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Bourgeois W-r and his squaw

“Bourgeois” W—r, and His Squaw, Alfred Jacob Miller (Courtesy Walters Art Museum, Baltimore)

“Apparently we have administered the vast territories of the north in an almost continuing absence of mind.”
Louis Saint-Laurent (12th Prime Minister of Canada)


The quotation above suggests that Canada has neglected its Inuit, known as Eskimos (Esquimaux; FR). It did, until 1939.

“In 1939, the Supreme Court of Canada found, in a decision known as Re Eskimos, that the Inuit should be considered Indians and were thus under the jurisdiction of the federal government.” (See Inuit, Wikipedia.)

Matters have changed, as the stories of Nunavut and Nunavik confirm. Nunavut is now a separate part of Northern Canada. As for Nunavik, it is Northern Quebec, but Inuit also live in Labrador-Newfoundland (pronounced New-fen-land) (Terre-Neuve; FR) as well as Alaska (US), Siberia (Russia), and Greenland (Denmark). We will deal with Canadian Inuit only.

In English, the word Inuit is the plural form of Inuk, but in French one says un Inuit (singular) and des Inuits (plural). Esquimaux is the plural form of Esquimau.


Presents to Indians by Alfred Jacob Miller (Courtesy Walters Art Museum, Baltimore)

North American “Indians”

Let us begin at the beginning.

According to the Canadian Encyclopedia (see Indian), it seems Christopher Columbus, known as the discoverer of America (1492 CE), was the first person to use the term “Indian.” He may have thought he had discovered India, as would Jacques Cartier in 1534 CE. At any rate, the term spread to include nearly all American Aboriginals, with the probable exception of Eskimos (Esquimaux; FR).

People have started using the words Aboriginal and Amerindian (Autochtone et Amérindien-ne) with respect to “Indians.” However, although Eskimo has become a pejorative descriptor in the eyes of Inuit, Aboriginals may still be referred to as Indians, but less so as Eskimos, in the case of Inuit …

Groups of Canadian aboriginals

In Canada, there are three groups of recognized Aboriginals:

  • the First Nations, bands living all over Canada;
  • the Métis (mixed blood), the descendants of voyageurs (French mainly, but also Scottish or Irish) who married Amerindians and live mainly in what is now Manitoba (from Manitou);
  • the Inuit, the inhabitants of Nunavut (Northwest Territories) and Nunavik (Northern Quebec and Labrador).

Until recently, however, only First Nations Amerindians were status Amerindians, most of whom lived on Indian reserves.

According to the census of 2011, Canada totaled 1,400,685 people, or 4.3% of the national population. These are “spread over 600 recognized First Nations governments or bands with distinctive cultures, languages, art, and music.” (See Aboriginal peoples in Canada, Wikipedia.)

Images: Alfred Jacob Miller (2 January 1810 – 26 June 1874)
Crossing the North Fork of the Platte River (Courtesy Walters Art Museum)
Indian Girl with Papoose Crossing Stream (Courtesy Walters Art Museum)


The Indian Act
The Indian Register
status Amerindians
The Department of Aboriginal Affairs and Northern Development Canada

The rights of Amerindians in Canada were first recognized by George III, king of the United Kingdom, in his Royal Proclamation of 1763. Members of the Royal family still receive gifts from Amerindians who feared that having lost the protection of the French, who offered gifts, settlers would invade their land and endanger their life. The genocide of Amerindians could well be the worst ever. They were massacred. England drew a proclamation line behind which the aboriginals of its new colony would be secure. A Royal Proclamation also protected Britain’s French-speaking subjects.

As you know, the Royal Proclamation of 1763 was of a temporary nature, but it was reaffirmed in the Constitution Act (1867). However, the Indian Act, passed in 1876, harmed Amerindians in that its aim was enfranchisement or assimilation. The Indian Act is a  Canadian statute that concerns registered Indians, their bands, and the system of Indian reserves.” (See Indian Act, Wikipedia.) The rights of Amerindians were reaffirmed in the Canada Act (1982), a document which includes the Canadian Charter of Rights and Freedoms.

“[T]he Constitution Act, 1982 entrenched in the Constitution of Canada all the rights granted in native treaties and land claims agreements enacted before 1982, giving the rights outlined in the original agreement the status of constitutional rights.” (See James Bay and Northern Quebec Agreement, Wikipedia.)

