First Nations in Canada

History of the First Nations in Canada

First Nations in Canada

A chronological query of the history of the First Nations in Canada, and the geographical distribution of the indigenous people and the way that the outsider colonists influenced their settlement patterns.

Canada came to have its name from one of the Iroquoian languages. An epithet associating a ‘village’ or ‘community’.  Canada’s first inhabitants, the indigenous people, are popularly referred to as First Nations in Canada or the First Nation Community. They perpetuated elaborate political relations as well as composite societies long before the arrival of the Europeans (Vikings) in the 11th century. As the Vikings from Europe made their appearance – sending ships far across the Atlantic to land on the coastline of North America and Canada five centuries before Columbus – they quickly increased settlement and coterie, and until the 16th Century, manufacturing and trading grew swiftly. But this was also the era that began the gradual displacement of the Aboriginals of Canada.  The census of 1871 was arguably the first attempt to enumerate the Aboriginal population in Canada, with the census estimates for British Columbia, Labrador, Manitoba, Rupert Island and North West reporting an indigenous population of 102,353.  In like manner, in 1996, 799,010 people identified themselves as Aboriginals: 554,290 as North American Indians; 210,190 as Métis; and 41,080 been from Inuit origins – according to Statistics Canada. The disruptive distribution and characteristics of the Aboriginal people has its root in the history of colonialism in Canada.  The post colonial geography, including presenting the character of geographical representation on colonial discourse, is today a subject of interest.


Brief Overview of the Geography of Canada

Political Map of Canada. Image courtesy of Wikipedia
Political Map of Canada. Image courtesy of Wikipedia

The Provinces and Landscape of Canada

Canada in the north is marked by a fairy castle of mountains whose peaks tower over the extensive islands covered by snowy tundra and frozen glaciers, where the brooding hillocks sheathed in forests contain an enormous concentration of wildlife; polar bears, seals and narwhals. Prone to lengthy, cold winters, heavy snow and perpetually frozen soil, the area we now know as Northern Canada is virtually uninhabited. The northwestern half of Canada contains the country’s three remote northern territories of Yukon, Nunavut and Northwest Territories. Concomitantly, Yukon possesses a more forested, Cordillera-style environment, in contrast to Nunavut and the NWT, yet, all three areas are rocky, barren, with only sparse vegetation. One of Canada’s greatest attraction today is the West Coast (or Cordillera region) and the most mountainous part of the country. In its furthest west, the Coastal Range mountains stretch down from Alaska along Canada’s border with the Pacific Ocean. Further east lies the Canadian portion of the Rocky Mountains, which forms British Columbia’s border with Alberta. Both ranges are home to massive evergreen forests and a diverse assortment of wildlife which aptly framed ‘Wild Canada‘. Sheltered between the mountains of Canada – east and west – is a flat country, in the southern interior of British Columbia known as the Okanagan, that hosts the country’s largest orchards and wineries. To the east of the West Coast Region the land dramatically to an open region spectacularly known the Prairies. It’s a typically warm low country, but is extremely well watered, making the flush plain the base of Canada’s agriculture.

The Prairies cover the provinces of Alberta, Saskatchewan and Manitoba. In the north limits of the Prairies, the country is considerably more hilly and forested than on the famous plains south. The central part of the province of Manitoba is marked by three big lakes – Manitoba, Winnipeg and Winnipegosis – which are surrounded by shallow swamps, rivers and bogs. Within the glorious and more temperate region of the central-southwest area of Canada is to be found its two largest provinces, Quebec and Ontario, which, scooped out by the giant Hudson Bay to the north and bordered by four of the five Great Lakes of Superior, Erie, Huron and Ontario, constitute, by sheer weight of size and the presence of thousands of small lakes and rivers, the largest wetland habitations in Canada. Furthest east, we have the Appalachian region, encompassing the four Atlantic provinces of Newfoundland, New Brunswick, Prince Edward Island and Nova Scotia, which are all either islands or peninsulas on the eastern coast of Canada that extend into the Atlantic Ocean. Having said that, it’s important to note that Canada is the second-biggest country, and over 80% of its land is uninhabited. Most Canadians live in clusters in a handful of developed cities close to the U.S. border in the southern frontier. Canada’s only neighbour is the United States to the south, and north-east via the isolated state of Alaska. Canada’s longest distance from east to west is from Cape Spear, Newfoundland to Mt. St. Elias, Yukon – 5,187 km. The longest distance from Canada’s north to south is from Cape Columbia, Northwest Territories, to Middle Island, Lake Erie – 4,627 km.


