The Learning Circle: Classroom Activities on First Nations in Canada - A Learning Resource for Ages 12 to 14

Author: Harvey McCue and Associates for Aboriginal Affairs and Northern Development Canada
Date: 2012
ISBN: 978-1-100-20244-0
QS: QS-6224-010-EE-A1

PDF Version   (677 Kb, 60 Pages)

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The Learning Circle is designed to help meet Canadian educators' growing need for elementary-level learning exercises on First Nations. It is the third in a series of four classroom guides on First Nations in Canada.

Because First Nations are culturally diverse, the information in this activity book does not necessarily apply to all groups. To learn more about particular First Nations, and to get help with learning activities, teachers are encouraged to consult local Elders, Cultural Education Centres or Friendship Centres. Some key addresses and contact numbers are listed in Kids' Stop on the Aboriginal Affairs and Northern Development Canada website.

The Learning Circle is organized in thematic units, each with its own teaching activities. Units are designed to give teachers and students simple but effective exercises, projects and activities that will encourage students to learn more about First Nations. Educators can follow some of the exercises as stand-alone units on First Nations topics, or integrate them with existing curricula on Aboriginal peoples.

Most exercises in The Learning Circle can be completed in one period. Certain others will take several periods, days or weeks.

Teachers and other users should note that several units in this kit include some activities that are designed for classes and schools that are located near or in First Nations communities.

General Information

The term First Nation came into common usage in the 1970s to replace the word "Indian," which many people found offensive. Although the term First Nation is widely used, no legal definition of it exists, unlike "Indian". The word "Indian" is still used to describe one of three groups of people recognized as Aboriginal in the Constitution Act, 1982. The other two groups are the Métis and Inuit.

There are six major cultural regions of First Nations in Canada. From east to west, these are the Woodland First Nations, the Iroquois First Nations of southeastern Ontario, the Plains First Nations, the Plateau First Nations, the First Nations of the Pacific Coast and the First Nations of the Mackenzie and Yukon River basins.

There are many unique cultures, languages and histories among First Nations. Their collective presence in North America does not diminish their distinctiveness, much like the collective presence of nations in Europe is not lessened by the distinctions between the cultures of Poland and Italy, for example. Identifying all First Nations as a homogeneous group obscures the unique and rich traditions that each Nation has developed and nurtured.

First Nations today retain their cultural and linguistic distinctiveness. As with other cultures throughout the world, the cultural identity of many contemporary First Nations results from a long history of influences, some peaceful and some arising out of conflict. Some First Nations merged with others. Some were simply absorbed over time by larger Nations, and some disappeared altogether. The cultures and languages evident today are the products of complicated, centuries-old processes that shaped the evolution of most, if not all, cultures everywhere.

Although there are many differences between First Nations, there are commonalities as well. For example, traditionally all First Nations were dependent on the land for survival and prosperity. All First Nations were hunters and gatherers. Some were also farmers. Without the skills and knowledge to hunt and fish and to gather food and medicines, First Nations would not exist today.

Another commonality is that all First Nations lived in organized societies. Individuals, families and larger groups of people, such as clans, tribes and Nations, behaved according to a broad range of agreed-upon social, political and economic values.

A third commonality was trade. Expansive trading practices contributed to the growth and development of First Nations cultures. These practices also enabled many First Nations to respond to the fur trade as competitive, efficient trading partners with Europeans.

Unit 1: Urban First Nations

Main Idea

Not all First Nations people live on reserves. Many live in towns or cities throughout Canada.


To introduce students to challenges faced by First Nations people living in urban areas

Teacher Information

Over 40 percent of the Registered Indian Footnote 1 population in Canada resides in an urban setting: either a town, a medium-sized city such as Prince George, Brandon, Barrie or Halifax, or a large metropolitan city such as Toronto or Vancouver. In some large cities such as Winnipeg, Regina and Edmonton, First Nation residents make up a large portion of the downtown or inner city populations.

First Nations people have been moving from their traditional communities and reserves to urban centres since urban communities first developed in Canada. However, the shift to urban life began in earnest in the 1950s immediately after World War II. At that time, many First Nations servicemen moved to towns and cities that were expanding, both in size and economically. There were then subsequent generations of First Nations people who lived exclusively in a non-reserve location. Many others, however, returned to their reserve or community after several months or years of working and residing in the city. Some of these men began a pattern of migrating back and forth from the reserve to the city — a lifestyle followed by many First Nations people today.

There are many reasons why First Nations people continue to live in urban environments. The main reasons have remained fairly constant for the past 50 years. They include opportunities for employment, education, a different lifestyle and better access to accommodation.

In addition to greater employment prospects, towns and cities have always offered First Nations people the chance to further their education. First Nation students who wish to further their studies often reside in an urban area for the duration of their secondary and post-secondary education.

The urban lifestyle is an added incentive for many First Nations people to leave the reserve. Few First Nations communities can offer the consumer choices, recreational conveniences and leisure outlets found in most towns and cities.

Occasionally, physical conditions in First Nation communities force residents to relocate to towns and cities. These conditions include housing shortages, inadequate houses for a family's size or a land base that is too small.

But not all First Nations people who move to the city stay there indefinitely. Research on urban First Nation populations shows that many First Nations people, like other Canadians, move back and forth between their home communities and the city. The research also indicates that many First Nations people who live in an urban environment often visit their home communities on weekends and holidays. Thus they maintain strong links with family, friends and their homes.

Whatever the reasons are for First Nations people moving to an urban setting, there is evidence that they encounter many problems in the city. Although the gap is narrowing, First Nations youth generally lack job experience and higher education or training compared with the general Canadian population. This makes finding employment more challenging. Finding suitable accommodation can also become a problem for individuals or families who are unemployed.

Numerous towns and cities to which First Nations people have relocated have a wide range of organizations and agencies that offer programs and services to assist First Nations people who experience difficulty in the city. Many of these organizations are staffed by First Nations people. Friendship Centres, for example, offer cultural programs, as well as services that address health, employment and accommodation issues. Since the 1990s, these centres have become prominent agencies for urban First Nations people. In some cities, municipal programs have been adapted to meet the special needs of First Nations people. These centres, agencies and programs tend to address the difficulties of First Nations people who live in the inner city. Unemployment, health, accommodation and related social services are these populations' leading concerns.


1. Friendship Centres: What are They?

There are over 100 Friendship Centres across Canada and eight provincial and territorial associations of Friendship Centres. Ask students to write the director of a local Friendship Centre for information about its programs and activities. Some questions that students may want to consider are:

  • What special programs are offered to First Nations youth?
  • What cultural activities take place at the Friendship Centre?
  • How many First Nations clients does the Friendship Centre serve?
  • Does the number of clients vary from year to year?
  • What links exist between the Friendship Centre and municipal social agencies?

2. Visit to a Friendship Centre

If a Friendship Centre is located in your town or city and is reasonably accessible to your school, organize a visit. Teachers can draw up a list of responsibilities for organizing the visit to be shared by the students. This would include the responsibility for contacting the director of the Friendship Centre, arranging the format of the visit, and preparing questions. Another responsibility would be recording the visit with a journal or a report based on students' comments. Students could also take photographs, shoot video footage, or conduct interviews to post on your school's website. (Before taking photos or video, ask for permission from everyone in the room; you may want to ask them to sign release forms). The final responsibility is thanking the centre's director and the staff. Many First Nations continue the traditional practice of offering a gift in thanks for something that has been provided, such as knowledge, health, kindness or generosity. Often, a simple, hand-made gift is suitable. Students may want to offer a gift that they have prepared to the director and the staff of the centre as a thank you for their time and effort.

If a class visit is not possible, teachers may consider inviting the director or any of the centre staff to visit the class, if a centre is located in your town or city. Students can be assigned the responsibility for the invitation. Teachers may want to organize a class discussion to identify the purpose of the visit. This can then be included in the invitation. A simple goal would be to learn as much as possible about the Friendship Centre's programs and activities. Students should be encouraged to prepare a list of questions for the visitor. Because most Friendship Centres address youth issues, the class may want to focus on these. Students may want to consider making a gift with their own resources to offer to the visitor.

3. First Nations and Urban Issues

After any of these activities, organize a student discussion on what the presence of a Friendship Centre indicates about the following issues:

  • the integration of First Nations into urban areas;
  • the importance of culture to First Nations;
  • possible differences between First Nations communities and cities; and
  • other resources, in addition to Friendship Centres, for urban First Nations people.

4. Alike but Different

Many towns and cities with an identifiable First Nations population offer programs and services for First Nations people. These programs may be part of specific departments or agencies maintained by the city. Students can contact the Chief Administrative Officer or Principal Administrator of any large city in the province and request a list of the programs that the city maintains for the benefit of urban First Nations people. The request may identify the following areas — housing, employment, social assistance, recreation, culture, health and legal services.

Once the class receives the information and students have examined the material, organize a discussion that focuses on the possible reasons why these programs and services are needed.

5. Being a Student

Each province has universities and colleges that have developed programs and departments that focus on First Nations issues. Usually, these institutions have a number of First Nations students taking courses and degrees and a First Nations student club or association. For your class to understand the difficulties some First Nations students experience when they are required to live in a town or city to complete their formal education, students can contact a First Nations students club or association. If the university or college is nearby, one or several First Nations students could be invited to visit your class. Or your students could correspond with someone in the association. Here are some questions your students may wish to present to an individual who is studying away from his/her community:

  • What was the biggest obstacle you faced in the city?
  • How did you overcome it?
  • What are some of the differences between the city and your home community?
  • What do you miss most about your community and home? Why?
  • Where do you plan to live after you finish your studies? Why?

6. Back and Forth

As mentioned earlier, many urban First Nations people move back and forth from their home communities and the city. This exercise will help students understand the importance of traditional communities to First Nations.

Organize a class discussion on some of the reasons that might explain these urban-reserve migrations. Encourage students to focus on issues such as culture, accommodation, language, employment, family, and the land.

Unit 2: What's in a Name?

Main Idea

When the Europeans arrived, names and terms used by individual First Nations to identify themselves were adopted by the Europeans; however, the Europeans used these local terms to identify First Nations as a single group. The European usage of these different labels has blurred the distinctions and differences between the First Nations.


  1. To learn why the term "Indian" is not considered appropriate to identify First Nations
  2. To explore some traditional names of several First Nations
  3. To gain an appreciation of some of the issues that surround the names and terms that identify groups in society

Teacher Information

Language is one cultural difference between First Nations. Each nation or band had a name that set them apart from others with whom they had regular contact. For example, the people of the Ojibway, Saulteaux and Mississauga Nations referred to themselves as the Anishnabek, "the people". The people of the Iroquois Nation called themselves the Haudenosaunee. On the East Coast, the Maliseet used the term, Welustuk, "the people of the beautiful river," to describe themselves. The people of the Blackfoot Nation were the Siksika. On the West Coast, the people of the Beaver Nations called themselves Dunneza, "the real people," and the members of the Gitksan Nation called themselves the Gitxsan, "the people of the Skeena".

