When Europeans arrived in what eventually became known as Canada, there were already many people living here. These peoples are today known as the Indigenous peoples of Canada, who lived on this land for millennia before Europeans landed.
Canada has had a turbulent, often troubled history when it comes to how Indigenous peoples are treated. Although many steps forward are being taken today, overcoming the past and achieving true healing so all peoples can live and work together in this great land is a gargantuan task.
One of the big problems is misunderstanding when it comes to First Nations, Inuit, and Métis peoples. There are so many things most Canadians just don’t learn or understand about Indigenous cultures and lifeways. Learning and education lead to better understanding of each other.
With that in mind, we’ve gathered up some surprising facts and try to explain some of the aspects people find most confusing. We’re not experts, though, and we defer to the Indigenous teachers who have so generously shared their wisdom with us. We invite you to learn from Elders and Indigenous peoples themselves too, any time you have an opportunity. Hopefully, this can serve as a starting point for learning more about Indigenous communities and peoples in Canada.
20 Surprise: There Are 634 First Nations Communities
One of the most surprising things about Indigenous communities in Canada is how many of them there are. In fact, there are 634 First Nations communities across the country. These communities are also called bands, which then make up tribal councils. These communities are also spread across urban and rural landscapes.
According to the last Canadian census, more than 1 million people in Canada identify as having First Nations heritage. This number doesn’t include people who have Indigenous heritage but don’t identify themselves as First Nations. It also doesn’t include people who identify as Inuit and Métis, or with those communities.
19 Surprise: There Are Many Names
Many outsiders find it confusing to talk about Indigenous communities, because there are just so many names! For example, you may see both Anishinaabe and Anishinaabeg, as well as Ojibwe and Ojibway. Which is it? It’s both, actually.
What you can do is learn the name of the community you’re visiting, or the peoples who live near you. You will often encounter 2 or 3 names, such as the name of the First Nation, as well as a larger cultural group. There are often variations on names, so ask the people living in the community what they prefer! It really is as simple as that.
18 Surprise: Each Nation Is Distinct
First Nations are individual bands. Each Nation typically has their own reserve lands, although First Nations who live close together may share reserve space. Each of the 634 communities is considered its own nation, although many nations may belong to a larger cultural group.
Each of these cultural groups is incredibly distinct, despite a tendency to lump all Indigenous cultures together. Many do have similar beliefs, which may be reflected in their stories or traditions. There are always subtle differences, however. A good example is the medicine wheel, which differs between traditions. Some Nations do not use it at all.
17 Surprise: There Are 50 Distinct First Nations Languages
When you think of Indigenous peoples, you may lump them all in together. Even beyond the 3 Indigenous groupings of First Nations, Métis, and Inuit, there are so many different and distinct cultural groups living across Canada.
One of the best markers of this diversity is the number of different languages spoken. There are more than 50 distinct First Nations languages spoken across Canada. Again, this doesn’t include Inuit languages or Michif, the language of the Métis.
Languages spoken in Canada include various forms of Cree, Ojibwe, and Munsee, among others. Many of these languages were once in danger of being lost, although many are now being revitalized.
16 Surprise: First Nations Communities Are Self-Governing
This fact surprises many people, but the First Nations communities of Canada are supposed to be self-governing, so that these peoples can decide what is right for them and their communities. A First Nation is also known as a band, which is the basic unit of self-government. Bands are typically small.
Tribal councils unite various First Nations, often those with close cultural ties. A tribal council may unite to provide health care or education to people in several bands. Some First Nations have recently declared that they are sovereign nations, in an attempt to create better responses from the Canadian government.
15 Surprise: They Are Actively Involved In Land Management
Another striking feature in many Indigenous communities is the level of interest and activity around the management of the land. This stems from the belief of many Indigenous groups that the land is sacred, and it must be managed properly for future generations.
As a result, many communities are keenly interested in any sort of land development opportunity. Indigenous communities in Quebec have been active in negotiating hydro-electric agreements, while those in Alberta carefully consider how best to manage oil sands resources in their lands. Communities in Northern Ontario are negotiating potential mining development around the Ring of Fire. Smart management will help communities today, and protect the ancestral lands for generations to come.
