Canadian Indians

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A term used to refer to the aboriginal people of Canada who are neither Inuit nor Métis, and encompassing a wide variety of distinct peoples. Linguistically, Canadian Indians can be broken up into ten language families, ranging from Algonquian (with over 115,000 speakers in 1986) to Haida and Kutenai (with 200 speakers each in 1986). Legally, Canadian Indians are said to be ‘status’ Indians or ‘nonstatus’ Indians. Nonstatus Indians are those who, especially by intermarriage, have lost the legal rights granted to status Indians by the federal government. In 1987 there were approximately 360,000 status Indians in Canada.

Early policies (1900–45)

The twentieth century saw many changes in the lives of all of Canada's native peoples. Throughout the first quarter of the twentieth century several Canadian Indian groups signed treaties with the federal government, by which they surrendered their title to large tracts of lands in return for certain federal rights and benefits, such as exemption from most federal and provincial taxes. By 1929 treaties had been signed covering most of the territory in Ontario, Manitoba, Saskatchewan, and Alberta. This period also saw the continued numerical decline of the native population due mainly to disease and the loss of traditional food supplies.

Aided by missionaries who often acted as mediators between the native peoples and government officials, a self‐consciousness slowly emerged among some of the peoples during the 1920s, in protest against their treatment. In British Columbia, for example, the Allied Tribes of British Columbia was set up in 1915, and the Native Brotherhood of British Columbia in 1931. However, this evolution of protest was slowed down by the Great Depression, which caused particular distress in the reservations and led many Indians to leave them for the cities.

The post‐war era (1945–98)

After World War II, the Canadian Indians became more vociferous in demanding a restoration of their rights. More important for the change in government policy was that their marginalization and discrimination became publicly less acceptable among the majority of Canadians descended from immigrants. A redefinition of Indian status was attempted in 1951, but rejected as insufficient by the Indian peoples demanding the settlement of their land claims. In the 1960s, the government became active in creating employment opportunities in the reservations, and in preserving Indian cultures. Yet the Indian peoples' hopes were further dashed by a 1969 White Paper, which once again failed to address adequately the issue of their land claims.

In response, the native peoples created a network of pressure groups, which were often supported by the government, to enable them to formulate a coherent and united set of proposals. In 1982 they successfully lobbied for the insertion of a clause stating their land claims in the Constitution Act (Canadian Constitution, patriation of). In 1983, a House of Commons Special Committee recommended the creation of Indian self‐government within the provincial and national framework.

The economic and educational situation of Canadian Indians improved vastly after World War II. Their average income has increased, though it is still two‐thirds of that of an average Canadian of immigrant descent. Their education is now almost equivalent to that of a White Canadian, and overall discrimination in Canadian society has declined markedly. In 1991 the Royal Commission on Aboriginal Peoples was launched, which became the most comprehensive and expensive government investigation to date. It found that traditional Canadian law had failed the native peoples, and that each people should receive and administer its own system of justice according to its own traditions and values.


Subjects: Contemporary History (Post 1945).

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