Terminology

Individuals and Nations may have preferred terminology. Always check first with those you’re writing about.

Aboriginal

Legal term in Canada when referring to Aboriginal rights under s.35 of the Constitution Act, 1982.

Band Councils

Use this term only to describe leadership operating under the Indian Act. The term may not be appropriate when self-government agreements such as treaties are in place. Review the Profile of Indigenous Peoples to learn more about the government structure of a Nation.

First Nation(s)

  • Identifies one of the three populations of Indigenous Peoples within Canada, the other two being Métis and Inuit
  • An individual’s heritage which can be a combination of any or all three
  • Usually the term ‘First Nations’ is plural when used as an adjective and singular or plural as a noun
  • First Nations people identify with their ancestral Indigenous origins and do not like to have their identity tied to reserve status, which is a colonial construct through the Indian Act
  • Many First Nation communities in Canada are still governed by the Indian Act, and are referred to as Bands
  • First Nation refers to the political governance entity and is made up of members of the First Nation community

Hereditary Chiefs

Hereditary Chiefs inherit their title. Their responsibilities and governing principles are according to the history and cultural values of their community. Hereditary Chiefs are the caretakers of the people and the culture. In addition to governance responsibilities, they may carry or share the responsibility of ensuring the traditions, protocols, songs, and dances of the community are respected and kept alive.

Indigenous

  • The term ‘Indigenous Peoples’ includes First Nations, Inuit and Métis people in Canada
  • Although used as a synonym to Aboriginal, Indigenous is the preferred term
  • Individuals are more likely to identify with their Nation than the term Indigenous

Inuit and Inuk

  • Indigenous people who live in the Arctic regions of what is now Canada, Greenland, United States of America and Siberia
  • Identifies one of the three populations of Indigenous Peoples within Canada, the other two being First Nations and Métis
  • Inuit in Canada are part of the Indian Act and at the same time do not have ‘status’. They have their own history of land claims and journey of returning to self-governance
  • Inuit in B.C. do not currently have political representation within B.C. 
  • Inuit – plural, ‘we’re Inuit’
  • Inuit - adjective or collective noun. For example:
    • ‘No matter where Inuit live, whether in Nunavut or elsewhere, they share certain ideals, beliefs and ways of life.’[1]
    • ‘An Inuit drum’
  • Inuk - singular noun referring to an individual. ‘This Inuk is a celebrated Inuit musician’ is correct, but not ‘The musician is an Inuk’ or ‘They’re an Inuk musician’

Métis

  • Indigenous peoples with ancestral lineage that can be traced back to the historic Métis Nation Homeland
  • Identifies one of the three populations of Indigenous Peoples within Canada, the other two being First Nations and Inuit
  • Nation-specific term with unique culture recognized by the federal government
  • Can be singular or plural, noun or adjective
  • Métis people possess both First Nations and European ancestry. However, not all people with mixed First Nations and European ancestry are Métis

Reserve

Lands defined under the Indian Act and held in trust by the Crown. Note that the term ‘reservation’ is used in the United States only.

Rights

Asserted or established rights as referred to under Section 35 of the Constitution and Nation-specific Treaties.

Poles and Posts

‘Totem pole’ is a general term. Not all Nations have totem poles. There are different types of poles, statutory figures or posts. Consult with the Nation, Elder, Knowledge Keeper or other knowledgeable individual from the Nation about what kind of pole or post is being discussed and its purpose and history.

Territory

Territories that Nations have occupied and continue to occupy where they exercise their Indigenous rights.

Treaty Settlement Lands

Lands identified under a treaty over which a First Nation has law-making authority and title.

Two-spirit

Two-spirit people are part of the LGBTQ2S+ community, specific to the Indigenous community. The term ‘Two-spirit’ can be abbreviated as ‘2S.’ An older term, ‘Two-spirited’ may be preferred by some people when referring to themselves.

UN Declaration on the Rights of Indigenous Peoples

When shortening the name of the United Nations Declaration on the Rights of Indigenous Peoples, it is the preference to use the term UN Declaration, and not the acronym UNDRIP.

Outdated terms to avoid

Avoid outdated terms unless they’re formalized in organizational, geographical names, or legislation.

  • Aboriginal groups
  • Aboriginal interest
  • Band (Unless referring to a local Nation that uses this term, check with the Nation first for proper reference)
  • Eskimo
  • Indian (Unless referring to a local Nation that uses this term, such as ‘Adams Lake Indian Band’. Or it is part of legislation like the ‘Indian Act’ or ‘Status Indian’)
  • Native (Unless it is part of an organization name such as ‘Native Women’s Association of Canada’)
  • Traditional (i.e. traditional knowledge, traditional territories, makes it seem like it is only applicable to the past and not the present.) When referring to ceremonies, please check with the local Nation’s website for assistance on whether to include ‘traditional’.
  • Tribe (Unless referring to a local Nation that uses this term, such as ‘Cowichan Tribes’. ‘Tribe’ may also be appropriate when working with groups or individuals in the U.S.A.)

Offer context where possible when using the terms listed above, such as, ‘Status Indian under the Indian Act’.

Be mindful of the words you are using

Some words have historical connotations which may cause unease or mistrust. Awareness of this historical lens is important when working with Indigenous Peoples. For example:

  • ‘Stakeholder‘ is a common corporate term for partners. But has negative connotations to many Indigenous Peoples. When land acquisition was happening, this term referred to the allotment of land to settlers. Settlers were given wooden stakes to claim their plot of land prior to any treaty or land negotiations with Indigenous Peoples. It is more appropriate to refer to Indigenous peoples as partners rather than stakeholders. Indigenous peoples are not stakeholders; they are Aboriginal rights holders whose rights are protected under the Constitution of Canada.
  • ‘Executing’ and ‘execute’ are commonly used and can be replaced with ‘implement.’ Consider that in 1864, the provincial government asked to meet the Tsilhqot’in Chiefs and then hanged five of them on October 25, 1864, at a location just north of Quesnel’s hospital.
  • ‘Artifact(s)’ and ‘curating/curate’ are commonly used when describing documents or the work done to compile information. When used out of context it has negative connotations to many Indigenous Peoples. Indigenous communities struggle to reclaim cultural and ceremonial regalia, artwork and tools which were stolen and are displayed publicly or privately. In some cases, there are pieces that were never meant to be seen outside of ceremony and they continue to hang in a museum or a private collection not being honored and cared for by their rightful owners. Using the word(s) out of context sounds like something is being taken, e.g. data, knowledge, ideas, and used without the permission of Indigenous Peoples.

Be curious of the influence of our words. Choose language that reflects consent and Indigenous agency and resiliency. For example:

  • ‘Leverage’ instead of ‘take advantage’
  • ‘Practice’ instead of ‘use’

Many words can support a positive shift. For example:

  • ‘Should’ may be replaced with ‘could’
  • ‘But’ may be replaced with ‘and’
  • ‘Best’ may be replaced with ‘wise’
  • ‘Gaps’ may be replaced with ‘needs’