What are First Nations?

Mary McMahon
Mary McMahon

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.

"First Nations" is a term used to describe aboriginal people of Canada.
"First Nations" is a term used to describe aboriginal people of Canada.

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.

Many Canadians use the term "First Nations" instead of "Native Americans".
Many Canadians use the term "First Nations" instead of "Native Americans".

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.

Mary McMahon
Mary McMahon

Ever since she began contributing to the site several years ago, Mary has embraced the exciting challenge of being a wiseGEEK researcher and writer. Mary has a liberal arts degree from Goddard College and spends her free time reading, cooking, and exploring the great outdoors.

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Discussion Comments


i have a big question, as a first nation person from st Marys and allotted so much from the government as a member and live off. where is my cut? all natives who live out of their community are not getting any help whatsoever, and we need it the most. We have to pay for lights, heat, taxes on everything and insurance on everything. we are the ones who need the help, we pay out more than the no natives who live in our community and are getting a free ride.


I am a st Marys first person and yes i live out of the place where i grew up. I have no housing and i have been on the list for one for years, but still nothing. There is only housing for non-natives, and they get all the rights that my grandfather and my dad fought for. We have members voted in to see what's best for us who live off, but nothing is getting done, well for me anyway, so why should st Marys full band members vote? It's not in our best interest for those of us who live off.


as a member it's not that great. half breeds calling the shots not knowing what it's like growing up as one and then now we're in a good financial state, a lot of real first nations persons are coming out of the woodwork. The only real natives live out of their community. no housing for us only paper indians. thanks st Marys first nations.


I hear that up until now, the First Nations of Canada are discriminated against and/or denied of their human rights. If so, why does this continue?

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