Some of the band names that exist today originated with the early explorers and traders who found it necessary to identify the people with whom they traded and interacted. Unable to speak with the numerous tribes and nations they encountered during their expeditions, European words were used to refer to the people they met. Some newcomers simply Europeanized names of the tribes they encountered. Thus, the Odawa became the Ottawa and the Mi'kmaq became known as the Micmac.

Some nation or band names have not changed from their traditional First Nations language and pronunciation.

The constant use of the term "Indian" during the past centuries has helped to obscure the cultural, political and historical richness and diversity among the First Nations in Canada. It has also contributed to a misconception in Canada that First Nations are a homogeneous population. This name, a misnomer, originated with Christopher Columbus, who first applied the name to the Arawak people he encountered in the Caribbean in 1492. He mistook them for the inhabitants of India. The name took root and has been used for centuries throughout North America to identify First Nations people.

By the 1960s, "Indian" took on a pejorative meaning for many First Nations as a result of their negative stereotyping in the media and in films. Over time, new terms and names, such as First Nation and Native, gradually emerged to partially displace the word "Indian".

Although many people regarded these terms as less pejorative than "Indian," there was no consensus among First Nations about their appropriateness. Soon other terms such as Amerindian, indigenous and Aboriginals or Aboriginal appeared.

Today, there is no single term that is acceptable to all. With few exceptions, however, the terms most often used by First Nations to refer to themselves as a single group include First Nation or First Nations, Aboriginal peoples, Native, Native peoples, and finally, Indian.


1. Traditional Names

Encourage students to learn about the different band and nation names. Ask them to examine the meaning of several of the following names:

  • Abenaki
  • Assiniboine
  • Carrier
  • Chipewyan
  • Cree
  • Innu
  • Kootenay
  • Malecite (Maliseet)
  • Micmac (Mi'kmaq)
  • Onondaga
  • Siksika
  • Slavey

2. Exploring Communities: Then and Now

Ask students to research the traditional and contemporary history of one or several First Nations. The traditional history would include language, economy, location and social structure. The contemporary history would include the size of the community or band, features of the community, local political structures, programs and services for members and residents, and economic activities.

3. Stereotypes

Sports team names, such as the Black Hawks and Braves, as well as brand names such as Pontiac automobiles, are well known and part and parcel of the cultural and economic landscape. Students will be familiar with some or all of these names and terms. In a class discussion on the importance of names, ask students to consider some of the following questions:

  • Do names and terms such as these affect people's perceptions of First Nations? In what ways are our perceptions affected?
  • Are there other groups or segments of the population whose names are used in the same way as the above examples?
  • If students identify one or some names, ask them the same question about the effects on how that group or groups are perceived by others?
  • If they are unable to identify any names, ask them why only First Nations names are used in this way?
  • Why do sports teams, in particular, use First Nations names and figures?
  • What messages, if any, are conveyed in the use of First Nations names for sports teams?

4. Other People

Each First Nation band has a word in its language for non-First Nations people. Ask students to do an Internet search, or to contact different First Nation organizations, to identify what those various terms are and what they mean in the First Nations language.

Unit 3: First Nations Organizations

Main Idea

A wide variety of organizations exist to assist the political, social, economic, cultural and health objectives and interests of First Nations. These organizations play vital roles in the daily lives of all First Nations.


  1. To learn about First Nations organizations and their objectives
  2. To learn about legal impediments that prevented First Nations from forming organizations during the last century

Teacher Information

Throughout the history of First Nations, successful alliances, partnerships and societies among and between communities and nations enabled members to pursue specific goals and objectives in trade, politics or culture. There are numerous examples across Canada that involve most, if not all, of the traditional First Nations before and after European contact. Specific examples include the Council of the Three Fires, the military and political alliance that the Ojibway Nation maintained near the present city of Sault Ste. Marie; the trading alliance that the Plains Cree and Assiniboine Nations forged to maximize their trading interests during the westward expansion of the fur trade during the 1700s and 1800s; and the traditional carving fraternities and societies that flourished in many West Coast First Nations.

In similar fashion to other cultures and nations throughout the world, traditional First Nations saw the advantages of combining numbers to address strategic or critical interests.

Unfortunately, several factors that were beyond the control of First Nations converged in the mid- and late 1800s and reduced the effectiveness of their traditional organizations. The steady decline of the fur trade, epidemics of small pox and measles, and the gradual but inexorable westward expansion of Canadian settlement, all combined to undermine the traditional and customary alliances and partnerships among the First Nations. The introduction of the reserve system and the Indian Act, both in the second half of the 19th century, had an impact on most of the traditional organizations that had managed to survive the turn of the century.

One of the earliest attempts at a modern First Nations organization took place as the traditional ones were disappearing. The Grand General Indian Council of Ontario came into being in the 1870s and continued until 1938. In British Columbia, the Allied Tribes of British Columbia emerged in 1916. In 1919, an attempt to establish a national First Nations organization, the League of Indians, fell short of its objective. By the 1920s, efforts were underway to create the Union of Ontario Indians, which still exists today.

These four efforts to create new political First Nations organizations were hampered by a lack of money and certain sections of the Indian Act. One provision in the Indian Act made it an offence for three or more First Nation persons to make "threatening demands" on any civil servant. This provision effectively undermined any meaningful attempt to create an organization to bring pressure to bear on the federal government to address the concerns of First Nations. Furthermore, from 1927 until 1951, the Indian Act outlawed any solicitation of funds by or on behalf on any First Nation to advance any First Nation claim unless permission to do so had been granted by the federal government.

In addition to the Indian Act, the presence of a pass system hampered the establishment and development of First Nations organizations. For many years after Confederation, Indian agents maintained an informal pass system that required any First Nation individual who wished to leave the community for any amount of time to obtain a written pass from them. It was often difficult to enforce, and there is evidence that this system was not official government policy regarding the movements of First Nations peoples. The existence of the system, however informal it may have been in some jurisdictions, was well known to most First Nations. It served to remind them that any undertaking to establish a First Nations organization, particularly one with political objectives, faced numerous hurdles and legal roadblocks.

By 1945, at least three new First Nations organizations had emerged in Canada: the Indian Association of Alberta, the Saskatchewan Indian Association (which became the Federation of Saskatchewan Indian Nations) and the North American Indian Brotherhood (which later made the first attempt to create a First Nations labour union). Each of these organizations pursued political and economic objectives on behalf of their members.

In 1961, the federal government recognized the benefit of having a national voice for First Nations. Accordingly, it financed and organized the National Indian Advisory Council. The government appointed Council members from across Canada to meet regularly to advise on a wide range of First Nations issues. It was short-lived because of its perceived lack of independence and because its role was limited to advising the government.

The 1960s and 1970s represented a period of remarkable political advocacy by First Nations. The National Indian Brotherhood (NIB) emerged in 1965 to replace the National Indian Advisory Council. The appearance of the NIB was matched by numerous other provincial and regional organizations that pursued a broad range of interests and goals. Many of them had political objectives, but there were also organizations with a focus on urban issues, health concerns and other special interests.

By the end of the 1970s, every province and territory had at least one political organization. There were also numerous national organizations such as the Canadian Native Communications Society, the Native Women's Association of Canada and the Canadian Indian Youth Council.

Today, there are many national Aboriginal organizations that pursue a broad range of political, cultural, social, economic, legal, education, and health-related goals. Examples of national organizations include: The Assembly of First Nations, which subsumed the National Indian Brotherhood in 1980, the National Association of Friendship Centres, the Congress of Aboriginal Peoples, the Native Women's Association of Canada, the Indigenous Bar Association, the First Nations Confederacy of Cultural Education Centres, the Aboriginal Nurses Association and the National Aboriginal Forestry Association.

In addition to national organizations, each province and territory has one or more political organizations. Examples include the Dene Nation, the Chiefs of Ontario, the Council of Yukon First Nations, the Union of British Columbia Indian Chiefs, the Union of Nova Scotia Indians and the Grand Council of the Crees of Quebec. There are many other associations, bodies and groups that represent economic, cultural, educational and social interests and objectives of their First Nation members.

Together, the national, provincial, territorial and regional bodies provide effective and continuous advocacy on a broad range of First Nations issues.


1. Examine an Organization

Select a national First Nations organization such as the Native Women's Association of Canada. Prepare a class project to examine the organization in detail. Encourage students to include the following points:

  • why and when the organization was created;
  • its mandate;
  • any changes to the mandate since its founding;
  • its membership and how it selects a leader;
  • brief profiles of the current and recent leaders;
  • its governing structure;
  • its administrative structure;
  • its recent policies;
  • the programs that it maintains;
  • its location; and
  • its provincial or territorial offices or affiliates.

To complete the project, the class can be divided into small groups, each covering various points or subject areas; i.e., mandate, policies, structures, etc. Once the groups have completed their work, students can organize the material into one report or description.

2. A Visit with a First Nations Organization

Look for a First Nations organization in the vicinity of your school. If one exists, contact the organization to arrange a visit — either the class to the organization, or a representative of the organization to the class. In either case, students will need to compile information about the organization before the visit. Find or request communications material about the organization for background information.

Once the information is distributed to the class, set aside some time for students to brainstorm questions for the visit, or visitor. Record the questions and encourage students to refine them. Students could reduce the number of questions, for example, put them into categories or revise them so that they are more precise.

Students should share the final list of questions during the visit. If a visitor comes to the class, the class should express its appreciation with a gift, preferably one that students have prepared using their own resources and creativity.

3. Politics and Programs

In this activity, students will compare a political First Nations organization, such as the Chiefs of Ontario, the Federation of Saskatchewan Indian Nations, or the Assembly of First Nations, with a First Nations organization that is non-political, such as the National Association of Friendship Centres, the National Aboriginal Forestry Association and the Aboriginal Nurses Association of Canada.

4. A Clipping Project

To help students appreciate the range of issues that some First Nations political organizations deal with, organize a project to gather news about a particular national or provincial political organization. Students can use several sources for their information: local newspapers, magazines and the Internet. First Nations publications and newspapers may be useful.

Once students prepare a list of potential organizations, they will choose one organization to study. Most national, provincial and territorial First Nations political organizations receive regular coverage in the national or provincial media. Therefore the final choice should not be a problem. Some teachers may want to review the final list of organizations beforehand to ensure that they have a reasonable political profile.

After a timeline for the project is decided (e.g., three months), students should decide how often (daily, weekly or bi-weekly) they are going to report on the activities of the organization and how often they will research its activities. At the conclusion of the project, ask the students to organize the accumulated information into a journal or a poster board demonstration for the classroom or the school bulletin board.

5. Making Comparisons

It may be useful for students to compare one or several First Nations organizations to non-Aboriginal community, regional, provincial or territorial organizations that have similar goals and objectives. This exercise will help students appreciate the different roles that organizations play in our communities and the similarities and differences between First Nations and non-First Nations organizations.

One way to begin the exercise is to identify categories of organizations such as political, cultural, gender-based, youth, sports, recreation or business.

After either the teacher or students have selected several categories, students should decide which ones they want to investigate. Students will then be required to locate the First Nations and non-First Nations organizations that fit the categories selected. Once these have been located, students should begin to retrieve as much information, through as many sources as they can manage, about these organizations' goals and objectives. Any information on the organizations' recent issues or activities will also be helpful.

