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Assessment for Indigenous Peoples in Canada

Publisher Minorities at Risk Project
Publication Date 31 December 2003
Cite as Minorities at Risk Project, Assessment for Indigenous Peoples in Canada, 31 December 2003, available at: [accessed 19 January 2018]
DisclaimerThis is not a UNHCR publication. UNHCR is not responsible for, nor does it necessarily endorse, its content. Any views expressed are solely those of the author or publisher and do not necessarily reflect those of UNHCR, the United Nations or its Member States.
Canada Facts
Area:    9,970,610 sq. km.
Capital:    Ottawa
Total Population:    30,675,000 (source: U.S. Census Bureau, 1998, est.)

Risk Assessment | Analytic Summary | References

Risk Assessment

Given the precedent established by militant action in the recent past, it is impossible to rule out future acts of local rebellion, unlikely though they may be. While indigenous peoples do not have the risk factors most closely associated with protest, such as active political and cultural restrictions and government repression, the likelihood of future protest is nonetheless quite high. The adverse economic conditions facing indigenous peoples, threats of alienation of their land and resources, and their history of successful local protests all make continued collective action likely. As mentioned, the Canadian government has made attempts to improve the situation of native peoples, for example by granting greater autonomy to various tribes and bands and establishing programs to improve their health, education, and material well-begin. There remain, however, many outstanding land claims still to be addressed, and economic, health and social deficits are deeply resistant to change.

Analytic Summary

It is difficult to generalize about Native Americans in Canada as a single collective group. They can be broadly categorized into three groups. The first are status Indians, not a homogenous group but rather an aggregate of numerous tribes distributed across the country (GROUPCON = 0). Second are the Inuit people of the Arctic and sub-Arctic. Finally there are Metis, who have only recently been officially recognized as an aboriginal group. The Metis are of mixed descent, French and Native. With the exception of the Metis, the Native Americans have been on the continent for millenia (TRADITN = 1) and had sophisticated and autonomous societies prior to the arrival of the Europeans (AUTOLOST = 1). The majority of Canada's "first peoples," as most now refer to themselves, speak both their native tongue and one of the official languages – English or French (LANG = 2). Many different indigenous languages are in use: Cree, Ojibway and Inukitut are widely-spoken examples. Customs also differ, both among tribes and vis-a-vis the majority (CUSTOM = 1).

Despite their diversity all of Canada's native peoples face demographic stress (DEMSTR00 = 4). Their life expectancy is considerably lower than the rest of the population. Alcoholism, drug abuse, and suicide are all severe problems. They also have higher birth rates than the rest of the country. Unemployment rates are three times the national average. Housing and sewage is inadequate on many reserves. Only 25% of aboriginal students finish high school and even fewer make it to college. Crime is also a problem. Nearly 70% of status Indians have been incarcerated at some point before the age of 25. While they currently do not face overt economic, political or cultural restrictions or discrimination, past discrimination contributed to serious poverty and alienation that persist to the present (POLDIS03 = 1, ECODIS03 = 1). The Canadian government has attempted to right some of the wrongs committed against the first peoples in the past. In 1999 a large territory was handed over to the Inuit for self-administration. Many programs aim to improve the education and employment situation of indigenous peoples and the land claims of many tribes and bands are being resolved. While there is no overt government repression against indigenous Canadians, there have been recurring instances of communal conflict between some indigenous communities and other groups over issues such as development on tribal lands, timbering, and fishing rights (COMCON03 = 1).

Separate organizations represent the interests of the three segments identified above. Largest is the Assembly of First Nations, which represents the "status" Indians. The Inuit are represented by the Inuit Tapirisat, while the Metis rely on the Metis National Council to lobby on their behalf. The Congress of Aboriginal People attempts to bridge the various groups. The rights and status of indigenous peoples have received a great deal of international attention since the 1960s and therefore many local groups – tribes, bands, communities – have sought improved conditions, often with considerable success, and will continue to do so. Most of these organizations were formed in the 1960s and 1970s. This is because until 1953, it was illegal for status Indians in Canada to raise funds to form political organizations and until 1959 they did not have the right to vote for the Canadian federal Parliament. The close administration of Indians by federal officials called Indian agents and the poverty of the group also inhibited political organization.

Indigenous peoples in Canada have many shared concerns in addition to local grievances. A concern for most is the fact that the laws that govern Canada are not based on the principles on which native communities are based. As a result there are widespread indigenous demands for more political rights within their communities. They also demand more input with the federal government. Some have demanded regional autonomy with wide ranging powers, although with the creation of the new territory of Nunavut, such demands have lessened. All "first peoples" are concerned with the protection of their language and culture. Perhaps most dramatic are demands to protect aboriginal lands and resources from alienation and misuse by the dominant group. Many of the major disputes between natives and others have focused on resources and land issues. Recent disputes over fishing rights, and protests over the building of a hydroelectric dam by the Quebec government on Cree tribal lands, are examples. A vivid illustration was a stand-off in the early 1990s between the Quebec Provincial Police and Mohawks over the planned extension of a golf course on disputed land, in which a police officer was killed and the Canadian army was sent to maintain the peace.

The stand-off at Oka was the most militant episode of conflict between indigenous Canadians and government in the last half-century. Nonviolent political action has been much more common, beginning in the late 1960s (PROT65X = 2), and staying at that level until the escalation in the early 1990s (REBEL90X = 3). While there have been no recent reports of militant activity, protest activities over indigenous issues continue (PROT03= 3).


Alfred, Gerald R. Heeding the Voices of Our Ancestors: Kahnawake Mohawk Politics and the Rise of Native Nationalism, Toronto: Oxford U.P., 1995

Avio, K.L. "Aboriginal Property Rights in Canada: A Contractarian Interpretation of R. v. Sparrow" Canadian Public Policy--Analyse de Politiques, 20 (4), 1994. pp. 415-29.

Champagne, Duane Native America: Portrait of the Peoples, Detroit: Visible Ink Press, 1994.

Champagne, Duane & Michael A. Pare eds Native North American Chronology, New York: UXL, 1995.

Dyck, Noel & James B. Waldram eds. Anthropology, Public Policy, and Native Peoples in Canada, Montreal: McGill-Queen U. Press, 1993.

Fleras, Augie & Jean Leonard Elliot The Nations Within: Aboriginal-State Relations in Canada, the United States and New Zealand, Toronto: Oxford U. Press, 1992.

Howlett, Michael "Policy Paradigmes and Policy Change: Lessons from the Old and New Canadian Policies Toward Aboriginal Peoples" Policy Studies Journal, 22 (4), 1994. pp. 631-49.

Minorities at Risk Phase I summary

Facts on File, 1990-1995.

Lexis-Nexis: All major newspapers 1990-2003

Keesing's 1990-1995

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