First Nations in Canada: Introductory Notes

Who are the First Nations people in Canada? - Quora

With on too many jargons and labels for the variations and classes of the First Nations in Canada, the distinction in the variety of the Aboriginals of Canada can be largely broken up into six main geographic groups: Woodland First Nations, who lived in dense boreal forest in the eastern part of the country; Iroquoian First Nations, who inhabited the southernmost region, a fertile land suitable for planting corn, beans and squash; Plains First Nations, who lived on the grasslands of the Prairies; Plateau First Nations, whose area ranged from semi-desert conditions in the south to high mountains and dense forest in the north; Pacific Coast First Nations, who had access to abundant salmon and shellfish and the gigantic red cedar for building huge houses; and First Nations of the Mackenzie and Yukon River Basins, whose harsh environment consisted of dark forests, barren lands and swampy terrain known as muskeg. All the First Nations of Canada – once both a badge of success and the most widespread people across the country – had well established systems and symbiotic relations to both the land and their neighbours in far-away lands.

Woodland First Nations hunters and trappers had an intimate knowledge of the habitats and seasonal migrations of animals that they depended on for survival. Unlike the Woodland First Nations, Iroquoian First Nations did not migrate in search of food. Excellent farmers, these southern peoples harvested annual food crops. On the Plains, the unique migratory groups, each with their own chief, assembled during the summer months for spiritual ceremonies, dances, feasts and communal hunts. The First Nations of the Pacific Coast influenced their neighbours with social organization and trading. In addition, the Pacific Coast First Nations had a well-defined aristocratic class that was regarded as superior by birth. The basic social unit for all First Nations in this part of the country was the extended family (lineage) whose members claimed descent from a common ancestor. Mackenzie and Yukon River Basins were primarily occupied with day-to-day survival. As such, First Nations were divided into several independent groups made up of different family units who toiled together. Each group lived in a separate territory, with individual boundaries defined by tradition and use.


Distribution of the First Nations in Canada

Distribution of the First Nation Community of Canada. Courtesy of IOS Press
Distribution of the First Nation Community of Canada. Courtesy of IOS Press

Having thus attempted to introduce the reader to the geography of Canada, this post will now continue to chronologically analyze the history of the First Nation Community of Canada, the geographical distribution of the natives, and the way that colonists influenced settlement patterns.  It shall examine five critical eras in the history of Canada, which will be subdivided as: the indigenous era of the 1500’s; the European contact era between 985 – 1600; the New France era; the British era; and the post modern day era, and trace how each era influenced the demographic and socio economic characteristics of the First Nations. According to historians and anthropologist alike, the First Nations in Canada had existed as long as the landscape itself.  Evidence of their existence dates back 18,000 years ago when the land that is now Canada reappeared from under the great ice sheets that covered most of the country during the Pleistocene Ice age. Dry ice free land linked Alaska and Asia during this Pleistocene era, and historians believe immigrants from Asia and Alaska used this route – the Isthmus also called it the Beningia – to migrate to North America almost 15,000 years ago. Despite divisions owing to distance, cultures, languages, trading networks and diplomacy, alliances stretched far across the continent.  By 1500, there may have been about 300,000 people inhabiting Canada, with more than half of these clustered in the two key regions of Southern Ontario and the Pacific coast.

The societies of the Algonquian language family, the most widespread in North America, extended from the Atlantic Coast to the Rocky Mountains, making use of the extensive and rich coastline for fish and other marine resources.  Even so, most of the Algonquian remained hunters and gatherers and lived in the forests which stretched the entire Canada from East to West. A second main language during this period was the Athabaskan speakers, who were also predominantly hunters and gatherers who lived in the North Western forest and in the plains, side by side with the Algonquian and the Siouan groups.  A third predominant language family is the Iroquoian speaking people who inhabited the woodlands of the lower great lakes and St. Lawrence valley and were the largest and most complex society.  And, as early as 500 AD, the Iroquois had already established agriculture and fortified towns which were distinctively encircled by corn farms. The golden age of the mid-1700’s gave rise to another fourth language family in the First Nations, known as Plains Cree and Blackfoot.  The golden age had witnessed a massive importation of horses to North America through Mexico and this new mobility gave rise to a new era in hunting and thus marked the emergence of the Plains Cree and Blackfoot language family who flourished in the Great Plains. Over the Arctic Coast, Tundra and Arctic lands lived the Inuit who had developed and invented many ways to survive the forbidding climate.  They lived in small groups of hunters and spoke several dialects of a common language spreading eastwards, from Alaska to Greenland, until a millennia ago. 



