Aboriginal Rights Today


Immigration: Success?
Syrian Refugee Initiative
Multiculturalism Today
Limits of multiculturalism
Aboriginal Peoples' Past
Aboriginal Rights Today

1) Facts and terminology


The Aboriginal peoples of Canada include:

First Nations or Indian Bands, located on lands called reserves in most cases (

Inuit communities located in Nunavut, NWT, Northern Quebec (Nunavik) and Labrador

Métis communities located mainly in Alberta, British Columbia, Ontario, Manitoba and Saskatchewan

Urban communities of Aboriginal people (including Métis, non-status Indians, Inuit and First Nation individuals) in cities or towns which are not part of reserves or traditional territories (for example, the Aboriginal community in Winnipeg).



According to the 2011 National Household Survey, more than 1.4 million people in Canada identify themselves as an Aboriginal person, or 4% of the population. 50% percent are registered Indians, 30% are Métis, 15% are non-status Indians and 4% are Inuit. Over half of Aboriginal people live in urban centres.

"First Nations people" refers to Status and non-status "Indian" peoples in Canada. Many communities also use the term "First Nation" in the name of their community. Currently, there are 617 First Nation communities, which represent more than 50 nations or cultural groups and 50 Aboriginal languages.



Indian Status : An individual recognized by the federal government as being registered under the Indian Act is referred to as a Registered Indian (commonly referred to as a Status Indian). Status Indians are entitled to a wide range of programs and services offered by federal agencies and provincial governments. Over the years, there have been many rules for deciding who is eligible for registration as an Indian.



  Chart 4 Population growth by Aboriginal identity, 1996 and 2006

Population growth by Aboriginal identity, 1996 to 2006




2) Land Claims and Self-Governement


Since the 1970s, the Aboriginal Peoples of Canada have fought to gain more self-governement. In the 1970s, pressure from the NIB led the federal government to give Native peoples the responsibility for their own education. Local schools were created under control of their band councils. Aboriginals made significant gains during this period, particularly with the restoration of Indian status to all enfranchised Aboriginals, women with lost status and the Métis, in the 1982 Constitution Act.


During the 1980s and 1990s, special committees recommended that broad, even drastic, measures be taken in Canada to recognize and implement Aboriginal self-government. The issue was raised during the process of patriating the Canadian Constitution, and section 35 of the Constitution Act, 1982, recognized "existing Aboriginal and treaty rights,” but this term was left undefined. The Royal Commission on Aboriginal Peoples, which was formed in 1991, reported to the federal government in 1996 and proposed solutions for a new and better relationship between Aboriginal peoples and the Canadian government.


It has been through the land claims (or comprehensive claim settlement) process, rather than constitutional amendment, that individual Aboriginal communities have achieved differing levels of self-government. Numerous claims have been negotiated with discrete provisions for self-government and levels of co-management with other governments.





In 1974 the federal government created an Office of Native Claims within the Department of Indian and Northern Affairs. Since then this office has been dealing with two types of claims:

  • specific claims, usually based on problems arising from the administration of Indian treaties and made by Indian groups living in the provinces, and for which most settlements consist of compensation and land; and

  • comprehensive claims, defined as “modern-day treaties between Aboriginal claimant groups, Canada and the relevant province or territory. While each one is unique, these agreements usually include such things as land ownership, money, wildlife harvesting rights, participation in land, resource, water, wildlife and environmental management as well as measures to promote economic development and protect Aboriginal culture. Many agreements also include provisions relating to Aboriginal self-government.”

Source: Government of Canada. Indian and Northern Affairs Canada. Comprehensive Claims



One of the first and most successful land claims was that of the Inuit of the Mackenzie delta in the Yukon Territory, who managed to hold off an oil pipeline project for ten years, until in 1984 they received a land settlement that gave them 240,000 square kilometers (Western Arctic Claims Settlement Act).


More on Aboriginal Land Claims



Aboriginal Self-governement factsheet







Since the 1980s, the federal government has dealt with land claims made by First Nations who lacked treaties or reserves or treaty Indians who wanted to expand the reserves allotted to them. Cases are often dealt with very slowly, which increases Indian militancy. This has led to occupations, clashes with loggers or miners or developers, and sabotage, to stop projects before resources are gone. This often meant breaking the law, but it was better than waiting for financial compensation once the resources are gone.


A most sensational confrontation occurred in the summer of 1990, when the Mohawk (Iroquois) stopped the building of a golf course on a land that they regarded as sacred. The clash with the Quebec police provoked the death of a policeman and Canadian military intervention. In the end the federal government was forced to buy the land in question to give it back to the Mohawk.