Once the information is assembled, students should begin to analyze the data by focusing on the similarities and differences between the organizations.

Unit 4: Hunting and Trapping

Main Idea

Hunting and trapping are essential to the way of life of many First Nations. Issues such as resource development, land claims, furs for clothing and sport hunting have profound effects on First Nations who pursue traditional lifestyles.


  1. To learn how hunting and trapping affect the economies, laws, social organization and spirituality of First Nations hunting societies
  2. To explore the role of hunting and trapping in contemporary First Nations communities

Teacher Information

Hunting and trapping have always been essential to the way of life of First Nations and other Aboriginal societies. More than simply a means of providing food, hunting and trapping are central features of many First Nations' economic, social and cultural lives. Wildlife harvesting is a form of sustainable resource use that meets the needs of the present without compromising the ability of future generations to meet their own needs. Hunting and trapping encompass all wildlife harvesting, including marine mammals such as whales and seals.

It may be difficult for students in urban schools to appreciate the importance of hunting and trapping to the First Nations way of life. Indeed, many Canadians assume that the hunting and trapping lifestyle is a thing of the past. By putting hunting and trapping in a historical context only, the images of First Nations are frozen in the past. For this reason, the role of hunting and trapping in today's First Nations economies and cultures is largely ignored. Many people in Canada are only discovering now what Aboriginal people have been practicing for millennia — that sustainable use of resources is important to our community's well-being.

In this unit, students will learn why hunting and trapping are important to First Nations societies and how they remain an integral feature of life in many First Nations communities today.

The importance of hunting and trapping to First Nations varies because First Nations have diverse cultures and different historical circumstances.

Over thousands of years, each First Nation developed its own methods of surviving on their traditional lands. The Iroquois Confederacy had sophisticated farming skills and all First Nations relied upon fishing. But every First Nation depended on hunting and trapping as the primary means of subsistence. Although resources and environments varied, large game and fur-bearing animals provided the food, shelter and clothing that were vital to survival.

The historical circumstances of First Nations have also affected the role hunting and trapping play in community life. Today, many First Nations who live in southern Canada are unable to make a living from hunting and trapping because of urban settlement. First Nations in the relatively remote northern regions of Canada continue to rely on hunting and trapping for food and income. Hunting and trapping are therefore part of the social fabric of these communities.

First Nations who regard hunting and trapping as important reflect this throughout their cultures. First Nations have always had a close relationship with the animals and the land that support them. As a result, the importance of hunting and trapping is reflected in many of their traditional structures.

For example, many First Nations' traditional systems of land use are defined by their traditional hunting and trapping practices. Some First Nations had patterns of land use that reflected the well-defined hunting territories of families or clans. Others based their movements on the patterns of the animals they pursued.

Hunters often hold a great deal of influence in First Nations societies. Hunters who have proven their skills and knowledge of the land are consulted about many issues in the community.

Hunting and trapping also shape the traditional laws and customs of many First Nations. Here are some examples:

  • Where families or clans have their own hunting territory, an essential law for some First Nations is that others may not hunt on the family's territory without permission.
  • Plains peoples, such as the Blackfoot, had special societies responsible for managing the buffalo hunt. Individuals who interfered with the buffalo hunt, by disrupting it or not obeying the orders of the lead hunters, were punished.
  • An important custom in some First Nations cultures is that the bones of an animal must be returned to the land or water, or hung in a tree.

These customs and laws are based on an attitude of respect that is required in First Nations traditions to manage the land and its resources properly.

Women play crucial roles in First Nations hunting societies. The work of men and women in hunting societies is both separate and overlapping. Generally, men hunt large game animals; women hunt smaller animals. Men's work focuses on killing and butchering, while women prepare the food and the skins. Some First Nations women work their own traplines. They snare, trap and skin, and prepare hides for trade.

In most First Nations hunting societies, none of these roles is exclusive. However, they do tend to be separated. One role or activity is not viewed as any less important than the other.

Many First Nations have maintained the cultural practices of their ancestors, and hunting and trapping continue to play a critical role in the First Nations way of life today.

Also, in many First Nations communities, hunting and trapping are critical to the economy. Some communities have estimated that bush or country food (food taken from the land) provides anywhere from 25 to 50 percent of the food needs of the community.

Hunting and trapping also have tremendous social value. The traditional concepts of sharing are preserved, as families who hunt provide bush food to those who hunt less, or who are unable to hunt. Traditional hunting territories and concepts of stewardship have adapted to increasing First Nation populations and to the growth of "non-traditional" employment in communities. Finally, hunting and trapping continue to play an important role in the education of many First Nations youth.

Many First Nations are seeking to protect and revitalize hunting and trapping in their communities. First Nations are using land claims settlements to establish co-management boards so hunters and trappers can have more say in how wildlife and the environment are managed in their territories. Some First Nations have created income security programs for hunters and trappers, so that families can pursue hunting and trapping as a way to earn income. And First Nations are increasingly sharing the hunters' traditional knowledge of the land to teach society as a whole how to relate to the environment in a more respectful manner.

First Nations hunters and trappers face a number of obstacles in pursuing their livelihood.

The biggest threat to the continued existence of hunting and trapping in First Nations communities is a shrinking land base. The land base of many southern First Nations has all but disappeared. Even in remote and less populated northern areas, resource companies are having an impact on traditional hunting territories.

Forestry, mining, oil and gas, and hydro developments are not the only intrusions on the traditional territories of First Nations hunters. With the extension of access roads deep into First Nations hunting territories and traplines, the popularity of sports hunting has also grown. First Nations hunters find themselves competing with other Canadians for game. The activities of groups opposed to the harvesting of animals for fur have also affected First Nations communities across Canada by drastically reducing the value of furs.

This unit may be more difficult to implement for teachers in southern, urban environments than it will be for teachers in northern, remote communities. Where hunting and trapping remain an important way of life for a community, teachers should seek to involve hunters and trappers in the classroom. Even more importantly, they should give the students an opportunity to incorporate life on traplines into their studies.

However, teachers who do not have ready access to hunters and trappers can still benefit from this unit. Teachers can guide students through the available research on hunting and trapping. They can have them consider how issues such as resource development, land claims, fur bans and sport hunting affect First Nations who seek to pursue traditional lifestyles.


1. A Hunter's Story

Read the following account of a First Nations Elder to your class.

"When I was young, we used to hunt all the time. We used to hunt moose, bear, caribou, ducks, geese. We hunted all the time, you had to hunt until you killed something. Sometimes we went hungry, but mostly we had country food all the time.

It's hard to hunt moose. You have to follow the tracks until you find the animal. Moose are smart. You have to be careful because they watch everything, and they run away fast. I shot my first moose when I was fifteen. I didn't know a lot about hunting, so an old man took me out in the bush. I saw some moose tracks, I was real excited because I wanted to shoot that moose. The old man ignored those tracks. He didn't even say anything, he just kept on walking. We walked for a long time, and we found more moose tracks. The old man said there was a moose here, so we went into the bush, and we found it and I shot it. I was happy. It was a good feeling because we took it back and everyone had fresh meat. That old man knew how to hunt and he showed me how to hunt.

In those days, everyone used to travel together and everyone would help each other. If someone killed a moose, they would share it with everybody. Today, people don't share as much as they used to. That was important in the old days — if you had meat, you never refused to share it with anybody. If you didn't share, then the hunting was no good. That's why people respected a good hunter, because he always shared everything.

We were trappers, too. That's how we used to make money. We trapped beaver, lynx, muskrat, mink. We used to take our furs to the store. We traded the money for groceries and then we would go back in the bush again.

I remember in the old days, my mother used to trap. She used to set snares for rabbits. She used to walk a long way, and come back with some rabbits in a bag. Sometimes she even set a trap for muskrat. I taught my granddaughter how to set a snare, and she brought me a rabbit last week.

Trapping is different from the old days. Now, they only stay one or two nights when they go check their traps. In the old days, we were gone a long time when we checked our traps. We travelled on snowshoes. We went really slow when there was lots of snow. Now they got skidoos and they check their trapline in one or two days.

Some of my kids would rather go to work than go trapping. It's hard on them going out in the bush and trying to make a living. But it's a good life. Even the tea tastes better in the bush."

When you have finished reading this short story to the students, encourage them to discuss their impressions of the Elder who was speaking. You may ask them some of the following questions:

  • Why is it difficult to hunt moose? How did the Elder learn to hunt moose?
  • How has trapping changed from when the Elder was young?
  • Do you think that hunting and trapping are still important to the Elder?
  • How are women involved in hunting and trapping?
  • Why does the Elder feel it is important to share?
  • Do you believe it is important to share? Why?
  • What have you learned from this story?

2. Treaty Hunting Rights

The Chiefs who signed treaties with the Crown did not enter into the treaty-making process without a great deal of discussion and debate.

An important feature of many of the treaties was that the Crown agreed that First Nations could continue to hunt and fish in the manner in which they were accustomed. For example, the Robinson Superior Treaty of 1850, which covers much of Northern Ontario, contains the following provision:

"Her Majesty and the Government of this Province hereby promises and allow the said Chiefs and their tribes the full and free privilege to hunt over the territory now ceded by them, and to fish in the waters thereof as they have heretofore been in the habit of doing..."

During the signing of Treaty 8, the treaty commissioners reported that the Chiefs would not sign until they had been assured that their freedoms to hunt, trap and fish would not be restricted:

"Our chief difficulty was the apprehension that the hunting and fishing privileges were to be curtailed. We had to solemnly assure them that only such laws as to hunting and fishing as were in the interests of the Indians or were found to be necessary to protect the fish and fur-bearing animals will be made, and that they would be as free to hunt and fish after the treaty as they would be, if they never entered into it."

Some historical treaties may be found on the Treaty-Making in Canada page. Once you have reviewed some of the treaties with the class, ask students to enact a play, taking the parts of the Chiefs and the representatives of the Crown during the late nineteenth century. Select six students to prepare a short skit in which three leaders discuss their hunting rights with three representatives of the Crown.

Perform the skit in class, with half the class acting as community members who will be affected by the proposed treaty and half as non-Aboriginal settlers. Both parties may have questions as to their own rights according to the treaty's provisions on hunting.

3. The Hunter as a Steward

A steward is usually someone who is entrusted with managing the affairs of someone else. In First Nations hunting societies, stewards are responsible for managing and regulating their hunting territories. Not everyone can be a steward: stewards must hunt and trap for many years before they can assume such a role. A steward must be familiar with the conditions of the animals in the territory, and he will discuss these trends with other stewards and Elder hunters. Stewards will decide when the territory can be used, how many people may use it, which species may be hunted and where. If a steward neglects these responsibilities and over-hunting occurs, future hunting will be unsuccessful and the family and community will suffer.

Managing the land through stewardship is an example of traditional First Nations wildlife management practices. Another way that many First Nations societies traditionally managed game levels was by the selective use of fire. Hunters would burn small land fires in carefully chosen areas. The fires encouraged new growth in the spring. The new growth would attract the small animals, birds, and berries necessary to support greater numbers of larger animals. Some of the species which benefited from controlled burning were moose, deer, beaver, muskrat, bear, and different species of waterfowl.

