First Nation: The First Nations are the more than 630 Aboriginal peoples in Canada who are indigenous to this land. First Nations are distinct from Inuit (Indigenous peoples of the arctic region) or Métis (people of mixed Aboriginal and European heritage). The history of First Nations people is largely preserved through oral tradition.
Central to Indigenous worldview are the Seven Grandfather Teachings: Courage, Generosity, Tolerance, Strength of Character, Patience, Humility, Wisdom.
Based on cultural values of striving for harmony with the environment and all living things, Indigenous cultures are also closely linked to specific environments and resources. Many ceremonies are connected to thanks for the earth’s offerings.
Contemporary First Nations culture is prominent in Canada through recognized contributions to the arts, sciences and politics.
Colonization: Literally, the act or process of establishing a colony or colonies. In nature: the spreading of a species into a new habitat. Colonization typically refers to the process by which governments (British in America, British and French in Canada) established territories on foreign land through religious, military or economic aggression. By extension, it also implies the effect on the colonized cultures of the colonizers’ policies of eradication or integration.
Colonization in Canada: First Nations made initial contact with explorers in the 11th century when Norsemen founded an unsuccessful colony in Newfoundland. In the 1500’s, seafaring European traders established commerce with Mik'maq and Maliseet people on the East coast. In the 1600’s reports of the resource-rich land brought further commercial adventurers from Europe, who established trade relationships for furs and other goods. The two leading and competing forces gained a strategic foothold: the British allied with the Haudenosaunee or Iroquois Confederacy, and the French with those north of the St. Lawrence river, and in Acadia. In 1763, after the European settlers established colonies and military outposts, allegiance between the governments of France and Britain ceded French colonial territories to Britain. In the same year, the Indian Department was established to engage with First Nations as wards of the state.
In 1783, the American War of Independence sent 30,000 dispossessed Union soldiers North to Canada, where they were welcomed with land to settle along the St. Lawrence River and around the Great Lakes. These lands were acquired through treaties with the Anishinaabeg peoples (Odawa, Ojibwa and Algonquin First Nations), and resulted in the establishment of Reserve land allotted to specific First Nations. As more settlers arrived and more land had to be acquired, First Nations were seen as impediments to progress.
In 1820, assimilation of Aboriginal people was legislated through the Indian Act. The Canadian government subsequently established policies including a system of reserves, prohibition of Indigenous cultural practices (use of language, song, spiritual practices), forced sterilization of women, permanent removal of children from family homes, and residential schools.
Indian: Formerly in common use in reference to Aboriginal people, the term “Indian” has come to be considered derogatory because of its frequent use in a negative context. While some members of the Aboriginal community choose to use the word as an expression of their own cultural identity, it can be considered offensive. The most appropriate appellation is one’s specific nation (e.g. Cree, Dene, Ojibwe). When it is not possible to be specific, First Nation, Aboriginal or Indigenous can be used as appropriate (as in European or Asian).
Residential School: Beginning in the 1870’s over 130 Indian Residential Schools were opened in an effort to “end the Indian problem.” Aboriginal children were removed from their families, either with consent or forcibly. They were housed and educated in facilities whose government-funded, church-directed operations sought to eradicate traces of Aboriginal culture in order to prepare children for life in white society. Many students suffered poor living standards, physical and sexual abuse, in addition to the loss of their families, some of whom were never reunited. The last residential school was closed in 1996. In 2010, Prime Minister Stephen Harper issued a public apology to residential school survivors on behalf of the Canadian government. This ceremonial gesture was followed by the establishment of the Truth and Reconciliation Commission, a commission charged with documenting and seeking justice for abuses, tracking missing children and uncovering unmarked graves.
Reserve: A tract of land owned by the Crown and set aside for the exclusive use of a band (a self-governed First Nation community) under the administration of the Minister of Indian Affairs. When first established, First Nations people were required to secure permits to seek employment outside the reserve, and were subject to stringent behavioral restrictions including refraining from numerous cultural practices. Many contemporary First Nation communities continue to live in reserve communities, or in proximate regions. Recent events have raised awareness of poor living standards in reserve communities (inadequate health and public services, contaminated water, low educational standards, extreme poverty, poor nutrition, high rates of suicide and unemployment).
Idle No More: This grassroots movement started in December 2012 with a national day of action. “Idle No More calls on all people to join in a peaceful revolution, to honour Indigenous sovereignty, and to protect the land and water.”* Idle No More demonstrated against changes in Bill C-45 which would circumvent community input into the leasing of treaty lands, minimize Aboriginal consultation in Environmental Assessments and decrease regulated protection to waterways by major pipeline and powerline projects. Notably, the movement stood in solidarity with Chief Theresa Spence’s 2013 hunger strike in response to the housing crisis in Attawapiskat. Activities included teach-ins, rallies and protests across Turtle Island.
* vision statement from Idle No More website
Huffing: The deliberate inhalation of toxic gases, vapors or fumes found in inexpensive household items, such as spray paint, gasoline, glue or paint thinner, in order to become intoxicated. Regular abuse can result in serious harm to the brain, heart, kidneys and liver as well as blindness, seizures, suffocation and an array of other risks.
Elder: Members of Indigenous communities who are afforded a high level of respect due to their embodiment of the community’s values, beliefs and knowledge. It is not necessary for an elder to be elderly, only to be acknowledged by the community as a carrier of practical and cultural knowledge as well as wisdom and good judgment.
The Creator: A key ‘figure’ in Indigenous spirituality, the Creator is distinct from the idea of an individual deity, and more synchronous with the concept of connectedness and respect for all beings.
Turtle Island: Indigenous name for North America, drawn from the creation story Sky Woman Falls to Earth, in which the land we inhabit evolved from atop a turtle’s back.
Tobacco: Traditional teachings name tobacco as one of four sacred medicines, along with sage, sweetgrass and cedar. Sacred tobacco is used in small amounts to communicate with the Creator and Spirit World, in prayers and ceremonies. (The recreational use of tobacco with chemical additives is a European innovation.)
Trickster: An entity featuring in many First Nations stories, the Trickster is a balance of sacred and profane, often represented/manifested as a coyote or raven, but generally characterized as a mischievous shapeshifter who influences events and plays a significant role in people’s lives.
FAS: Foetal Alcohol Syndrome is a condition associated with prenatal exposure to alcohol. Alcohol consumption during pregnancy can cause central nervous system damage to the foetus. FAS can be characterized by a range of physical and cognitive indicators including stunted growth, facial stigmata, attention deficit, poor impulse control and a predisposition to addiction and mental health issues.