People and History

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People and History

Aboriginal peoples have lived in the country we now call Canada for thousands of years. The information and links on this page tell part of that long and rich history. The success stories below also show how Aboriginal communities across Canada are working towards a bright and successful future!

Pre-Contact with Europeans

People have been living in the country that we now call Canada for thousands of years. Sometimes this fact is forgotten, so it is important to remember that Canadian history does not begin with the arrival of European explorers over 500 years ago.

For centuries before Europeans began to settle in North America, explorers who came here found thriving First Nations and Inuit societies with their own beliefs, ways of life and rich histories. It was these original inhabitants of this land who taught the early European visitors how to survive in this new and unfamiliar place.

When we look at a map of Canada today, we can see that many of the names of our provinces, territories and cities have Aboriginal origins. In fact, many people believe that the name "Canada" comes from the Huron word for "village", kanata. Toronto comes from the Mohawk word tkaronto, which means "where the trees stand in the water". Kamloops in British Columbia was known by the Shushwap as kahm-o-loops, the "meeting of waters". This proud tradition continues to this day. The name of Canada's newest territory, Nunavut, means "our land" in Inuktitut.

Today, over one million Aboriginal people continue to help make this country strong, building upon a long and proud history that began so many years ago.


What are treaties?

In Canadian history, treaties are agreements made between the Crown and Aboriginal peoples. (The Crown is the legal name for the British and later Canadian governments.) Treaties have been a very important part of the relationship between Canadians and First Nations people for more than 300 years. These agreements are solemn promises and set out rights and benefits for each group.

What did the Crown and First Nations get from treaties?

The Crown and First Nations signed many treaties between 1701 and 1923. These treaties were signed for different reasons. Some were signed to create military alliances or maintain peaceful relationships. Others were signed to set aside farmland for European settlers new to Canada.

In many treaties, First Nations provided land to the Crown in exchange for specific rights and benefits. These rights and benefits often, but not always, included land to be set aside for First Nation use only (known as reserves), money to be paid to a First Nation every year (known as annuities), access to hunting and fishing grounds, and schools and teachers on reserves that would be paid for by the government.

Have all of the promises made in treaties been kept?

The Government of Canada has worked to live up to its treaties with First Nations, but there have been cases where some of the promises in these agreements have not been kept – or not fully. The Government of Canada created what is known as the Specific Claims process for times when a First Nation believes that a treaty promise has not been kept. Through this process the Crown and First Nations have the opportunity to address past mistakes and rebuild their relationship

What is the future of treaties?

Did you know that not all of Canada is covered by a treaty? There are large portions of British Columbia and Quebec, for example, in which Aboriginal peoples and the Crown have yet to reach an agreement.

The Government of Canada created what is called the Comprehensive Claims process so that new treaties can be made in these parts of Canada. Since this process was put in place in 1975, Canada has signed 24 new agreements (sometimes called modern treaties) with Aboriginal peoples in Canada, including the creation of Nunavut in 1999!

Residential Schools

For more than 100 years, Aboriginal children in Canada were sent to special schools, called Indian Residential Schools. These schools were built and run by the Government of Canada and the Catholic, Anglican, Methodist, United and Presbyterian churches. Over 150,000 First Nation, Métis and Inuit children attended these schools between 1857 and 1996.

Life at residential school was hard for many children. Students were forced to speak English or French, and were punished if they spoke their own native languages. Often these children were taken from their families and placed in schools far away from their communities, sometimes for many years at a time. Many children were not given enough clothing or food. A lot of the schools were crowded and dirty. Some children died of disease. Others tried to run away.

Indian Residential Schools tried to make Aboriginal children talk, dress, think and act like non-Aboriginal Canadians. At the time, the government and churches believed that this was the right thing to do. Today, we know it was not.

The last Indian Residential School was closed in 1996. On June 11, 2008, the Prime Minister of Canada issued a statement of apology to all Aboriginal children who were sent to these schools for the many bad things that happened to many of them. Several of the churches that were a part of this system have also said they are sorry. Many former students have shared stories of their time at Indian Residential Schools to help all Canadians understand what happened and to help themselves heal and forgive.

Profiles of Aboriginal Role Models

Aboriginal Canadians have helped make our country a place that we can all be proud to call home. This section includes just a few of the many Aboriginal leaders, artists, athletes and other role models who have made a difference in Canada, their communities and around the world. Use this list as a starting point to find out more about successful Aboriginal role models

These profiles may also be useful for kids doing research for:

Unit 8 – The Imaginary Indian and Unit 9 – First Nations Heroes of the Learning Circle, Classroom activities on First Nations in Canada, for ages 8 to 11.

Unit 1: Urban First Nations, Unit 6: Literary Images and Unit 8: First Nations Self-Government in the Learning Circle, Classroom activities on First Nations in Canada for ages 12 to 14.

The Learning Circle books can be found under Classroom Resources.

Information on Aboriginal artists can be found at:

Information on Aboriginal athletes can be found at:

Information on Aboriginal leaders can be found at:

Information on Aboriginal veterans can be found at:

Information on Aboriginal Success Stories can be found at:

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