2021-09-14T08:49:06-04:00Aug 27, 2021|

A newcomer’s guide to the history of Indigenous peoples in Canada

This is the 2nd part of our 4-part series on Indigenous culture and issues in Canada. You can read about Indigenous cultures in Canada and about Residential Schools and their legacy.

Written by: Leslie Anne St Amour, a member of the Bonnechere Algonquin First Nation


While most newcomers to Canada spend time researching what their new country offers today, it is equally important to know its history. Canadian history not only has an influence on culture, but also on the rights and responsibilities of the diverse peoples who call this land home. 

Canada’s history cannot be told without looking back several centuries and delving into how the arrival of settlers affected the lives and rights of the Indigenous peoples who had been inhabiting this land for thousands of years. This article will give you an overview of some of the significant developments, treaties, and federal laws that shaped the history of Canada’s Indigenous people.

Early settlers, explorers, and fur traders: The first to foray into Indigenous lands

The first settlers to arrive in Canada were Vikings. They settled in Newfoundland roughly 1,000 years ago; however, they did not stay long or explore much further into Canada. After this, the next group to arrive was John Cabot and his expedition team in the 1490s, on behalf of England. This group did not settle or explore the region and did not make any contact with Indigenous people. It wasn’t until 1608 that French sailors built the first permanent European settlements in what is now Canada.

Colonization was a big business. European nations learned of the many natural resources in North America and saw the benefits of bringing them back to Europe. This included, at first, the fisheries of the East coast, where European sailors could come to fish and then return to Europe with their bounty, without creating permanent settlements. 

Later, the fur trade became the dominant industry, fuelled by the Europeans’ taste for beaver furs, which were extensively used in hat making. In fact, the popular department store, Hudson’s Bay, originated as a fur trade company in the 1670s. In the early days of the fur trade, most of the traders were Indigenous. However as time went by, men known as “voyageurs” would travel from settlements in the East, like Montreal, into the interior of the country, seeking furs. In many cases, fur traders who travelled for economic purposes made first contact with Indigenous nations, and expanded the European presence in North America.

The Métis initially originated as the descendants of early unions between First Nations and European fur-traders and settlers (usually Indigenous women and French settler men). The Métis played a significant role in the fur trade and, within generations, a distinct Métis culture originated in communities that relied heavily on the fur trade.

While these voyages were profitable for the European fur traders, the encounters were not always beneficial to the Indigenous nations. European explorers and fur traders also brought illnesses such as smallpox and tuberculosis. Indigenous people had not encountered these diseases before and their immune systems were not prepared to fight them off. Estimates say that nearly half of the Indigenous people alive at the time died of smallpox. In some communities it is estimated to have been as many as 9 in every 10 people. This spread of disease was not always accidental—in some places, blankets infected with smallpox were traded to Indigenous people by settlers and military leaders.  

Wampum diplomacy and treaties with the Indigenous nations

Many deals were made amongst European countries to decide who should have control of the “New World.” Many of these deals were made without consulting with the Indigenous people who lived there. In the early days of the colonial period, the Europeans relied on the Indigenous people to help them adapt to living in North America, and began to make agreements and treaties with the Indigenous nations. 

One of these agreements made amongst European nations was the Royal Proclamation of 1763, made by King George III. The king reserved all the lands for Indigenous nations except those they ceded or sold to the Crown. This meant that the only lands available to those arriving was land the Indigenous nations agreed to sell to the Crown. 

At this time, “wampum diplomacy” was practiced throughout North America between Indigenous nations. Wampum diplomacy is the act of recording treaties and agreements through woven wampum belts. Wampum are small white and purple beads made from shell, which are woven into belts in designs to signify the agreements. These belts are then gifted and shared with recitations of the agreements accompanying them. Indigenous nations began extending this tradition to the new treaties made with European nations: some treaties made between Europeans and Indigenous nations at this time were recorded through wampum belts.