To illustrate the discussion about First Nations stewardship, you may choose to have the class watch the National Film Board video, Cree Hunters of Mistassini. How does the family in the video show its responsibilities to the land? Do students think that this knowledge could be used to benefit Canadians as a whole?

4. Shopping List Investigation

Because of its cultural significance, hunting remains an important part of the livelihood of many First Nations. It is also an economical way of providing food. Wild game is a key feature of the traditional diets of some First Nations, who often prefer it to domestic foods like beef and chicken. Large game such as moose, deer and caribou may feed several families for weeks. When compared to the cost of purchasing groceries at a supermarket, particularly meat products, it is easy to see why hunting is crucial where jobs for First Nations members are scarce.

To understand the importance of hunting to contemporary First Nations economies, it is worth asking students to give some thought to the costs of the food on their tables each night.

Begin by asking students where their families get their food. Many students will simply say the supermarket. Encourage them to explore other sources, such as gardens, berry-picking, farms or fishing. There may be some students in your class whose families rely on hunting for some or all of their meat supply. They should be encouraged to share their insights during this discussion.

Once you have recorded this information on the board, tell students to prepare a short report on the cost of the food they eat. Over the course of a week, they are to record the meals eaten at dinnertime and approximately how much they cost. It is not necessary for the students to add up all of the ingredients that went into the preparation of the meal; the focus of this shopping list investigation should be on meat, or whatever main course protein source the family prefers.

At the end of a week, ask the students to prepare a simple chart that totals the amount of money spent on meat or meat substitutes. The chart may look like this:

Totals of amount of money spent on meat or meat substitutes
Monday Chicken Stir-fry Chicken $5.75
Tuesday Tuna Casserole Tinned Tuna $2.29
Wednesday Frozen Lasagna Beef $3.49
Thursday Lentil Loaf Lentils $2.29
  Total $13.82

The last line of the chart should indicate the total costs of the primary ingredients of their family's foodstuff over the past week.

Students do not need to display these charts or share the amount with the rest of the class. You need only ask them to consider the total amount spent by their family on meat or meat substitutes, and imagine what else the money could be used for. The point to emphasize is that hunters who provide wild game for their family and others have a tremendous impact on household income. This is especially important in areas where employment income is low and the cost of living is high.

Students should not be left with the impression that the sole value of hunting to First Nations is economic. Nor should they be left with the impression that wild game is "free". Traditional First Nations hunting practices emphasize the hunter as a guardian of the land, and animals are honoured as sacred gifts for the nourishment of people. If the land is not managed wisely, the gifts will be taken away. Furthermore, like all self-employed individuals, hunters have associated costs, such as guns, clothing, transportation and gasoline.

5. Classroom Visit

Invite a First Nations hunter or trapper to speak to the class about the role of hunting and trapping in First Nations cultures. You may also wish to invite a First Nations woman who is familiar with hunting lifestyles to discuss a woman's role in a hunting camp. Or invite a First Nations person who is involved in contemporary styles of ecological management. Many First Nations administer their own wildlife management programs and there will be people such as wildlife officers who are very knowledgeable about contemporary and traditional First Nations conservation practices.

If your school is in the city and it is difficult to reach people who are familiar with traditional hunting lifestyles, contact someone from the local Friendship Centre. Another option is to contact a provincial environment ministry, which will have various wildlife and natural resources departments. It may be possible to invite to the classroom a conservation officer who has some knowledge of First Nations hunting and trapping issues. Be sure that students prepare some questions for the speaker. The students should also present the speaker with a gift, preferably one that they have created themselves.

6. Hunting and Trapping: Our way of life

If students in the class are involved in hunting and trapping, teachers may wish to complement the activities in this unit by creating a wall display that shows the students' hunting and trapping knowledge.

Items in the display could include:

  • a map by the students showing their families' traditional hunting territories;
  • a display of animal pelts, with a description of the animal and its characteristics;
  • photos and drawings of hunting trips;
  • stories and poems about the students' experiences in the bush;
  • descriptions of methods of snaring or trapping particular animals; e.g., a step-by-step account of how to set a rabbit snare; and
  • recipes for the preparation of traditional foods.

7. The Hunting Committee

Students who live in communities where hunting and trapping are practised will understand, and likely be very respectful of the variety of skills of hunters and trappers. Wherever possible, students should be encouraged to spend time with hunters and trappers so they can observe these skills first-hand.

Skillful hunters or trappers must know a great deal about the animals they are hunting or trapping, but this is only one of many skills they must master. They must be able to build shelters when they and their families are in the bush. They must be prepared to repair their snowmobiles, trucks and outboard motors, if they break down.

Trappers must be sensitive to the price of furs in the larger economy and what types of fur will fetch the highest price. They must be prudent businesspersons, to ensure that their income will meet their families' needs. First Nations trappers and hunters are often also highly sensitive to the spiritual teachings of their people, which may include being responsive to dream teachings. Hunters are occasionally required to practise their medicinal skills, both traditional and modern, when they or members of their families are ill out on the trapline or hunting territory. Hunters can also pass on a great deal of traditional knowledge of the land from one generation to the next through stories.

This activity is designed to encourage students to explore, albeit in an artificial way, the variety of factors that a hunter or trapper must consider in making a sound and wise hunting choice.

Tell students that they are going to simulate a decision that must be made by one hunter and one trapper. The hunter is hunting for a moose and the trapper is planning to set his or her traps for beaver (feel free to change these animals to any large game animal or any fur-bearing animal common in your area). The families of the hunter and trapper would like to leave for the bush seven days from the date of the assignment.

Divide the class into two committees, the Moose Committee and the Beaver Committee. It is the responsibility of the committees to gather all of the information required for the hunter and trapper to make a decision as to whether or not the family should depart seven days from now.

On each committee, you will need a student to provide the following information:

  • animal expert — provides a report on the animal being pursued, including its habits and habitat;
  • weather person — provides a report on the weather seven days from now and a prediction of what the weather will be for the duration of the two-week trip;
  • businessperson — provides a report on the current cost of furs or hides;
  • storyteller — provides a legend or story regarding the animal being pursued;
  • mechanic — provides a report of the steps taken to prepare the pick-up truck and the snowmobile or outboard, and the cost of the necessary fuel for a two-week trip;
  • carpenter — provides a report of the tools and wood required to build a 7x7 storage shed at the camp and a rough estimate of the costs; and
  • dreamer — (in some hunting cultures, a good hunter is someone who can interpret dreams) this student should provide a report on how his or her dreams can assist the hunting trip.

Some of this information is not conventional library research, and students may have to use their ingenuity. For example, the student who is doing the report on carpentry may have to phone a local lumber store; the students researching the weather forecast or the fur rates may find the Internet useful; the student assigned to interpret dreams will have to research some First Nations mythologies.

Once all of the students have gathered their information, they should prepare it in a brief summary to present to the rest of the committee. After hearing all the reports, it is up to the committee to reach consensus as to whether or not they should depart on the designated day.

8. The Fur Wars

In recent years, First Nations hunters and trappers have found themselves at the centre of a highly controversial debate: the use of animal fur for fashion. Animal rights groups have launched campaigns to try and stop the use of animal fur in the fashion industry. In some markets, the anti-fur lobby has been very effective, resulting in either import restrictions or a lessening of the appeal for fur as a fashion item. Many First Nations people have found this controversy to be perplexing, as some of the third groups which present Aboriginal people as "the original environmentalists" then criticize their traditional hunting and trapping of wildlife. As a result, First Nation communities who rely on wildlife harvesting have become actively involved in lobbying for their own rights to hunt and trap.

From the perspective of animal rights groups, non-human animals have a right to live according to their own natures. This includes a right to be free from any human use. Animal rights groups have particularly focused on the use of "leg-hold traps," which at one time was the most common type of animal trap used by trappers. While there are over a thousand different types of leg-hold traps, the "steel-jawed" type has been the one used most often in anti-trapping ads. This type of trap has not been widely used in Canada since the 1970s. Their use has been banned in most provinces and territories for most terrestrial fur-bearing animals since that time. Animal rights groups have called for a ban on all traps and, ultimately, an end to the use of furs for fashion.

Trappers – both Aboriginal and non-Aboriginal — have responded by using quick-killing traps specially designed for each species, which are much more selective and humane than older methods. Nonetheless, the anti-fur activities of the animal rights groups threaten to undermine the ability of many First Nations communities which have depended on trapping to provide some of their cash income.

Aboriginal hunters and trappers argue that their traditional hunting practices are based upon respect. In traditional First Nations hunting societies, animals are more than food that sustains people's bodies. Animals are considered to possess intelligence, are capable of independent action and have their own way of living. A successful hunt is not simply the result of the work of the hunter. It also rests with the intention of the animal to be slain. In this way, animals are "received" and are considered gifts from the Creator. In fact, many Aboriginal communities believe that to refuse these gifts — i.e. not to hunt them — would be seen by the Creator as ingratitude and result in some retribution against the community. This belief is found in all Aboriginal cultures across Canada. To view an animal in this way means that hunters have special obligations. For example, they must share this gift with others, they must manage the land wisely and they must maintain a spiritual balance. If they are sensitive to all of these responsibilities, hunters believe that they will receive what they want when they are in need.

Students will likely have strong views on this subject. Students could be asked to share their views on the following question: Do you think people (specifically First Nations) should be allowed to trap animals for their fur?

If students have not had exposure to the role of hunting and trapping in First Nations, it may be difficult for them to appreciate the First Nations perspectives. The National Film Board video, Pelts: Politics of the Fur Trade, may serve as a basis for discussion before beginning this activity.

Unit 5: Indian Residential Schools

Main Idea

The Indian Residential Schools system had devastating effects upon many First Nations, Inuit and Métis children, families and communities. Communities are still healing from the abuse many of their members suffered at Indian Residential Schools.


  1. To introduce students to the history of the Indian Residential Schools system
  2. To explore how Indian Residential Schools have affected former students, their families and communities
  3. To discuss what can be done to redress the wrongs associated with the Indian Residential Schools

Teacher Information

Indian Residential Schools started operating in Canada prior to Confederation. Churches established the first schools as part of their missionary work. The Government of Canada played a role in the administration of Indian Residential Schools system as early as 1874. The reason was mainly to meet its obligations, under the Indian Act, to provide an education to Aboriginal people, and to assist with their integration into the broader Canadian society. The last of the federally run schools closed in 1996. It is now widely understood that this system has contributed to weakening the identity of Aboriginal peoples. It did this by separating children from their families and communities, and preventing them from speaking their own languages, and from learning about their heritage and cultures.

Indian Residential Schools had a tragic effect upon many Aboriginal families. They disrupted the smooth transmission of beliefs, skills and knowledge from one generation to the next. This system reflected mainstream attitudes of racial and cultural superiority. The experience of these schools has left a legacy of personal pain for former residents, which continues to reverberate in communities today.

Many of the children who attended Indian Residential Schools underwent a devastating process of enforced assimilation. For some of the children in certain schools, the normal and healthy process of change and growth slowed, because conditions were physically, psychologically and spiritually unhealthy.

