credit: NOMADasaurus
Jarryd, from the travel and photography blog NOMADasaurus, has travelled extensively and has first-hand experience of visiting the First Nations community in Alert Bay, Vancouver. To provide potential visitors with some great insight, we reached out to Jarryd and asked him about his experience:
“I hitchhiked for two days with my partner from Victoria at the bottom of Vancouver Island to Port McNeill in the north, then jumped on a ferry to Alert Bay with the goal of meeting the famous tattoo artist, Bart Willis. I had only planned to spend a few days on the island but was immediately welcomed by the First Nations community and ended up spending over a week there. I had the honour and the privilege of learning about their culture and history direct from the people, and even met the legendary carver Wayne Alfred, who invited me to his home to watch him work. My experience in Alert Bay was immensely positive and has left a huge impact on my life and passion for studying cultures around the world.”
We made sure to ask Jarryd what his main takeaway was from his experience and what he would like to convey to others about Canada’s First Nations: “Their love and passion for the earth and each other is incredible,” Jarryd explained, “and they have one of the most fascinating Indigenous histories of any culture on the planet. From their connection to the land and oceans to their intricate dance and totems, there is so much to learn and discover from the First Nations people.”
First Nations Pow Wow
Image credit: Calgary Stampede
As will become eminently clear upon spending time in Indigenous communities, First Nations have an incredibly vibrant culture, and nowhere is this encapsulated more than with the First Nations Pow Wow. A Pow Wow is a celebration where communities come together with dance and song – a multi-faceted event that must be seen to be believed. Originally held in celebration of a successful hunt or for victorious war parties, Pow Wows sadly became forbidden for a time but today are held without interference and are an extremely fun way for visitors to get involved in Canada’s Indigenous culture.
Such events are held throughout the country, including at Calgary Stampede’s First Nations Village – there is even a Pow Wow competition that visitors are invited to watch and participate in.
Another event to seek out is the annual Akwesasne International Pow-Wow in Ontario, which showcases the Akwesasne Pow-Wow and also attracts First Nations from across the land to participate in this grand cultural celebration.
First Nations art
One of the main ways that visitors to Canada will experience First Nations culture is through the incredibly vibrant art of these communities. Historically, First Nations art was regularly used for practical purposes, including in ceremonies and for storytelling, often taking the form of sculptures and totems. Upon arrival in many Canadian destinations, you will notice the distinct artistic endeavours of First Nations people, with many fascinating symbolic designs throughout cities like Vancouver that help tell the story of Canada’s Indigenous population.
Stanley Park in Vancouver is home to some wonderful pieces of First Nations art, as the park is the traditional territory of the Tsleil-Waututh First Nations. Visitors can see canoes, totems, and beautiful ceremonial pieces. While in Vancouver, stopping by the Bill Reid Gallery would be another wonderful opportunity to experience this seminal aspect of First Nations culture. The gallery houses special exhibitions of contemporary Indigenous art and even has a shop selling works, jewellery and gifts inspired by the gallery’s exhibitions.
First Nations’ belief system
First Nations people have huge respect for the natural world and believe that people should live in harmony with it. First Nations believe that their values and traditions were bestowed as gifts from the Creator and the community Elders place high importance on vocalising stories and legends which have been passed down from generation to generation. The respect First Nations people have for the natural world is often demonstrated and visualised via songs, dance and ceremonies. First Nations spiritualism has been suppressed in times gone by, but many communities continue and have revised the traditions in the present day.
First Nations and the fur trade
First Nations, during the 1500s, traded widely and harmoniously with Europeans, where they would exchange fur for items such as firearms and other European goods. This new system of commerce proved to be hugely profitable for First Nations and led to inland trade routes being established. Hudson’s Bay Company was one such fur trader and this company helped transform the local economy by taking advantage of Europeans’ huge demand for fur. Today, Hudson’s Bay Company still exists as a significant player in Canada’s retail space.