Arrivals of the Europeans in Canada

The arrival of the European in 985 AD marked the first major turning point in the displacement of the First Nation Community.  The period between 985 and 1600 saw major disintegration and decline of the Aboriginals.  The invictus and valourous Vikings, colonists of Greenland and Iceland, were the first Europeans to set foot in North America in 985 AD. In 1000 AD Leif Ericson of Greenland sailed west to Vinland in the quest to build a settlement which historian believe to have been a place called L’Anse aux Meadows on the Island of Newfoundland and Labrador. The remains of a Viking village were unearthed by archeologists in the 1960’s.  Leif was the first known European to have set foot on continental North America. By the same token, the Viking’s contact was widespread in the North Eastern coast, and this contact appears to have been marked by conflict which continued through the entire period the European inhabited this region until they lost contact in 1410 with Greenland. And, for several hundred years, there were few European settlers across much of Canada, and thus there were few conflicts between them and the First Nation Community over rights of land.

Trading relations, ingrained in the fur trade that eventually spread across the continent, had a more significant outcome. Trade altered indigenous societies by adding European goods to their way of life, heartening them to concentrate on trade with the newcomers, and repeatedly leading them into new alliances or conflicts based on trade. But, trade rarely put the First Nations under European domination. Instead, missionaries, who often came with the early traders, tried to change the native peoples to Christianity but were frequently disappointed by their lack of success. So long as the indigenous societies remained independent, they rarely showed great enthusiasm for European religions. For centuries after the arrival of Cabot, most of them retained control over contacts with visitors. In these early years, disease was the biggest menace of European contact. They brought with them diseases that were unknown in North America, that natives lacked immunity for. The result was devastating epidemics that ran through the Americas long before any Europeans moved inland to report them. In fact, the First Nations began to decline as soon as the Europeans arrived. It’s estimated that the Mi’kmaq lost ninety percent of the population between 1500 and 1600. As contact moved gradually north and west, so did epidemics. The Great Plains nations suffered devastating epidemics in the late 1700s, the Pacific Northwest suffered similar catastrophes in the mid-1800s and the Inuits were hit hard by illnesses as they came into regular contact with Europeans in the 20th century. Indigenous populations in Canada declined continuously from 1500’s to 1930’s.

The Time of the French in North America

The Acadia, first colonized by the French in 1604, was out-rightly disputed by the British during the struggle for supremacy in North America.  The French controlled the region of Acadia now made up of Canadian Maritime provinces of New Brunswick, Prince Edward Island, Nova Scotia, parts of modern day province of Quebec, and State of Maine.  This New France era, which happened between 1600 and 1760, had the biggest impact in the spatial displacement of the First Nation Community.  At the time, the French saw the potential of value of the fur trade and fishing, among plenty resources on North America.  New France eventually comprised Canada’s area drained by St. Lawrence, Acadia – Maritime Provinces, Island of Newfoundland and Louisiana.  For the most part, the First Nation Community continued with their way of life unaffected by the French Laws and customs. To confirm itself over the British, France raised permanent forts and settlement that eventually had a dramatic outcome to the displacement of the indigenous families of North America. In 1608, Samuel de Champlain, an explorer hired by the Monts, founded a settlement at Quebec on the St. Lawrence River, and, consequently, the French began their colonization focus on St. Lawrence valley.  To maintain the French settlement, Champlain had to form alliances with the local Algonquian nation and the inland allies – the Huron confederacy.  Under the company, the colony continued long after Champlain died at Quebec on 1635 and more settlements were founded, most notably of Trois-Rivieres and Montreal.  In 1663, when France had barely 3,000 people in North America, Louis XIV’s finance minister Jean-Baptiste Colbert abolished the One Hundred Associates, ending the company rule in the region.