By the 1950s, the federal government began to realize that the Indian Residential Schools system could not be maintained. Many of the children leaving the schools did not have the proper education or skills to fit into mainstream Canadian society and they found it difficult to readjust to their own communities.

The effects of the Indian Residential Schools did not stop when the children finally left the school. The physical, sexual and spiritual abuse suffered by many children at the schools spilled back into some Aboriginal communities. At Indian Residential Schools, many children learned that adults wielded power and control through abuse. As a result of these childhood lessons, many former students have inflicted abuse upon their own children. The incidents of physical and sexual abuse are often higher in some Aboriginal communities than the rest of Canada. Many former students also find themselves struggling with their Aboriginal identities, after being taught for so long to suppress their own culture. Finally, many former students found it difficult to raise their own children, because they had been deprived of any parental role models.

The federal government and churches have acknowledged the damage done to Aboriginal communities as a result of the Indian Residential Schools system. Aboriginal peoples have demanded, and received, apologies from the federal government and a number of churches. Some former students are also seeking redress through the criminal justice system.

In its report released in 1996, the Royal Commission on Aboriginal Peoples recommended that the government and churches offer apologies to Indian Residential Schools survivors, that people be compensated for the abuse they suffered and that a public inquiry be struck to examine the treatment of former Indian Residential Schools students. In response to the Report, the federal government issued a statement of reconciliation in which it apologized to those individuals who suffered abuse while at residential schools. The government also granted $350 million to the Aboriginal Healing Foundation to support healing initiatives that address the legacy of abuse left by the Indian Residential Schools system.

In 2006, the Government announced the Indian Residential Schools Settlement Agreement, which included individual and collective measures to address the legacy of the Indian Residential Schools system. These measures included Common Experience Payments; an Independent Assessment Process to address abuse claims; the Truth and Reconciliation Commission; commemoration activities; and measures to support healing. In June 2008, the Prime Minister issued an apology on behalf of all Canadians for the Indian Residential Schools system.

Today, most First Nations run their own schools. They are reclaiming the education of their children and attempting to put the Indian Residential Schools experience in the past.


1. Trying to Adjust

Aboriginal children were forced to make serious adjustments when they arrived at Indian Residential School.

Often children were sent far away to an Indian Residential School, and siblings were separated according to age level. Children were often punished for speaking their Aboriginal languages. Those who did not speak English or French were therefore often unable to communicate verbally to anyone in authority. They were forced to deal with loneliness, sickness, confusion and abuse on their own.

Many former students have reported that they had to cope with the suffocating heat or fierce cold of the buildings. They missed their parents and other adult members of their families. Some also suffered because of inadequate food, rigid discipline, mental and physical abuse, and the loss of personal freedoms and individual will. They were often punished for engaging in any cultural and spiritual ceremonies and practices.

Ask students to recall an experience in which they had to make a major adjustment. Ask them to write a short essay or story (2-3 pages), or start a class discussion in which they compare their experiences to those of Aboriginal children at Indian Residential Schools.

2. Hated Structure

Consider the poem by Rita Joe, a Mi'kmaq poet, called Hated Structure: Indian Residential School, Shubenacadie, N.S., which can be found in Rita Joe's book, Song of Eskasoni.

In the poem, the poet returns to the residential school in Shubenacadie, Nova Scotia. Ask students what they think the poem means. What is the poet's opinion of Indian Residential Schools? What memories does the school stir in the poet? What type of emotions is she expressing when she remembers the school? What does the school represent to the poet?

3. The Role of the Elders

Aboriginal peoples had well-developed systems of education before the arrival of Europeans. The bases of traditional education were the lessons and teachings of Aboriginal Elders and parents. They educated their children in the skills necessary to survive on the land; their family and tribal history; language, fine arts such as music and storytelling; the appropriate social and political behaviour; and moral and religious values.

Indian Residential Schools disrupted the transmission of beliefs, skills and knowledge from one generation to the next. Despite Indian Residential Schools, Elders continue to be respected in Aboriginal communities for their wisdom and experience. Ask students to write a journal entry that explores their relationship with their grandparents or an Elder/senior who played an important role in their lives. Ask them to remember the lessons and values they learned from that person. If students have not had such a relationship, encourage them to describe their feelings about not having such a connection with an Elder.

4. A New School

Students may ask why many Aboriginal students did not fit into the regular school system. Ask students to consider a situation where, as seven-year-old students, they would be separated from their parents for most of the year and placed in a school where no one spoke their language. In this situation, the language spoken to you is written very differently from your native tongue. Your teachers don't understand many of the things that are very important to you, such as hockey or ringette, snowboarding and skateboarding, burgers and fries, music videos and computer games. Would it mean that you are a failure if you had a difficult time in that school system?

5. Going Home

When children returned to their communities after several years at Indian Residential Schools, they often found it hard to fit back into family life, and parents found that the children had changed. Some parents also found that the children argued with them frequently, and with other children and family members. Also, some children seemed unconcerned about hurting others and often appeared unwilling to respect Elders.

Also difficult for many parents was their children's loss of their language. At Indian Residential Schools, many students were often punished for speaking their own language. After several years away at school, children generally found it difficult to speak their mother tongue.

From an Aboriginal people's perspective, the most damaging part of Indian Residential Schools was that children were taught that their culture was unimportant. They were told that the values with which they had been raised were "primitive" and that non-Aboriginal people in Canada were part of a more "advanced" society. The schools' organization and the curriculum content gave Aboriginal children the impression that the beliefs, political institutions, religious practices and economic system of non-Aboriginal people in Canada were superior to the traditional ways of Aboriginal peoples.

Ask students to create a short skit in which a family is adjusting to having their children return from Indian Residential School after a three-year absence. Students will need at least two characters (a residential school student and a parent), but they may have more: one or more students, a mother, a father, a grandparent, brothers and sisters. Encourage students to put themselves in the shoes of the character they are portraying. What were some of the problems experienced by the children and their parents when the students arrived home? What effect did the Indian Residential Schools have on the way Aboriginal members felt about themselves as students and parents?

6. Reconciliation and Apology

In 1998, as part of its response to the Report of the Royal Commission on Aboriginal Peoples, the federal government delivered a Statement of Reconciliation to Aboriginal peoples. The churches also apologized for the role they played in Indian Residential Schools.

In 2007, the Indian Residential Schools Settlement Agreement came into effect. This was followed by the June 2008 federal Government's apology to former students and the creation of the Truth and Reconciliation Commission in 2009.

Ask students if they believe that the apologies are important. Why?

Apology by the Prime Minister of Canada on Behalf of Canadians for the Indian Residential Schools System

The treatment of children in Indian Residential Schools is a sad chapter in our history.

For more than a century, Indian Residential Schools separated over 150,000 Aboriginal children from their families and communities. In the 1870's, the federal government, partly in order to meet its obligation to educate Aboriginal children, began to play a role in the development and administration of these schools. Two primary objectives of the Residential Schools system were to remove and isolate children from the influence of their homes, families, traditions and cultures, and to assimilate them into the dominant culture. These objectives were based on the assumption Aboriginal cultures and spiritual beliefs were inferior and unequal. Indeed, some sought, as it was infamously said, "to kill the Indian in the child". Today, we recognize that this policy of assimilation was wrong, has caused great harm, and has no place in our country.

One hundred and thirty-two federally-supported schools were located in every province and territory, except Newfoundland, New Brunswick and Prince Edward Island. Most schools were operated as "joint ventures" with Anglican, Catholic, Presbyterian or United Churches. The Government of Canada built an educational system in which very young children were often forcibly removed from their homes, often taken far from their communities. Many were inadequately fed, clothed and housed. All were deprived of the care and nurturing of their parents, grandparents and communities. First Nations, Inuit and Métis languages and cultural practices were prohibited in these schools. Tragically, some of these children died while attending residential schools and others never returned home.

The government now recognizes that the consequences of the Indian Residential Schools policy were profoundly negative and that this policy has had a lasting and damaging impact on Aboriginal culture, heritage and language. While some former students have spoken positively about their experiences at residential schools, these stories are far overshadowed by tragic accounts of the emotional, physical and sexual abuse and neglect of helpless children, and their separation from powerless families and communities.

The legacy of Indian Residential Schools has contributed to social problems that continue to exist in many communities today.

It has taken extraordinary courage for the thousands of survivors that have come forward to speak publicly about the abuse they suffered. It is a testament to their resilience as individuals and to the strength of their cultures. Regrettably, many former students are not with us today and died never having received a full apology from the Government of Canada.

The government recognizes that the absence of an apology has been an impediment to healing and reconciliation. Therefore, on behalf of the Government of Canada and all Canadians, I stand before you, in this Chamber so central to our life as a country, to apologize to Aboriginal peoples for Canada's role in the Indian Residential Schools system.

To the approximately 80,000 living former students, and all family members and communities, the Government of Canada now recognizes that it was wrong to forcibly remove children from their homes and we apologize for having done this. We now recognize that it was wrong to separate children from rich and vibrant cultures and traditions that it created a void in many lives and communities, and we apologize for having done this. We now recognize that, in separating children from their families, we undermined the ability of many to adequately parent their own children and sowed the seeds for generations to follow, and we apologize for having done this. We now recognize that, far too often, these institutions gave rise to abuse or neglect and were inadequately controlled, and we apologize for failing to protect you. Not only did you suffer these abuses as children, but as you became parents, you were powerless to protect your own children from suffering the same experience, and for this we are sorry.

The burden of this experience has been on your shoulders for far too long. The burden is properly ours as a Government, and as a country. There is no place in Canada for the attitudes that inspired the Indian Residential Schools system to ever prevail again. You have been working on recovering from this experience for a long time and in a very real sense, we are now joining you on this journey. The Government of Canada sincerely apologizes and asks the forgiveness of the Aboriginal peoples of this country for failing them so profoundly.

Nous le regrettons
We are sorry

In moving towards healing, reconciliation and resolution of the sad legacy of Indian Residential Schools, implementation of the Indian Residential Schools Settlement Agreement began on September 19, 2007. Years of work by survivors, communities, and Aboriginal organizations culminated in an agreement that gives us a new beginning and an opportunity to move forward together in partnership.

A cornerstone of the Settlement Agreement is the Indian Residential Schools Truth and Reconciliation Commission. This Commission presents a unique opportunity to educate all Canadians on the Indian Residential Schools system. It will be a positive step in forging a new relationship between Aboriginal peoples and other Canadians, a relationship based on the knowledge of our shared history, a respect for each other and a desire to move forward together with a renewed understanding that strong families, strong communities and vibrant cultures and traditions will contribute to a stronger Canada for all of us.

Unit 6: Literary Images of First Nations

Main Idea

For centuries, non-Aboriginal writers have contributed to the shaping of the image of First Nations in North American literature. The literary "voices" of First Nations are now emerging and are gradually displacing the often stereotypical image of the "Indian" in Canadian literature.


