First Nations is a term used to describe Aboriginal peoples in Canada who are not Métis or Inuit. In 2011, there were more than 1.3 million people in Canada who identified as being of First Nations heritage. There are 634 First Nations in Canada, speaking more than 50 distinct languages. First Nations people are original inhabitants of the land that is now Canada, and were the first to encounter sustained European contact, settlement and trade.

For more detailed information on specific First Nations, see Aboriginal Peoples.

Terminology

First Nations is a term used to describe Aboriginal peoples in Canada who are not Métis or Inuit. Section 35 of the Constitution Act of 1982 declares that Aboriginal peoples in Canada include Indian (First Nations), Inuit and Métis peoples. First Nations people are often known by other names, like Indians, Natives, Native Canadians, Native Americans, American Indians and Amerindians. These names may be problematic, as some have negative connotations, while others (Indian in particular) have specific legal meanings in Canada. Using any general term almost always requires further clarification. For the most part, First Nations people are status or treaty Indians registered with their home reserve, band or community.

“First Nations” should be used exclusively as a general term, as community members are more likely to define themselves as members of specific nations, or communities within those nations. For example, a Mohawk (Kanienkehaka) person from Akwesasne who is a member of the Bear clan may choose any number of identifiers, which would all be more accurate than simply “First Nations person,” “Indian” or “Native.” When discussing groups of people from differing backgrounds, it is appropriate to use First Nations as a general group name, (e.g., a group of First Nations chiefs) provided that there are no Inuit or Métis members.

Before the 1980s, the most popular term for a person of First Nations heritage in Canada was Indian, and its use persists among both Aboriginal and non-Aboriginal people. In 1980, hundreds of chiefs met in Ottawa and used “First Nations” for the first time in their Declaration of the First Nations. In 1982, the National Indian Brotherhood became the Assembly of First Nations, the political voice for First Nations people in Canada. Symbolically, the term elevates First Nations to the status of "first among equals" alongside the English and French as founding nations of Canada. It is also reflective of the sovereign nature of many communities, and the ongoing quest for self-determination and self-government. The term is not used by Aboriginal peoples outside Canada.

Population and Communities

First Nations people may live on or off reserve, they may or may not have legal status under the Indian Act, and they may or may not be registered members of a band or nation. Communities may be large or small, and relatively urban or extremely remote, and exist throughout Canada, though only the Gwich’in and Sahtu extend north of the Arctic Circle. In 2011, there were more than 1.3 million people in Canada who identified as being of First Nations heritage. There are 634 First Nations communities in Canada, speaking more than 50 distinct languages.