Posted on December 7, 2016 by Tia Lalani

Read Augustana history professor Daniel Sims’ second thoughts on how language matters, especially in the context of indigenous topics and the move towards reconciliation.

daniel-simsWe all know that using words properly is key to ensuring effective communication. Yet when it comes to discussing indigenous topics people often use words and terms incorrectly. Regardless of how you feel about indigenous matters, it is important to use the correct terms lest those who disagree with you attack your word choice, rather than deal with your actual arguments and ideas.

“Indian” is often considered offensive today, but was commonly used up until the 1990s. It remains today as an anachronism, a pejorative and problematic word or legal term.  It was used in the British North America Act, the Constitution Act, and the Indian Act.  As result, the current federal government and provinces still use it as it relates to these pieces of legislation, especially because Section 91(24) of the Constitution Act 1867 places “Indians, and Lands reserved for the Indians” under federal jurisdiction.

“Indian status” is an example of this aforementioned use. Sections 5 and 6 of Indian Act set out the criteria for who is eligible for status.  Non-status refers to anyone who does not meet the criteria: historically, they have been ignored by the federal government.  Complicating the matter is that the rules have changed over time, with notable amendments taking place in 1985 and 2010.  Of note, the word “treaty” is not found in either section.

“Treaty card” is a colloquial term used in Canada for a status card. The confusion seems to emerge from the fact that historically the majority of status Indians in the Prairies were from bands that signed a treaty and status was used to determine who was eligible for treaty rights and annuities.

Currently, the federal government recognizes 617 bands or First Nations in Canada. They form the basis of officially recognized indigenous governance in Canada.  The term First Nation began to replace the word band in the 1970s as a response to the federal government’s argument that Canada only had two founding nations –the French and English.

The term “First Nation” does not refer to the Inuit or Métis. Rather, the catch-all term “aboriginal” has been used when referring to all three groups together. The term, however, is increasingly being replaced by “indigenous,” which also includes groups from around the world.  It is quite likely aboriginal will become like Indian and used only whenever it has a legal meaning.  Grammatically, both aboriginal and indigenous are only capitalized when referring to people and/or individuals with the terms Aboriginal peoples or Indigenous peoples, used instead of Aboriginals or Indigenous.

“Inuit” is the endonym of the group historically called Eskimos. They have often been treated as distinct from groups known as Indians, although this was not always the case. In 1939, the Supreme Court ruled they fell under the term Indian in the Constitution Act 1867, but aside from that the federal government has treated them as legally distinct from status Indians and as a result the Inuit lack both status and reserves. This situation exists despite the fact the Inuit have signed numerous modern treaties with the Canadian state, such as the one that led to the creation of Nunavut.

“Métis” refers to an ethnic group with both Indigenous and non-Indigenous ancestry with its own culture, identity and language that emerged following contact. Although there is some disagreement over who is Métis, the dominant view is that it only includes people with a genealogical connection to an ancestral Métis group from the Prairies. In 2016 the Supreme Court ruled they fell under the term Indian in the Constitution Act 1867, but aside from that the federal government has treated them as legally distinct from status Indians. Métis membership or citizenship, colloquially known as “Métis status,” is governed by the numerous Métis organizations across Canada and has varying criteria. As a distinct legal entity, Métis settlements only exist in Alberta. Aside from the Manitoba Act, the Métis lack anything like a treaty with the Canadian state.

We have often heard that sticks and stones can break bones, but words can never harm. But this is far from true. In addition to ensuring people’s arguments and ideas are clearly understood to facilitate effective communication, it is important to realize that words are powerful as they shape political discourses and how people think and behave towards others. As Canadians continue to grapple with reconciliation, using the proper words matter more than ever.

Daniel Sims, History, Augustana Campus, University of Alberta. This column originally appeared in the Camrose Booster on December 6th, 2016.


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