  1. To introduce students to First Nations authors and First Nations literature
  2. To discuss Canadian literary works about First Nations
  3. To introduce students to First Nations oral traditions

Teacher Information

When studying Canadian literature, students should understand that stories, legends and songs of the First Nations were the first literature of Canada. A work is usually defined as literature when it is a written story that displays creative imagination and artistic skill. Thus, many people assume that the study of literature is about books. But each culture has its own unique literary expression. Literature can be defined more broadly to include songs, speeches, stories and invocations.

Students should also learn that non-First Nations writers have shaped the images of First Nations in Canadian literature, even though there is a very large body of oral stories that have been passed down from generation to generation among First Nations. Students should also be made aware of the increasingly large body of written works by First Nations authors.

The First Nations Oral Tradition

The literature of First Nations was based in oral traditions best described as "orature". Individuals who were eloquent and had a strong command of the language were highly respected in First Nations communities. They were often storytellers. A good storyteller could transport listeners to a particular piece of hunting territory — the lapping of the water on the lake shore and the smell of the trees. A storyteller could evoke the lessons of ancestors long passed away. A storyteller could shape the opinions of people by reminding them of past actions and historical events. In any oral tradition, spoken words had the power to capture the imagination and transform reality.

In this way, First Nations used songs, legends and stories to express their understanding of their world and to pass on the histories of their people to succeeding generations. In particular, storytelling was a vital ingredient in teaching young children and youths. Stories were often used to discipline children. This was generally done in a humorous way because teasing and joking served as a more effective social mechanism in many First Nation cultures than direct reproof, pointing out mistakes.

Some European newcomers considered First Nations cultures to be inferior because they lacked written forms of communication. However, many earlier colonial administrators soon came to appreciate the verbal skill and artistry of First Nations leaders and orators. At treaty sessions and council meetings, government officials found themselves having to adapt to the complex oratory of First Nations spokespersons.

Many of the old stories have slipped away with the passing of Elders and through the loss of culture caused by assimilation. The precarious state of many First Nations languages also presents a challenge to storytelling traditions. Nevertheless, the oral traditions of First Nations continue today. First Nations storytellers are reclaiming the stories of their people and, in many cases, relating them in the context of the contemporary lives of First Nations. Contemporary storytellers are also expanding their audiences by adapting oral traditions to radio, television, theatre, music and books.

The Indian as a Symbol

First Nations frequently appear as characters in Canadian literature. The "Indian" is a commonplace figure in Canadian literature. While some of these portrayals have been sympathetic, the "Indian" has come to be associated with meanings that are often not defined by First Nations themselves. In many instances, their voices have been ignored.

In many early Canadian literary works, First Nations characters did not speak. If they did, they expressed themselves in broken English or with romantic eloquence. If First Nations characters moved, they acted according to Euro-Canadian concepts of plot. They were portrayed as faithful allies or cruel enemies, but most often as marginal figures who could be ignored.

Rather than complex human beings with a range of emotions, intellect and experience, First Nations peoples were portrayed in a purely symbolic way. First Nations characters displayed "good" traits (living in harmony with nature, simplicity, hospitality, noble, wise, acquiescent or compliant to Europeans) or "bad" traits (violence, cruelty, instinctive rather than rational, uncommunicative, independent).

When these characters appeared, they were marginal to the plot in Canadian literary works.

Ultimately, many Canadian authors failed to look beyond the pervasive early European perspectives of First Nations when creating First Nations characters. By treating them as little more than symbols, Canadian literature denied First Nations' history and humanity and perpetuated the powerful but unrealistic mythic images of the "Indian".

First Nations Voices

While First Nations have continued to maintain their oral traditions, printed texts by First Nations authors were exceedingly rare until the 1970s. Today, First Nations authors, playwrights and poets are flourishing. The emergence of creative art schools for First Nations people, First Nations publishers, bookstores that specialize in First Nations literature, and First Nations educators, have all contributed to the "renaissance" of First Nations writers.

As their collective voices emerge, Canadian literature is being transformed. First Nations writers are sharing their experiences, their beliefs and their perspectives on human relationships, the spirit world and the land. In the process, centuries of scholars and authors' misinformation and misunderstandings about First Nations are being corrected. Canadians finally have the opportunity to learn about First Nations and their stories from First Nations authors themselves.


1. Return of the Trickster

Storytelling has always been a communal activity for First Nations. Traditionally, stories and legends brought people together to pass on their history to the next generation, to entertain each other, and to teach their children. They told stories about their ancestors, about every aspect of the land around them and about the magnificent beings who were part of their mythology.

One of the central figures in First Nations mythologies is a character often referred to as the "Trickster". The Trickster can be either male or female. It is called different names in different First Nations cultures — Raven by the people of the West Coast, Wee-sak-ee-chak by the Cree, Nana'b'oozoo by the Ojibway of the Eastern Woodlands, Kluskap by the Mi'kmaq. The Trickster is known as Coyote, Hare, Crow, Badger or Old Man among other First Nations in North America.

Generally, the Trickster is a half-human and half-spirit figure who roams from one adventure to another, assuming the form of animals or humans of either gender. The Trickster is an amusing character whose enormous curiosity frequently leads to trouble. The Trickster regularly displays contradictory behaviour such as charm and cunning, honesty and deception, kindness and mean tricks. It is unpredictable — one minute a hero, the next a foolish clown.

Above all, the Trickster is a teacher. Listeners are invited to draw their own conclusions about traditions and proper behaviour from the Trickster's exploits. The Trickster is a remarkably self-important individual. Like all humans, the Trickster is imperfect: it is capable of violence, deception and cruelty. Listeners learn as much through the Trickster's mistakes as through its virtues.

There are those who say that the Trickster left the First Nations when the Europeans arrived. Among the Ojibway, it is said that Nana'b'oozoo paddled away from his people in a canoe, accompanied only by his grandmother, upset that his people had rejected him for the ways of the newcomers. But it is also said that Nana'b'oozoo would return when the people were ready to welcome him again. Given the number of contemporary First Nations authors who employ the Trickster in their works, it appears that the Trickster has returned and is roaming the Canadian landscape once again.

There are many compilations of First Nations myths and legends that feature the Trickster. Early translators of First Nations myths and legends tended to modify the stories to resemble European fairy tales, with a linear plot and a moral. Contemporary versions of the Trickster stories better reflect the complexity and humour of the original storytellers. Introduce students to the Trickster character by reading and comparing Trickster stories. Here is a brief list of stories you may wish to use:

  • "The One About Coyote Going West" by Thomas King in All My Relations
  • "Nana'b'oozoo" by Basil Johnson in The Manitous
  • "Weaver Spider's Web" by Peter Blue Cloud in All My Relations
  • "Legends of the Supernatural Wee-Sa-Kay-Jac" by Carl Ray and James Stevens in Sacred
  • Legends of the Sandy Lake Cree
  • "This is a Story" by Jeanette Armstrong in All My Relations
  • "Trickster Cycles" in Our Bit of Truth: An Anthology of Canadian Native Literature
  • "The Shivering Tree" by John McLeod in Native Voices: The Issues Collection

When students have read one or more of the Trickster stories, ask them some of the following questions:

  • Is the Trickster a character you admire? If not, what have you learned from its behaviour?
  • Have you heard any other stories about someone who is vain? How was that person treated in the story?
  • Do you ever play tricks on people? How do people react when they've been tricked?

2. In the Eye of the Beholder

Many European newcomers assumed that without the written word, First Nations were not literate. In reality, the oral traditions of the First Nations were intricate and full of meaning. First Nations orators were highly respected, and words had a great deal of power. Orators used wit, metaphor, irony, emotion, imagery and eloquence to enrich their orature. Storytelling, political oratory, invocations and songs served as forms of literary expression and were passed on from generation to generation.

Without understanding the language of the orator or the context of the oratory, it may be difficult for students familiar with Western literary structures to appreciate First Nations orature. However, ask students to consider the words from the following two songs (for these and other examples of Native orature, see Penny Petrone, Native Literature in Canada, [Oxford: Toronto, 1990]).

The first is a Chippewa song:

"Wau wau tay see!
Wau wau tay see!
E mow e shin
Tahe bwau ne baun-e wee!
Be eghaun - be eghaun - ewee!
Wau wau tay see!
Wau wau tay see!
Was sa koon ain je gun.
Was sa koon ain je gun."

Translated literally by Henry Schoolcraft, the singer is saying:

Give me light before I go to bed!
Give me light before I go to sleep!
Come, little dancing white-fire-bug!
Come, little dancing white-fire-beast!
Light me with your bright white-flame-instrument — your little candle."

Next is a translated version of a Sekani medicine song:

"I need your help, O caribou
Come swiftly to me.
You see I have laid my hands on the sufferer.
Come and lay your hoofs where I have laid my hands,
I need your help.
Without your help there is no healing in my hands today.
Come so quickly that your tail stands erect".

Do you think these songs have "literary" elements to them? Is there imagery, rhythm, structure, symbolism or allegory? What are these songs expressing?

3. Book Review

Tell students that they have been asked by a national newspaper to write a book review on a contemporary First Nations author. Teachers may wish to suggest one of the following authors:

  • Daniel David Moses
  • Bernard Assiniwi
  • Basil Johnson
  • Thomas King
  • Gregory Scofield
  • Annehareo
  • Duncan Mercredi
  • Lee Maracle
  • Jeanette Armstrong
  • Rita Joe
  • Wayne Keon
  • Jordan Wheeler
  • Beth Brant
  • Armand Garnet Ruffo
  • Lenore Keeshig-Tobias
  • Beatrice Culleton
  • Ruby Slipperjack
  • Harry Robinson
  • Louise Halfe
  • Eden Robinson
  • Brian Maracle
  • Richard Wagamese
  • Beth Cuthand
  • Richard Van Camp
  • Pauline Johnson

Students may choose any other First Nations author to complete this exercise.

Tell students to write the book review in the first person. Ask them to describe what the book meant to them and whether it raised (or answered) any questions about First Nations culture. Do they think that other readers would enjoy the book? Why or why not?

4. On the Stage

First Nations theatre has exploded in popularity since the 1990s. Many First Nations playwrights believe that theatre captures the oral traditions of First Nations cultures more effectively than written works. Plays also evoke the powerful emotions that have been used as part of the contemporary healing process for First Nations.

Obtain a play by one of the following playwrights:

  • Tomson Highway
  • Drew Hayden Taylor
  • Daniel David Moses
  • Monique Mojica
  • Floyd Favel
  • Margo Kane
  • Billy Merasty
  • John McLeod
  • Ian Ross

If students have a different First Nations playwright in mind, they may choose that playwright's work.

Choose a short scene from one of these plays and read it to the class. Explain to the class why the scene was selected and organize a class discussion about the content of the scene.