14 Surprise: Many Indigenous People Do Not Live On Reserves
People typically think of Indigenous peoples as living on reserves, often in remote locations. They usually think of stereotypes as well, such as people living in longhouses or teepees. While many communities are rural and some people do adopt traditional lifeways, many others have adopted modern amenities.
There are also many Indigenous people who do not live on reserves. By population, Winnipeg, Manitoba, is the largest Indigenous community in Canada. Indigenous people in Saskatchewan and Manitoba make up large percentages of the population. Ontario has the largest number of Indigenous people, and many choose to live in metropolitan areas like Toronto!
13 Surprise: You’ll Find Many Children Here
Another surprising fact is that Indigenous communities are growing rapidly! The Indigenous population of Canada is growing faster than any other segment of Canadian society, thanks to a higher-than-average birth rate. There are more children and young people in Indigenous communities than other Canadian communities.
As a result, Indigenous communities need different services and supports. While much of Canada is concerned about supporting a growing senior population, Indigenous communities need to think more about daycares, school facilities, and youth drop-in centers than senior homes and services. This means a new strategy must be considered for Indigenous communities to support them properly.
12 Surprise: There Is Great Respect For Elders
Another thing that might surprise you if you visit an Indigenous community is the great respect for older people. Much of mainstream Canadian society tends to treat older people as “past their prime” or even useless. Ageism is becoming a more visible problem, especially as the senior population grows.
Indigenous communities, by contrast, tend to emphasize the respected place of Elders. Elders are the knowledge-keepers of the community, and they’re involved in educating the next generations. They tell stories and share wisdom, passing along cultural traditions. The belief is that an Elder’s accumulated life experience makes them an ideal teacher.
11 Surprise: Women And LGBTQ+ are held in the highest regard
Another key difference between mainstream Canadian society and many Indigenous communities is how they treat women and members of the LGBTQ+ community. Some Indigenous cultures hold women in high regard, placing them in key decision-making roles. In many communities today, women are in positions of power.
Two-Spirit people were often greatly respected in Indigenous cultures. These people were often thought to be powerful shamans, since they have both male and female aspects. Many held positions of respect and authority. Of course, every Indigenous culture is different, so this varied from group to group. Today, these more traditional views are re-emerging among many Indigenous communities as they go back to their cultural roots.
10 Surprise: They Are Vibrant, Thriving Communities
If you dig into the pages of history, you’ll find something quite strange. In the early 1900s, many Canadians thought Indigenous peoples were going to “die out.” Many prominent Canadians lamented this “loss,” even as they supported policies like Residential Schools and the Indian Act.
Today, however, many Indigenous communities are culturally vibrant and thriving. A reversal of policies around the mid-20th century lifted bans on cultural practices like the potlatch. The last Residential School closed in 1996. There are still many challenges, but Indigenous peoples are now returning to their cultures, reinvigorating them, and, in turn, thriving. They are not going to “die out.”
9 Surprise: Indigenous Culture Has Influenced Canada In Many Ways
If you take a quick look around Canada, you can easily see how much Indigenous influence there is. Canoes, for example, were traditionally used by many Indigenous groups. Today, canoes are popular all across Canada. Others taught the first Europeans about using sap from the maple tree and other survival methods. Indigenous peoples also invented the country’s national sport, lacrosse.
Even the stereotypes about dog sleds and igloos come from Indigenous cultures! Many place names also have Indigenous roots, including Ottawa, Niagara Falls, and the name Canada itself. Indigenous peoples have contributed so much more than we typically think about.
8 Surprise: Indigenous Peoples Are Willing To Teach
If you decide to visit an Indigenous community, the best way to prepare is to be humble and ready yourself to learn. Be open to new experiences, and be open to new ways of thinking. Many Indigenous people are willing guides and excellent teachers, and there is much to be learned.
That said, many Indigenous people are also unsure about outsiders, and they may be reluctant to share traditional knowledge, especially right at first. You’ll need to build trust, so be respectful, humble, and grateful for the experience of being allowed to share in another rich and vibrant cultural tradition.