Note the word “registered.” The Indian Register has been the list of status or registered Amerindians. Status Amerindians are First Nations Amerindians. Métis are in the process of becoming status Amerindians, but …

Status Amerindians have certain rights and privileges:

“the granting of reserves and of rights associated with them, an extended hunting season, a less restricted right to bear arms, an exemption from federal and provincial taxes, and more freedom in the management of gaming and tobacco franchises via less government interference and taxes.” (See Indian Register, Wikipedia.)

In Ottawa, Aboriginals are under the jurisdiction of the Department of Aboriginal Affairs and Northern Development Canada (AANDC), Affaires autochtones et du développement du Nord canadien, AADNC, formerly named the Department of Indian Affairs and Northern Development. However, not all aboriginals are considered status Aboriginals. As noted above, the Métis have only begun to gain recognition.


Greenland Eskimo

Greenland Eskimo (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

Canadian inuit

Inuit were also latecomers. They were not recognized as aboriginals until 1939 and are not status Amerindians. There are four groups of Inuit, two of which live in Nunavut and Nunavik.


Furthermore, Inuit have only recently been associated with a particular territory and a particular language. Nunavut did not become a separate territory until 1 April 1999. On that day, it was separated officially from the Northwest Territories via the Nunavut Act and the Nunavut Land Claims Agreement Act. Nunavut’s Inuit speak Inuvialuktun.

Nunavik (Québec)

In theory, the federal government has sole jurisdiction over Aboriginals,

Section 91 (clause 24) of the Constitution Act, 1867 gives the federal government (as opposed to the provinces) the sole responsibility for “Indians, and Lands reserved for the Indians”. The government inherited treaty obligations from the British colonial authorities in Eastern Canada and signed treaties itself with First Nations in Western Canada (the Numbered Treaties).” (See Aboriginal peoples in Canada, Wikipedia.)

Nunavik, however, is a community of Québec Inuit who speaks Inuktitut. They are protected as per the Royal Proclamation of 1763.

In the 1960s, Quebec started developing hydroelectric resources in the north. It built the Manicouagan Reservoir and, in 1971, it created the James Bay Development Corporation to “pursue the development of mining, forestry and other potential resources starting with James Bay Hydroelectric Project, without consulting the native people.”The Quebec Association of Indians,“ sued the government and on 15 November 1973 won an injunction in the Quebec Superior Court blocking hydroelectric development until the province had negotiated an agreement with the natives.” The injunction was overruled, but in the end, Quebec had to sit at the negotiation table. (See James Bay and Northern Quebec Agreement, Wikipedia.)

At the moment, Québec has its own Assemblée des Premières Nations du Québec et du Labrador (APNQL) and its Inuit live in Nunavik, Northern Quebec. Inuktitut, the language spoken by the inhabitants of Nunavik, is an officially recognized language under the Charter of the French Language (Bill 101; 1977). 

The Métis  

We have discussed the Métis, both in voyageur posts (see Canadiana 1) and in telling the story of Louis Riel.

Riel’s story is a testimonial with respect to the hurdles Aboriginals had to face, the worst of which was assimilation. So, I will deal with assimilative measures that could have led to the destruction of Canada’s Amerindians. I am sure that former Prime Minister Jean Chrétien sought the welfare of aboriginals in his 1969 White Paper, but abolishing the Indian Act would have resulted in the disappearance of Canadian Amerindians. They protested.

Inuit are now educated in their mother tongue, but climate changes threaten their livelihood. They use kayaks instead of canoes. Martin Frobisher was the first European to meet an Inuit.

With kindest regards to all of you.


The Royal Proclamation of 1763 (Indigenous Foundations) (6 May 2015)
Louis Riel as a Father of Confederation (22 May 2013)
The Week in Review & Louis Riel Revisited (20 January 2013)
Sir Martin Frobisher as Privateer and Hero to his Queen (26 November 2012)

Sources and Resources

Canadian Charter of Rights and Freedoms (25)
Aboriginal Peoples in Canada: First Nation Peoples, Métis and Inuit
1969 White Paper
James Bay and Northern Quebec Agreement
James Bay = la Jamésie

Beate von Horn, producer
Mari Boine Persen (Norwegian Sami singer)
translation – Vuoi Vuoi Mu, Idjagiedas


© Micheline Walker
14 May 2015