Supporting Indigenous communities today
True North Aid, a registered Canadian charity that is committed to serving northern Indigenous communities in Canada with practical humanitarian support, performs some incredibly important work for Indigenous communities. We spoke to True North Aid to learn more about First Nations and other Indigenous communities in the present day, as well as the challenges faced:
“Canada is a very prosperous nation but sadly, over 60% of children living in northern Indigenous communities live below the poverty line. Some of the most important issues facing northern communities is the reality that almost 20% do not have access to clean drinking water. Housing shortages continue to plague many northern communities leaving families in difficult situations and access to education continues to be a challenge for many First Nations youth.
“The issues facing Indigenous communities in Canada are complex and the result of many things that have transpired over the past 150 years. True North Aid believes that the right to self-governance and self-determination are key to closing the poverty gap as young people are inspired and empowered to pursue their dreams and build their own communities.”
Regarding what needs to be done to address these issues, the charity told us: “True North Aid has identified eight areas of support. These include reconciliation, self-determination, food, water, housing, health, education and hope. Under these areas, we are developing projects & initiatives in partnership with individuals and organizations who are committed to making a difference. Through networking and relationships, we identify members of Indigenous communities we can come alongside to serve and support.
“Canadians from coast to coast are tired of seeing and hearing about the challenges of their northern neighbours. We receive calls and messages every day from people wanting to help in a multitude of ways. We understand the importance of developing a model where we are not doing our work for them but with them and empowering them so they can empower, serve and support their own communities. Together we can make a difference.
“We also believe that educating non-indigenous Canadians is key to fighting poverty. As Canadians understand the tragic history of non-indigenous/indigenous relations in Canada, we begin to understand why we find ourselves in this present situation and attitudes and prejudice begin to change. As this shift begins to happen we can then embrace our First Peoples and their incredible culture and all it has to offer us. We believe we have more to learn from them then they would have from us.”
To learn more about True North Aid and their important work, make sure to visit their projects page.
Aboriginal museums of British Columbia
Image credit: Destination British Columbia
British Columbia is home to a true plethora of Aboriginal museums that are great wells of knowledge regarding Indigenous peoples, helping visitors to learn about British Columbia’s Aboriginal communities. There’s Ksan Historical Village and Museum (which holds approximately 600 ceremonial and utilitarian materials), Secwepemc Museum and Heritage Park (which features full-scale pithouse replicas representing the Plateau Pithouse Tradition), and the Squamish Lil’wat Cultural Centre (which offers tours every hour by Aboriginal ambassadors who share their stories with visitors). There are just a few examples of what can be discovered, and to learn a little more, head on over to Destination British Columbia – a supreme resource on the area.
For a little background on the region, Indigenous Tourism Association of British Columbia, a non-profit, membership-based organisation that is committed to growing and promoting a sustainable, culturally rich Indigenous tourism industry, spoke to us about British Columbia’s Indigenous peoples: “British Columbia is the most diverse province in Canada for Indigenous peoples. There are 203 different First Nations in BC, with over 600 in total for all of Canada. BC is the most linguistically rich province in Canada for First Nations with 34 languages and approximately 60 dialects. The living cultures are rich and vibrant and continue to be the way of modern living with a strong connection between the people, culture and land.”
Indigenous Tourism BC also recommended that those interested in learning more should make sure to “layer in culture and wildlife viewing to immerse your visit with an experience to the U’mista Cultural Centre, the Haida Heritage Centre or try cuisine and wines at Salmon n Bannock in Vancouver.”
National Aboriginal Day
The history of First Nations today lives on via communities, reserves, museums and festivals. One such way these people are recognised, along with Canada’s other Aboriginal people, is via the country’s National Aboriginal Day. Finding its beginning on June 21, 1996, the Aboriginal peoples of Canada see their history and present-day contributions to Canadian society celebrated with the special day being a part of the annual Celebrate Canada festivities. National Aboriginal Day also happens to coincide with summer solstice which many Aboriginal groups use to celebrate their distinct heritage.
Image Credit: Kilby Historic Site archive, Historic image from the Hulton Archive