7 Confuse: Time Is Different In Some Indigenous Communities
If you visit an Indigenous community, you may be surprised to learn the people living there have a different way of thinking about time. For most Canadians, time is linear. The yesterday is the past, today is the present, and tomorrow is the future. Today will happen, and then tomorrow will arrive.
For many Indigenous peoples, time happens in cycles. For example, Anishinaabe peoples believe in the Seven Fires Prophecy. Each fire represents one completion of a cycle, and we live in the time of the Seventh Fire. An Eighth Fire is yet to come and will bring a time when all peoples can live together.
6 Confuse: Indigenous Ways Of Thinking And Being Are Different
As an outsider, you may initially feel it’s difficult to understand Indigenous communities and lifeways. Part of the reason for this is that the ways of thinking and being in Indigenous communities are very different from those in mainstream Canadian culture.
That said, there’s a lot to be learned, so long as you approach Indigenous people, their communities, and their cultures humbly and respectfully. A great example is the Seven Grandfather Teachings. These teachings instruct people on how to live good lives in this world, and they can. One common principle is interconnectedness. Since we are all interconnected, we must think about other beings and how our actions affect them too.
5 Confuse: Education Is Different
In Canada, Indigenous youth tend to drop out of school at higher rates than the general population. The reasons for this are complex, including lack of access, poverty, and even an oppressive school system. One major problem is that mainstream Canadian education only values one knowledge system.
Indigenous ways of knowing are quite different, which means Indigenous forms of education are also quite different from what happens in the Canadian school system. Elders pass along wisdom through stories. Teachers are also more likely to let students think and explore for themselves. Knowledge is always built upon what others know and share, and you must give credit where credit is due.
4 Confuse: Indigenous Ideas Of Justice Are Different Too
In recent years, much has been made of the Indigenous “sentencing circle” and other more traditional Indigenous practices around law and justice. The Canadian legal system is often combative and focuses on establishing what is “true.”
For many Indigenous peoples, the focus is on community. When a crime is committed, people are harmed. Justice must focus on healing the harm, helping the perpetrator see how their actions harmed people, and then assisting them to integrate back into the community. It’s quite a different way of thinking, and many people are interested in seeing if adopting these models can help lower crime rates in not just Indigenous communities but in other communities across Canada as well.
3 Confuse: History Is Different Here As Well
In Canadian classrooms, you’ll find one version of history. If you travel to an Indigenous community, however, you might begin to question the narrative you’ve been given. Indigenous traditions have preserved the histories of their peoples, and there are often differences in how history is understood.
It’s important to hear both sides of the story and to think critically about not just history, but contemporary stories about Indigenous peoples and communities too. Knowing the community’s history will help you understand many things you might feel are confusing. Visiting an Indigenous community is an excellent way to challenge what you think you know.
2 Confuse: Some Places Do Not Have Schools
For the average Canadian, this sounds like a great thing. No school? Count me in! For many Indigenous communities, the lack of good school facilities is a tragedy. Take, for example, Attawapiskat in Ontario. This community hasn’t had an operational school for almost 20 years, despite a new school being built.
This means whole generations of children have had to leave their families to attend school elsewhere. There’s been political deadlock about who should fund a new school, and if the community is even big enough to need and sustain its own school. The most recent school closed down not long after opening.
1 Confuse: Why Is There Still So Much Struggle?
Many Indigenous communities are still struggling with the legacy of historical policies like Residential Schools. Through this policy, as well as others like the Sixties Scoop, many Indigenous children were taken away from their parents. Many had terrible experiences, and they daily struggle with these realities.
The communities also suffered. These children grew up without learning their culture and traditions. Now they seek to recover their traditions and cultures, in order to be able to teach new generations. The children of today are also impacted by what happened to generations of their relatives. The good news is many steps toward healing are being undertaken at last.
References: Statistics Canada, The Culture Trip, Indigenous Corporate Training Inc., CBC.ca, The First Nations of Ontario, Strong Helpers’ Teachings, The Colonial Problem