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Naming and Groupings

The First Peoples of Canada have gone through many name changes. The label that many still know the First Peoples by is Indian. Indian was a name that was given by Christopher Columbus when he arrived in the Caribbean in 1492 under the mistaken assumption that he had landed on India. However, when subsequent explorers realized that the Americas were not India, they had to make sense of this new piece of land within the logic of the day. The term Indian was born out of the belief that there was no human inhabitation outside of the lands that had been discovered prior to the time that Columbus set foot in the Americas. The only other answer that could coincide with this thought ideal was that this newly discovered area was the Garden of Eden. According to mythology, the Garden of Eden is located in the East and therefore, anybody east of the Indus River was called Los Indios (Indians). This name has become entrenched in the Indian Act of 1876 as the status-Indian.

When European traders and voyageurs began to consummate relations with the First Peoples of the Americas, a new and distinct people was born. These mixed blood people were called half-breeds. The rationale was that the mixed blooded people were only half human from their non-Aboriginal heritage. For many years this term was used throughout popular discussion. In fact, some mixed blood groups even tried to re-appropriate the name by calling publications "The New Breed". During and after the forming of Red River a new name began to appear with regard to mixed bloods. Louis Riel, the leader of the Provisional government adopted the name Métis to describe his fellow people. Métis is a French word for mixed. It was originally used to describe people who were of mixed heritage between the French and the First Nations, but has come to be used for all groups of mixed European and Aboriginal ancestry.

In the early 1980s, many socio-political changes were occurring with the First Peoples of Canada. Prime Minister Pierre Trudeau was in the process of creating a Constitution that was distinctly Canadian. During this time period, tempers were already stirring over the debacle of the 1969 White Paper that Trudeau’s Liberal government tried to make law. The lobbying power of the First Nations and the Métis increased. First Peoples rallied behind the move to include the word Aboriginal in the constitutional framework. The word Aboriginal was eventually included in Section 35 of the Constitution, which defines Aboriginal and then recognizes existing Aboriginal rights. The Constitution defines Aboriginal as including "Indian, Inuit, and Métis peoples of Canada."

Recognition of the First Peoples was not diminished in this time period. In fact, many now refer to the First Peoples as First Nations or Métis. First Nations are named so for the theory that they were the first people on this continent constituting the first nations. Referring to the people as Nations is also a move to assert sovereignty. After gaining recognition in the Constitution, the Métis were empowered to form a distinct nationhood.

The Trickster As part of a global movement, the First Peoples of Canada, including Métis and First Nations, are adopting the term Indigenous. This term indicates that the First Peoples did not merely arrive in this particular area, but they are from here. They are native to this area. Similarly, the Métis are an Indigenous population in that they are a Nation that was formed in this area, even though the Métis have ancestry that is non-Aboriginal. Through their identity as Indigenous people, the Métis and the First Nations have joined in a relationship with other Indigenous groups around the world including the Maori of New Zealand, the Aborigines of Australia, and others.


Josephy, Alvin M., America in 1492: the world of the Indian peoples before the arrival of Columbus. New York: Random House, 1992.


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