These treaties recognized the independence of Indigenous nations and created a roadmap for sharing the land and resources. Many of the treaties were named for the Europeans involved in the making of them, such as the Robinson or Douglas treaties. 

Decline of the fur trade and the British North America Act

As the fur trade became less profitable, European settlers began to rely more heavily on farming and needed more land. This desire began a new phase of treaty-making. The treaties made between 1871 to 1921 are often referred to as the numbered treaties. These treaties covered things like land use, medical care, childrens’ education, and finances. There is still a great deal of dispute over the terms of the treaties, including promises which were made orally and not in the written documents. 

In 1876, the British North America Act was written. It was part of the Constitution of Canada and it declared that “Indians and lands reserved for Indians” were in the jurisdiction of the federal government. This meant the federal government could make decisions for and about Indigenous people.

Over time, the federal government began to disregard the treaty-making process and the agreements which had been made.

The Indian Act: Restricting the rights of First Nations people

Laws were enacted to reduce the rights and influence of First Nations people. The Indian Act is a piece of federal legislation which determined who was recognized as a First Nation person by the federal government. It was written in such a way as to reduce the number of First Nations people. Indian status, the legal term for recognition by the government, could be lost when a First Nations woman married a non-First Nations man, when First Nations people joined the army or attended university, or if a child had  one non-First Nations parent. 

In addition, laws were enacted to restrict  the ways in which Indigenous people on reserves could live. Policies were also made to prevent Indigenous people from leaving their reserves without permission from a government employee or even hiring a lawyer. 

These actions created a situation in which Indigenous people had little ability to fight for their rights or the enforcement of their treaties. Many treaty promises were broken. The promised medical care, education and trading opportunities disappeared. Today, many Indigenous communities are fighting for the recognition of the unfulfilled promises made in these treaties.

The impacts of these broken treaties are felt across Canada to this day—even in the most basic of human rights. An example is the lack of clean water access on many reserves across Canada. Had the intention of the treaties—to share the land and resources—been fulfilled, communities on reserves across Canada would not be facing constant and long-lasting “boil water” advisories. These boil water advisories arise due to many issues, including the locations of reserves, a lack of investment by federal governments in infrastructure (because lands reserved for Indians are federal jurisdiction) and lack of support for water system operators. Currently, there are 51 long-term water advisories in 32 reserves in Canada.

Recognizing the rights of Indigenous people: Every newcomer’s responsibility

It’s important to remember that not all of Canada was covered by treaties. You may hear the term “unceded” used to refer to certain parts of Canada. Unceded means the land was either never part of a treaty or was otherwise not given up by the Indigenous nations who call it home. One example is Ottawa, a part of unceded Algonquin territory. 

Some Indigenous nations who have never ceded their land are now negotiating land claim agreements or modern treaties to set out rules for how they will share the land with Canadian governments moving forward. This is possible because Canadian courts have now begun to recognize the rights of Indigenous people, and this has returned some bargaining power to Indigenous nations.

 While it may feel like newcomers are not benefitting from the harms caused to Indigenous people, all people in Canada do. Canada’s economy continues to be heavily dependent on natural resources. These natural resources are harnessed from lands from which Indigenous people were removed, without being given a say in how their traditional lands should be used.

As 21st century settlers, newcomers to Canada have a responsibility to learn about—and be more respectful of—the original inhabitants of their new home than the settlers who came before.

Read more about Indigenous cultures in Canada.


About the author: Leslie Anne St Amour is a member of the Bonnechere Algonquin First Nation and has mixed Algonquin and settler heritage. She is a lawyer with Durant Barristers and a member of the Board of Directors of Aboriginal Legal Services and the Board of Directors of the Algonquin Wildlife Research Station. Leslie Anne is also co-host of the podcast Rebalancing Act which focuses on climate solutions.

The views and opinions expressed here are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect RBC’s opinion or position.