Marking National Aboriginal Day in Canada. Image courtesy of SBS
Marking National Aboriginal Day in Canada. Image courtesy of SBS

British Empire’s Influence on the First Nations

In 1759, as written in the Journals of Captain John Knox, the British through General James Wolfe won a decisive victory in the French and Indian War, when the troops captured the city of Québec from French forces. The French and British were fighting for control of territory in North America. Québec was a center of French military power, and its defeat helped consolidate the British control of Canada. John Knox, a British captain who served under Wolfe, kept an all-embracing journal of his experiences in the war. After Britain ousted France in the French and Indian War (1754-1763), the territory formerly known as New France became British North America. Britain’s King George III issued the first constitutional deed of the new colonies, the Royal Proclamation of 1763. It established the rules by which the colonies would be governed. It also laid out the doctrines for land negotiations between the British Government representatives and Aboriginals, providing for the latter’s right to acquire land prior to settlement. The act was restraining for French Canadians, however, prohibiting Roman Catholics from holding public office and applying British law rather than the French civil code (Royal Proclamation, 1763).  Perhaps, it is the clause in the Royal Proclamation that elaborates best the harsh land policies that the British used, similar to the French and later the Canadian Government.

Brief Excerpt of the Royal Proclamation: “And whereas great frauds and abuses have been committed in purchasing lands of the Indians to the great prejudice of our interests and to the great dissatisfaction of the said Indians; in order therefore, to prevent such irregularities for the future, and to the end that the Indians may be convinced of our justice and determined resolution to remove all reasonable cause of discontent, we do, with the advice of our Privy Council, strictly enjoin and require, that no private person do presume to make any purchase from the said Indians of any lands reserved to the said Indians, within those parts of our colonies where, we have thought proper to allow settlement; but that, if at any time any of the said Indians should be inclined to dispose of the said lands, the same shall be purchased only for us in our name.”

Beginning 1850’s, the Canadian Government negotiated a series of treaties with the aboriginals, which consequently took much of their land and continued the confinement of indigenous people to reserves.  In May 1998, the Government of Canada issued an official apology for its past policies towards the First Nations. Historical geographers have indicated how colonial misgivings and mapping erased Aboriginal people from the Canadian landscape. Through a consortium of mechanisms that varied geographically, the Aboriginal peoples were confined to reserves and the cleared land made available for settlers and development. The scattered reserves were part of a strategy to force First Nations into the industrial workforce. These settlement patterns were also meant to cut off small groups and prevent united opposition against Indian policy and administration. Dealing with Metis rights through scrip – certificates to people to be exchanged in public land – meant that most of the land ended up with colonialist, virtually getting rid of Metis territory from the landscape. While Treaty negotiations had specifications of the amounts of land comparable to agricultural homesteads to be set aside for each Aboriginal family, a variety of occurrences, like; failure to survey promised areas, the harsh surrender of band lands and the expropriation of reserves, created small parcels of land which could not adequately support growing populations. The methodical underdevelopment of reserve areas and First Nations economies and populations, the geographies of reserves and the dispossession of land all led to the current privation of First Nations in Canada.

First Nations: A Colonial Misadventure

The geographical trait of reserves is very small, discontinuous and scattered – and the dispersal of the Metis populations also has continuing implications for First Nations and Metis identities and governance. In 1996, a report by the Royal Commission on Aboriginal Peoples cited the right of self-determination in ‘peoples’, collectivities larger than individual First Nation; Inuit or Métis communities. According to the Commissioners, the right of self-determination did not put power back in the hands of the Aboriginal groups, whose entire membership was scattered as a minority throughout the general population. Yet the geographical placement of reserve lands and Métis communities makes it difficult for this type of nation arrangement to exist. Among First Nations, most funding is conferred and administered by individual band councils, working against more co-operative arrangements. As they are currently devised, self-government arrangements, negotiated with individual bands on their reserve base, become primarily arrangements for municipal organization of a transfer-based economy. Although First Nations peoples have increasingly organized themselves into tribal councils for political purposes, major obstacles remain. The small size of most reserves implies that migration for employment becomes a necessity for the majority, scattering band populations. The challenges are even more compromised for the Métis who don’t have an established land base.

Today the Government of Canada is working in partnership with First Nations in this new era of reconciliation to build stronger First Nations communities. All across the country, this crucial collaborative work is taking place in areas as diverse as First Nations economies, education, governance, social services, human rights, culture and the resolution of outstanding land claims.


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