5. Questions to Ask

Introduce students to short stories, essays and poems by First Nations authors. There are several anthologies of Canadian First Nations literature where you can find selections for the class, including:

  • King, Thomas (ed.). All My Relations. Toronto: McClelland and Stewart, 1990.
  • Moses, Daniel David and Terry Goldie (ed.) An Anthology of Canadian Native Literature (3d) Toronto: Oxford University Press, 2005.
  • Ahenakew, Freda, Brenda Gardipy and Barbara Lafond (ed.) Native Voices: The Issues Collection. Canada: McGraw Hill Ryerson, 1993.
  • Brant, Beth. (ed.) A Gathering of Spirit. Toronto: Women's Press, 1988.
  • Maki, J.T. (ed.) Let The Drums Be Your Heart. Vancouver: Douglas and McIntyre, 1996.
  • En'okwin International School of Writing. Gatherings: The En'okwin Journal of First North American Peoples. Penticton: Theytus Books, annual.
  • Grant, Agnes (ed.) Our Bit of Truth: An Anthology of Canadian Native Literature. Winnipeg: Pemmican Publications, 1990.
  • Perreault, Jeanne and Sylvia Vance (ed.) Writing the Circle: Native Women of Western Canada. Edmonton: NeWest Publishers, 1990.

After they have read the stories, ask students some of the following questions:

  • One of the key themes in First Nations literature is a sense of interconnected family or community relations. What role do First Nations communities play in the stories or poems? How are individuality and isolation treated by First Nations authors?
  • How do First Nations authors use humour in their works?
  • In a traditional oral story, the storyteller uses gestures, performance, and language to enhance the story. In a written story, all you have is the word on the page. How have First Nations authors demonstrated oral traditions in their writing?
  • Is there anger in any of the First Nations works you have read? Is there healing?
  • How have First Nations authors portrayed the relationship between people and the land? What about relationships between people and animals?
  • Many non-First Nations authors set their works about First Nations in historical periods such as the nineteenth century. How do First Nations authors treat the past? What period are their works set in?
  • How are relations with non-First Nations people portrayed in works by First Nations authors?
  • How do First Nations authors treat the experience of colonization? For example, do they write about jails, loss of language, boarding schools or reserves?

Unit 7: Treaties

Main Idea

Treaties are an important part of the relationship between the Crown and First Nations. First Nations consider treaties to be sacred and enduring agreements. There are different types of treaties in Canada, although many First Nations have never signed treaty agreements.


  1. To provide students with a historical perspective of treaties in Canada
  2. To raise awareness of current issues surrounding treaties and First Nations land claims

Teacher Information

The Government of Canada and the courts understand treaties between the Crown and Aboriginal people to be solemn agreements that set out promises, obligations and benefits for both parties.

Starting in 1701, in what was to eventually become Canada, the British Crown entered into solemn treaties to encourage peaceful relations between First Nations and non-Aboriginal people. Over the next several centuries, treaties were signed to define, among other things, the respective rights of Aboriginal people and governments to use and enjoy lands that Aboriginal people traditionally occupied.

Treaties include historic treaties made between 1701 and 1923 and modern-day treaties known as comprehensive land claim settlements.

Treaty rights already in existence in 1982 (the year the Constitution Act was passed), and those that arose afterwards, are recognized and affirmed by Canada's Constitution.

The Royal Proclamation of 1763 and the Pre-Confederation Treaties

In the 18th century, the French and British were competing for control of lands in North America. The two colonial powers formed strategic alliances with First Nations to help them advance their respective colonial interests in the continent. For example, in what are now New Brunswick and Nova Scotia, the British made a series of "Peace and Friendship" treaties with the Mi'kmaq and Maliseet nations between 1725 and 1779.

By the early 1760s, the British had established themselves as the dominant colonial power in North America. The British Royal Proclamation of 1763 prohibited the purchase of First Nation lands by any party other than the Crown. The Crown could purchase land from a First Nation that had agreed to the sale at a public meeting of the community.

Several treaties were signed after the Royal Proclamation and before Confederation in 1867. These include the Upper Canada Treaties (1764 to 1862) and the Vancouver Island Treaties (1850 to 1854). Under these treaties, First Nations surrendered interests in lands in areas of what are now Ontario and British Columbia, in exchange for benefits that could include reserves, annuities or other types of payment, as well as certain rights to hunt and fish.

Historic Treaties after Confederation

Between 1871 and 1921, the Crown entered into treaties with various First Nations that enabled the Canadian government to actively pursue agriculture, settlement and resource development of the Canadian West and the North. Because they are numbered 1 to 11, the treaties are often referred to as the "Numbered Treaties". The Numbered Treaties cover Northern Ontario, Manitoba, Saskatchewan, Alberta, and portions of Yukon, the Northwest Territories and British Columbia.

Under these treaties, the First Nations who occupied these territories ceded vast tracts of land to the Crown. In exchange, the treaties provided for such things as reserve lands and other benefits like agricultural equipment and livestock, annuities, ammunition, gratuities, clothing and certain rights to hunt and fish. The Crown also made some promises regarding the maintenance of schools on reserves, or the provision of teachers or educational assistance to the First Nation parties to the treaties.

Modern Treaties — Comprehensive Claims

Comprehensive land claim settlements deal with areas of Canada where Aboriginal people's claims to Aboriginal rights have not been addressed by treaties or other legal means. The first of these modern-day treaties was the James Bay and Northern Quebec Agreement, signed in 1975. As of 2011, the federal government has settled 24 comprehensive claims with Aboriginal people in Canada.

The Contemporary Significance of Treaties

In Gathering Strength — Canada's Aboriginal Action Plan, announced January 7, 1998, the Government of Canada affirmed that both historic and modern-day treaties will continue to be key elements in the future relationship between Aboriginal people and the Crown. The federal government believes that treaties, and the relationship they represent, can guide the way to a shared future. The continuing treaty relationship provides a context of mutual rights and responsibilities that will ensure that all Aboriginal and non-Aboriginal people can enjoy Canada's benefits.


1. Treaty Map

The numerous treaties in Canada cover different areas and affect different First Nations.

Divide the class into 13 groups and assign each group a province or territory. Ask each group to make a five minute oral report to the class on the treaties that affect the province or territory they have been assigned.

Their presentation should include:

  • the number of treaties in the province or territory;
  • the year in which the treaties were signed;
  • the Aboriginal groups affected by the treaty; and
  • the types of treaties; i.e., peace and friendship, pre-Confederation, numbered or modern-day.

2. The Royal Proclamation

When discussing treaties, one of the most important historical documents is the Royal Proclamation of 1763. It was issued by King George III and was intended to keep First Nations as allies during times of war and to keep them as trading partners. Some of the important principles in the Royal Proclamation include:

  • the decree that First Nations should not be disturbed in their use and enjoyment of the lands reserved for them by the Royal Proclamation;
  • any lands that the Royal Proclamation reserved to First Nations were to be purchased by the Crown only and not by individuals;
  • lands reserved for First Nations under the Royal Proclamation could only be purchased with the consent of the First Nation in a public assembly of the First Nation community held by the Governor or Commander in Chief of the colonies in which the lands lay.

First Nations still refer to the Royal Proclamation as evidence of their sovereignty and their rights to land and resources.

Ask the class to design a short skit concerning the Royal Proclamation of 1763. One student will be required to portray a British representative of King George in 1763. The representative visits some of the local First Nations in your area and reads the following portions of the Royal Proclamation to them. An interpreter must translate the meaning of each paragraph into contemporary English:

"And whereas it is just and reasonable, and essential to our interest, and the Security of our Colonies, that the several Nations or Tribes of Indians with whom We are connected, and who live under our Protection, should not be molested or disturbed in the Possession of such Parts of our Dominions and Territories as, not having been ceded to or purchased by Us, are reserved to them, or any of them, as their Hunting Grounds".

(INTERPRETER's version)

"And, We do further strictly enjoin and require all Persons whatever who have either willfully or inadvertently seated themselves upon any Lands within the Countries above described, or upon any other Lands which, not having been ceded to or purchased by Us, are still reserved to the said Indians as aforesaid, forthwith to remove themselves from such Settlements."

(INTERPRETER's version)

"And Whereas Great Frauds and Abuses have been committed in purchasing Lands of the Indians, to the Great Prejudice of our Interests, and the Great Dissatisfaction of the said Indians; In Order, therefore, to prevent such Irregularities for the future, and to the End that the Indians may be convinced of our Justice and determined Resolution to remove all reasonable Cause of Discontent, We do, with the advice of Privy Council, strictly enjoin and require, that no private person do presume to make any Purchase from the said Indians of any Lands reserved to the said Indians, within those parts of our colonies where, We have thought proper to allow Settlement;"

(INTERPRETER's version)

"But that, if at any Time any of the said Indians should be inclined to dispose of the said Lands, the same shall be Purchased only for Us, in our Name, at some public Meeting or Assembly of the said Indians..."

(INTERPRETER's version

When the group is preparing the text for the interpreter, keep in mind that the translator is a First Nations person who will be translating the text from a First Nations perspective. Students do not need to memorize their parts; they can simply read them. However, they should practise so that they know their roles fairly well.

After the skit, ask the class the following questions:

  • What is meant when First Nations refer to British and First Nations dealings as being on "a nation-to-nation basis"? Has this type of relationship continued?
  • How is it different today? What can be done to change this situation?
  • How important is language in negotiations?

Have students read the text of one of the historical treaties. Teachers may wish to have students read the text out loud and "translate" some of the more complex language. Remind students that many First Nations believe that the written versions of the treaties do not reflect the verbal agreements reached by the negotiators, and that ultimately, the treaties are about peoples living together.

Ask students if they think that a literal interpretation of the treaties is fair. Are the promises of $5 annual treaty money or a medicine chest a reasonable exchange in today's terms for Aboriginal land rights? Or were they gifts to commemorate an agreement, which are most important as symbols?

3. The Numbered Treaties

Soon after Confederation in 1867, the Government of Canada purchased Rupert's Land from the Hudson's Bay Company in 1869 and the Province of Manitoba was created in 1870. This purchase set the stage for the negotiation of a series of treaties between Canada and First Nations throughout the areas now known as Northern Ontario, Manitoba, Saskatchewan, Alberta, British Columbia and the Northwest Territories.

Both Canada and the First Nations had long histories of negotiating treaties as a way to assure peaceful relationships, establish trade and commerce, and to allow for the settlement of the West by settlers. Between 1871 and 1921, eleven treaties were concluded and established reserves for First Nations, guaranteed rights to hunt and fish, as also provided assistance and agricultural tools. While the terms of the treaties are written down, there have long been disagreements as to their meaning.

Students can get some very detailed information about the Numbered Treaties from the internet, including photographs, copies of the treaties, and historical background information.

4. Treaty Researcher

In the settlement of modern land claims, First Nations seek a wide range of opportunities. From a First Nations perspective, land claims agreements provide a means to rebuild their nations and revitalize their culture. First Nations want more control over programs in their community, such as education, child welfare and justice. They want to participate in local renewable resource activities, and to manage things like fishing and hunting according to their traditional values. They also seek access to the wider Canadian economy, through enterprises such as logging, commercial fishing, and mining on their traditional lands.

Ask students to write a research report (2-3 pages) about a modern-day land claim in Canada (e.g. the Labrador Innu, the Northwest Territories First Nations, or the British Columbia Treaty Process). Students can address some of the following issues in their report:

  • How long have the negotiations been going on?
  • What portion of the resources are the First Nations to control?
  • What forms of First Nation self-government are in the agreement? For example, does the agreement deal with justice, health or economic development?
  • How does the agreement protect and revitalize First Nations cultures? For example, are there any heritage sites protected? Will portions of the traditional territory be renamed? Will historical artifacts that are stored in museums be returned to the First Nations?
  • How will the agreement affect non-Aboriginal peoples?
  • How will First Nations and governments work together to manage resources?

