The term “First Nations” has been used since the 1980s to describe Canada's aboriginal population; many people prefer to say “First Nation,” using a collective plural to describe the indigenous residents of Canada. Many Canadians use the term in lieu of “Native Americans,” “indigenous people,” or “Indian bands,” out of respect to the requests of activists in Canada. In order to be considered a member of this population, a Canadian must be recognized as an indigenous person by the federal government under the Indian Act of 1876.
When it comes to indigenous peoples in the Americas, the terminology can start to get very confusing. In Canada, “Indian” is considered offensive by many people, and aboriginal North Americans prefer not to use this term, partially to avoid confusion with the large East Indian population in Canada. “Native American” is also not very popular in Canada, since many Canadians feel that it refers specifically to indigenous residents of the United States, not North Americans in general. Terms like “indigenous” or “aboriginal” have political connotations for some Canadians, so “First Nations” is viewed as a neutral happy medium that addresses political and cultural concerns.
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Two notable native peoples are not included under the umbrella of this term. The Inuit, an indigenous Arctic people, are recognized under a separate piece of legislation, the Constitution Act of 1982. They have their own collective council organization, the Circumpolar Council, and they are culturally distinct from the members of the First Nations. The Métis people, the result of intermarriage between French and Scottish settlers and aboriginal Canadians, are also not recognized as members of the group, although they are covered under the Constitution Act.
Members are entitled to certain benefits from the Canadian government, and they are represented by the Assembly of First Nations. These individuals are known as “status Indians” or “registered Indians,” reflecting their official status in the eyes of the Canadian government. Aboriginal people who are not members are considered “non-status Indians.”
Around 600 recognized Indian bands are members of the First Nations, making the population quite diverse. A number of language families are enfolded into the group, with some people making an active effort to preserve languages before they fall into disuse. While the members often meet together to discuss issues of importance as a collective, they are also culturally distinct, with their own traditions, beliefs, and legends.