The most successful example of Native militancy is that of the Arctic Inuit. In 1992, they negotiated a deal with Ottawa that provided them with 350,000 square kilometers of surface and 36,000 square kilometers of sub-surface mineral rights. They also voted for partition from the Northwest Territories, so that on April 1st 1999 the eastern Arctic became a separate territory called Nunavut (« the people’s land » in the Inuktitut language) and administered by the Inuit: 18,000 out of the 22,000 Nunavut residents are Inuit, and Nunavut is the first real experiment in Native self-government.




3) Poverty and economic inequality


Another major issue for the Aboriginal Peoples of Canada is that of poverty and economic inequality.


  • 1 in 4 First Nations children live in poverty compared to 1 in 6 Canadian children

  • 1 in 8 are disabled; double the rate among Canadian children

  • Suicide accounts for 38% of all deaths for First Nations youth aged 10-19

  • Overcrowding is double the Canadian rate

  • Mould contaminates almost half of all First Nations households

  • 12% of First Nations communities have to boil their drinking water

  • First Nations ranked 68th according to United Nations Human Development Index vs. 8th for Canada

  • 80% of First Nations peoples have personal incomes below $30,000 per year.

  • More than half of First Nations peoples are not employed

  • Life expectancy is 7.4 & 5.2 years less for First Nations men and women respectively

  • Diabetes is 3-5 times and tuberculosis 8-10 times the Canadian average



Native peoples who leave the reserves for the cities are rarely integrated into the larger society. They are generally undereducated and live in poverty poverty. Therefore Aboriginal leaders encourage their peoples to stay on the reserves, where they can live in greater prosperity and preserve their cultural inheritance. However, reserves often have no economic base, hence demands that native peoples be trained and hired to work in the construction and operation of industrial projects near reserves. This is rarely done, however. Aboriginals are angry because industrial developments pollute their environment and endanger the natural resources on which they depend for the traditional lifestyles, while bringing them no jobs. This explains the increasing demand for Native control of industrial development, which is best achieved by starting land claims that give Native Canadians control of the land and put them in a strong position to negotiate with potential investors.


Apart from the land claims, little has been done in the recent past to improve the economic situation of the Aboriginal Peoples of Canada:

  • Per capita spending on First Nations is half the amount for average Canadians ($7,000-$8,000 compared to $15,000-$16,000)

  • The Auditor General of Canada reports that between 1999 and 2004, Indian and Northern Affairs Canada funding increased by only 1.6%, excluding inflation, while the status First Nation population increased by 11.2%

  • Since 2000, First Nations budgets have declined by almost 13%; by contrast, Canada Health and Social Transfers to the Provinces are growing at an average rate of 6.6% per year

This is all the more problematic as the Aboriginal population is the fastest growing population of Canada; it increased by 20.1% between 2006 and 2011, compared with 5.2% for the non-Aboriginal population.

More data on the Aboriginal population https://www12.statcan.gc.ca/nhs-enm/2011/as-sa/99-011-x/99-011-x2011001-eng.cfm#a6


4) Recent perspectives: tensions with the Conservatives


During the Conservative years between 2006 and 2015, tensions between the Aboriginal Peoples and the Government of Canada increased. A major bone of contention involved a large omnibus bill in 2012 that introduced many different measures. First Nations particularly objected to the limitation in scope of laws protecting the country's navigable waterways, many of which pass through First Nations reserves. They also opposed the proposed changes in the way band councils may sell reserve lands to non-Indians.

Opposition to these has given birth to the Idle No More movement, whose purpose is to lobby for further recognition of First Nations sovereignty and demand greater consultation on laws affecting their welfare and environment.

The Idle No More Manifesto: http://idlenomore.ca/about-us

"9 questions about Idle No More", CBC News, 5 January 2013



Theresa Spence, chef amérindienne Attawapiskat, devant le tipi où elle a effectué 44 jours de grève de la faim, le 4 janvier à Ottawa.First Nations visibility increased during the winter of 2012-2013 with the hunger strike of Attawapiskat Chief Theresa Spence. Starting on 11 December 2012 she fasted and stayed in a tent on Victoria Island in the Ottawa River, facing near Parliament Hill. Her protest was intended to focus public attention on First Nations issues, support the Idle No More movement, and highlight concerns about the omnibus bill. She stated her action "won't end until Prime Minister Stephen Harper and Governor General David Johnston agree to sit down and talk about Canada's treaty relationship with First Nations leadership." On 11 January 2013, Prime Minister Stephen Harper did meet with a delegation of First Nation leaders, but the Governor General was not present. Chief Spence ended her hunger strike on 24 January 2013 after members of the Assembly of First Nations and the Liberal and New Democrat caucuses agreed to back a list of commitments supporting aboriginal issues.

"Attawapiskat chief goes on hunger strike to press for treaty rights", Globe and Mail, 10 December 2012



"Chief Theresa Spence to end hunger strike today", CBC News, 23 January 2013



"Native talks with the Crown challenge Canada’s very existence", Globe and Mail, 25 January 2013




5) The Liberals: hope or disappointment?