Students may wish to complement their research on land claims by creating a wall display where they can post newspaper articles about current First Nations land claims.

5. Classroom Visit

Invite a person knowledgeable about treaties and land claims to speak to the class. If students live in an area covered by a historical treaty, teachers could ask an Elder to share some of the oral history or a First Nations leader to discuss how the treaty affects his or her work. If students live in an area where claims are being negotiated, teachers could invite a person from a First Nations claims research office to discuss the type of work that is being done, or federal or provincial workers who work in the area of treaties. This may include negotiations, mapping, historical research or recording oral history.

Be sure that students prepare some questions for the speaker. Students should also present the speaker with a gift, preferably one that they have created with their own resources.

Unit 8: First Nations Self-Government

Main Idea

Canada has recognized the inherent Aboriginal right to self-government within the Canadian Constitution. Self-government means that First Nations can gain more control over their lives and their communities than is possible under the Indian Act Footnote 2.


  1. To introduce students to the concept of self-government
  2. To learn why self-government is important to First Nations
  3. To learn about traditional modes of self-government

Teacher Information

First Nations had been practicing their own forms of government for thousands of years before the arrival of Europeans in Canada. These governments covered a wide variety of systems. First Nations shaped their forms of government to meet their particular needs — needs defined by their own economic, social and geographic conditions. Groups' individual cultures and spiritual beliefs have also been important sources of inspiration for their forms of government.

First Nations can trace their systems of government back to the beginnings of their oral history. They see their powers of government as essential to their existence. This is what is meant by the inherent right of self-government for First Nations people. From a First Nations perspective, the right to govern themselves is a natural right.

Colonial policies weakened the authority of First Nations governments. When European colonists arrived in the territory we now call Canada, they established their own colonial governments and signed treaties with many First Nations. The aim of these early treaties was to ensure strategic military and trade alliances between First Nations and European colonists, and to share lands and resources.

However, colonial governments gradually began to establish laws and policies aimed at assimilating First Nations people into European society. The colonial governments, and (after 1867) the Government of Canada, passed laws encouraging First Nations people to adopt the social and political ways of the broader Canadian population.

The federal policies of assimilation and control had terrible effects. Traditional First Nations lifestyles were threatened. The authority of First Nations governments weakened. Over the past few centuries, First Nations and Inuit have become the most disadvantaged groups in Canada. People living in First Nations communities have some of the lowest standards of living in the country.

However, First Nations self-government is being re-established. First Nations leaders are working to help their people regain their rightful place in the Canadian federation and to enter into partnerships with the federal and provincial governments and other partners, including the private sector.

By re-establishing their own governments, First Nations will once again be able to control their own lives and lands. They will also be in a better position to continue the process of social and spiritual healing in their communities.

In August 1995, the federal government undertook a process to negotiate practical arrangements to make Aboriginal self-government a reality. This process is based on the idea that the inherent right of Aboriginal self-government already exists in the Canadian Constitution. Aboriginal groups will shape their own forms of government to suit their particular historical, cultural, political and economic circumstances.

Self-government is about building self-reliance and establishing a new relationship between governments and First Nations, based on mutual understanding and trust. It means that First Nations will be able to take more responsibility and control over decisions affecting their own lives and communities than they have now. It means that they will be able to make their own laws in some areas, make choices about how to spend money, deliver their own programs and services (like education) to their people, and build partnerships with others to pursue economic development opportunities. It also means that Aboriginal governments will be more accountable to their own people for the decisions they make.

Self-government does not mean that First Nations will operate as independent countries. First Nations will co-exist with their neighbours, as they do now. The Canadian Constitution and the Charter of Rights and Freedoms will apply to First Nations governments. Federal and provincial laws will also continue to apply, with overarching federal and provincial laws, such as the Criminal Code, superseding First Nation laws in the case of a conflict between them. Self-government involves all levels of government — First Nations, municipal, provincial, and federal — working together as partners to ensure that all Canadians have access to the services and opportunities to which they are entitled.


1. The Faces of Self-Government

In this activity, students will profile an individual who is actively involved in First Nations self-government. In urban centres or in communities without an adjacent First Nations community, students might contact a local Friendship Centre to find potential interview subjects. Students may look at many different areas to identify this person, such as schools, businesses, government, health clinics, or policing services. It is important that students be allowed to choose this person themselves, as this will reflect what self-government means to them on a personal level.

To complete this activity, students will need to become investigative reporters, interviewing and getting in direct contact with their subject. Once they have selected a First Nations member in or near their community, they should contact that person and find out if they are willing to be interviewed. In addition to important personal history details, the interviewer should also include the following questions:

  • How did you first become interested in your profession?
  • What prompted you to choose that career?
  • What is your idea of self-government?
  • What do you think your contribution in assisting your community in moving to self-government has been/will be?
  • What messages would you give to students about self-government?

When the interviews and any additional research are complete, each student should write a profile of the person and how he or she is contributing to First Nations self-government. Students should also include why they believe this person's contributions are important. Students can then give a brief oral report to the rest of their classmates.

The class can create a visual display of all the completed biographies, which could include pictures, or design their own First Nations self-government posters to be posted around the classroom.

Make sure that students send a copy of the biography to the person they interviewed, along with a letter of thanks for the time he or she volunteered.

2. Class Visit

Invite a person from a First Nation who is knowledgeable about self-government issues to speak to the class. There are several different perspectives the class could take on the issue: a First Nations Elder to talk about traditional government systems; a politician with a First Nations organization; a member of a band council or a First Nations businessperson. If the school is in the city, a good place to start would be a Friendship Centre or an urban First Nation organization.

Encourage students to prepare questions for the speaker, such as:

  • What does self-government mean to you?
  • Do you think that there are barriers to First Nations achieving self-government? If so, how can these be overcome?
  • Have First Nation communities become more self-governing in your lifetime? Do you have any ideas for self-government in the future?

The students should have a gift, preferably one they have created themselves, to honour the speaker after the presentation.

3. TV Talk

Select several members of the class to role-play a television special on the evening news with a journalist interviewing Canadians on their impressions of First Nations self-government. One student will play the role of the TV interviewer and several others will act as people being interviewed. The following are examples of characters the students could portray (feel free to create additional characters, as required):

  • an Ojibway businessperson in Toronto
  • a Member of Parliament representing one of the political parties
  • a Dene woman living in a Dene village in the Northwest Territories
  • a commercial fisherman in British Columbia
  • a recent immigrant to Canada who owns a shop in Halifax
  • a university student in Québec City
  • a Maliseet Elder from a First Nation community in New Brunswick

Ask students portraying the characters to imagine what their character's perspective on First Nations self-government might be and to write a short statement that can be used in a documentary. Students should creatively combine the characters' statements into a script and perform it for the television audience (the rest of the class).

In the follow-up discussion, ask students acting as the audience how they felt about the viewpoints represented by each interviewee. How might each interviewee come to that perspective? Did they have access to complete information? Were there any stereotypes about First Nations or self-government?

4. First Nations Businesses

Strong, stable Aboriginal governments are an important building block for economic development opportunities. Traditional First Nations economies were based on hunting, gathering, fishing and trade. However, the viability of these activities has declined considerably over the past century. Many First Nations communities have become increasingly dependent on the Canadian government because of, in part, this shift in economy. With the expansion and stimulation of First Nation-run economic enterprises, First Nations communities can become economically self-supporting.

In this activity, students will be asked to develop a business plan for an economic enterprise in a First Nation community.

Before the students develop and design their own First Nation business, ask them to identify an existing enterprise in a First Nation community; e.g., a co-op grocery, tourism company, gas station, computer software company, fish cannery or a wild rice manufacturer. Ask students to write a short essay in which they describe what the enterprise is, who runs it, and why it is important to the community. To fill in these details, students may wish to interview the people who administer the enterprise.

Once students have some familiarity with what goes into running a business, assign them to groups of three or four. Tell these groups that they will each be designing their own business for a First Nation community.

Ask each group to brainstorm a business idea. The groups should ask themselves what the community needs or what community assets could be transformed into an economic development opportunity.

Once each group has hatched an idea, the next step is to create a successful business plan.

There are Four Key Elements to a Basic Business Plan:

  1. summary

    In this part of the plan, students will provide a background of their business, a brief outline of how the company is organized and indicate who manages it.
  2. market need

    Give a description of the product, process or service that the company has to offer, in order to attract financial support.
  3. amount of capital required

    Calculate how much money will be needed to run the business, including items such as wages or materials.
  4. projected financial results

    Provide an estimate of how much money the business will make.

5. A Declaration of the First Nations

Ask students to read and consider the "Declaration of the First Nations," adopted in 1980 by all of the First Nations in Canada at a conference of the Assembly of First Nations.

Declaration of the First Nations

"We the Original Peoples of this Land know the Creator put us here.

The Creator has given us Laws that govern all our relationships to live in harmony with nature and mankind.

The Laws of the Creator defined our rights and responsibilities.

The Creator gave us our spiritual beliefs, our languages, our cultures, and a place on Mother Earth that provided us with all our needs.

We have maintained our freedom, our languages, and our traditions from time immemorial.

We continue to exercise the rights and fulfill the responsibilities and obligations given to us by the Creator for the land upon which we were placed.

The Creator has given us the right to govern ourselves and the right to self-determination.

The rights and responsibilities given to us by the Creator cannot be altered or taken away by any other Nation."

A class project should address the following questions: What does this declaration say about how First Nations see themselves? Where does the right to self-government and self-determination come from?

6. Occupations

One challenge of self-government is how to bring together the skilled professionals to operate the administrations and businesses that will be required for First Nations self-government. While many First Nations men and women across Canada have achieved high levels of academic and professional success, education levels on reserve and among First Nations collectively are among the lowest in the country. First Nations pursuing self-government will need people who have a wide range of formal education, training, skills and experience. They include:

  • negotiators and leaders;
  • engineers and scientists;
  • teachers, cultural experts and Elders;
  • judges and lawyers;
  • artists and linguists;
  • communicators and storytellers;
  • financial administrators, accountants and economists;
  • healers, dentists, doctors and nurses;
  • program and human resource managers; and
  • policy analysts.

Many other positions and skills will be required as the process of self-government matures and develops. Ask students to brainstorm what types of skilled people they believe will be needed to make self-government a reality. Students should also consider how they would encourage their peers to pursue these careers. After they have identified the positions and skills, ask them to develop a campaign to recruit potential self-government staff to fill these positions. The campaign should also address youth training and education issues, as part of the overall strategy.

Students could design posters that feature photography or artwork to be posted in the school, or placed in the school's newspaper or the local newspaper. They could design a radio commercial that could be run over the P.A. system or broadcast over the community radio or television stations. If the class has access to a video camera, students could develop a short video commercial.


Please visit Kids' Stop for more information about First Nations and Inuit in Canada, including books, learning guides, activities and links to websites for all ages.

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