During the 2015 campaign, Justin Trudeau promised justice and reconciliation for Canada’s Indigenous peoples. A symbolic gesture was the nomination of Jody Wilson-Raybould, a member of the We Wai Kai Nation, as Minister of Justice of Canada. She is the first Indigenous person to be named to that post. Another important gesture was the launching of a national Inquiry into Missing and Murdered Indigenous Women and Girls, which Indigenous peoples had demanded for a long time.


The government seemed ready to allocate the necessary funds to improve the situation of Indigenous peoples. It announced that it would end the two% cap, the limit imposed on annual increases to First Nations' budgets by a Liberal government in 1996.

“First Nations welcome lifting of despised 2% funding cap”, CBC News, December 10, 2015



The first Trudeau budget in 2016 committed an historic $8.4 billion over 5 years in investments in Indigenous issues, such as housing, clean water, education, and child welfare.

The federal budget also committed to engage with First Nations on a new long-term fiscal relationship. The second budget in 2017 added a further $3.4 billion over five years


Listen to National Chief Perry Bellegarde’s press conference on the 2016 budget : https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=emNBk12qSRg


More on First Nations’ funding “How does native funding work?” CBC News, February 06, 2013




However, these large sums of money are being held up over five- to 10-year periods rather than immediately allocated to urgent programs and services. For example, the 2017 budget did not commit the $200 million required to extend equity in public services to Indigenous children (known as Jordan’s Principle), as ruled by the Canadian Human Rights Tribunal. It did not allocate the $5 billion necessary to end all boil water advisories on reserves, a promise made during the 2015 campaign.


Apart from budget issues, the Trudeau government has made disappointing decisions. For example, in July 2016, it announced it would not implement the United Nations Declaration on the Rights of Indigenous Peoples (UNDRIP - an international treaty enshrining Indigenous rights to self-determination ), despite a campaign promise that had been saluted by the AFN as “clear signal that will light the way to strengthening the nation-to-nation relationship between Canada and Indigenous peoples.”


“On First Nations issues, ‘sunny ways’ was just a phase”, Rob Gillezeau and Jeffrey Ansloos. Maclean’s, March 24, 2017


“The Liberals’ relationship with Indigenous communities sours”, Nancy Macdonald. Maclean’s, October 16, 2016


“Justin Trudeau’s lofty rhetoric on First Nations: a cheap simulation of justice”, Martin Lukacs, The Guardian, 19 September 2016




In addition, the Trudeau government agreed to several industrial developments against the wishes of local Indigenous communities in BC:


- a $9-billion dam and hydroelectric generating station on the Peace River (northern BC) that could power half a million homes a year at the price of flooding territory that includes sacred burial grounds, medicinal and hunting sites, and 12,000-year-old Dane-zaa historical sites. As B.C. regional chief for the AFN, Wilson-Raybould campaigned against the mega dam.


- a $36-billion export terminal on Lelu Island (northern B.C.) to bring millions of tons of liquefied natural gas (LNG) through B.C. and ship it to markets in Asia. The local Haida people oppose it because it threatens to destroy the regional salmon fishery.

The government’s decision was made just before the scheduled visit of the duke and duchess of Cambridge to Haida Gwaii on Sept. 30, 2016 (whom Justin Trudeau did not accompany).

While the Haida decided not to cancel the visit, they cleverly took advantage of it to publicize their opposition. As they paddled Will and Kate around, Haida members wore “No LNG” T-shirts.


“Will and Kate visit Haida Gwaii with anger in the air”, Nancy Macdonald. Maclean’s, October 1, 2016








Anger against Justin Trudeau is heightened by a sense of betrayal from a PM who was considered a friend and wears an Haida raven tattoo on his shoulder.

The Haida are determined to keep fighting the LNG project and they are veterans of Indigenous rights. Their 1985 win over clear-cutting is considered one of the earliest and biggest wins by a First Nation, and the government’s duty to consult and accommodate Indigenous and treaty rights, one of the most important precedents in Indigenous jurisprudence, was established in 1993, in Haida Nation v. British Columbia (Minister of Forests).


“Skin-deep: The awkwardness of Justin Trudeau’s Haida tattoo”, Nancy Macdonald. Maclean’s, October 27, 2016



Some militant intellectuals and First Nations activists strongly feel that Justin Trudeau is not keeping his promises, and even that he is betraying the First Nations. See for example the blog of Pam Palmater, a Mi’kmaw citizen and member of the Eel River Bar First Nation in northern New Brunswick, who is a lawyer and academic who currently holds the Chair in Indigenous Governance at Ryerson University: http://www.pampalmater.com/

Pam Palmater's viewpoint on CBC News: “Trudeau’s Indigenous betrayal”, 7 February 2017. http://www.cbc.ca/news/thenational/viewpoint-trudeau-s-indigenous-betrayal-1.3971671