|The estimated native population in Canada is around 976,000 or so, depending on who you consider to be "true" Indians.|
The vast majority of people who live in Canada are white, but it obviously it didn't always used to be this way. Back before the Europeans came North America was teeming with many civilizations of people of the Amerindian race. The native peoples of North America had all sorts of lovely communal societies with fishing, and sharing, and spiritual legends, and the rest. Then the Euros came and gave them smallpox blankets and took their land, you all know the story.
But it wasn't quite as cut and dry as that. Despite the British and later Canadian government's best efforts, the Indians never completely disappeared. Though they now only compose around 2% of Canada's population, the descendants of Canada's indigenous people continue to be one of the country's most vocal minorities, clamoring for government reparations for years of past injustice.
There are three recognized groups of Native peoples in Canada. The first are the traditional Indians (or "First Nations Peoples" as the government currently refers to them as) of the coastal and central regions of Canada. This includes the Haida, the Blackfoot, the Sioux, the Iroquois, the Algonquins, and dozens of other tribes. The second group are the Eskimos, or Inuit as they are properly known, who reside in the far northern arctic regions of Canada. The third group is the Metis who were once disparagingly known as the "half-breeds." Metis people are the descendants of the interracial offspring from French men and Indian women from years past.
|The artwork of Canada's west coast native bands is world famous. Here's a statue by carver Bill Reid. It appears on the $20 bill.|
Canada's surviving aboriginal peoples currently receive various special privileges under Canadian law. These privileges stem from a series of documents known as the "Indian Acts."
The first Indian Act came in 1876, shortly after Canada was formed. It formalized what had long been the defacto policy of the British colonials, namely that if Indians wanted to stay "distinct" and remain in charge of their own affairs, they would do so on special state-sanctioned areas of land known as "reserves." Reserves became partially sovereign territory in which the Canadian government's authority was severely limited, and the Indians were able to hold most of their own power through their local chief and council. Natives who live on a reserve are not required to pay Canadian taxes, and are allowed to self-govern themselves in areas of law enforcement and criminal justice however they see fit. They're also exempt from a great deal of Canadian laws, most notably those which regulate hunting or fishing.
To qualify for reserve status, the first Indian Act spelled out specific requirements for legally being an Indian. For starters, you had to belong to one of four main geographic bands recognized by the government. Some groups, such as the Metis and the Inuit were not, and continue to not be considered "full" Indians by the government and thus cannot get the same benefits as those who belong to "registered" tribes. The first Act also threw in a bunch of scenarios in which Indian status could be lost. These included marrying a non-Indian or voting in an a Canadian election. In 1960 the voting rule was scrapped, and then in 1985 a second Indian Act was created which abolished the marriage rule as well. The second Indian Act also mandated that all reserve governments be democratically-run, and created a unified, city council-style constitutional framework that all Indian nations were henceforth expected to follow.
The Oka standoff
|In 1990 there was a heavily reported conflict between the Mohawk Native band and the Canadian military. The city of Oka wanted to take some of the Mohawk's land to build a golfcourse. The Mohawks responded by setting up armed blockades around the city and eventually shot a cop. The PM ended up calling the army in to quell the violent revolt. The standoff went on for months and cost millions of dollars. The event remains a well-known symbol of native defiance.|
Indian affairs remain a very contentious issue in Canada, despite the governments' repeated attempts at imposing a solution. In recent years many natives have raised legitimate concerns that their fate continues to be dictated in a rather paternalistic fashion by the Canadian government, without much involvement or contribution on their part. Natives unsuccessfully tried to get their self-governing rights explicitly acknowledged in the 1982 constitution, but to no avail. Nowadays the debate is most centered around the Indian Act, which Native leaders argue must be changed a third time to grant even more powers to reserve governments. Another big controversy is the present size and amount of reserves. There are about 600 at present, and most are quite geographically small. Many Indian nations have quite ambitious land claims that they argue must be put under their jurisdiction, but of course this often causes controversy, especially when those claims extend into commercial or industrially developed areas.
Another notable controversy is the Native standard of living. Despite some notable advancements through affirmative-action programs, Canada's aboriginals remain quite clearly on the bottom end of the country's social scale. By and large, reserves tend to be rather poor, run-down communities. Rates of drug and alcohol abuse remain Canada's above average within the Indian population, and Canada's prisons likewise contain hugely disproportionate amount of Natives.
The main lobby group for Native concerns in Canada is the Assembly of First Nations, a collective council of several hundred Chiefs from across Canada. Representatives of the Assembly or the Assembly's President can often be seen whenever there is a high profile gathering of a lot of politicians, such as the annual Provincial Premiers' summits.
Because Canada's cultural identity remains fairly weak, in recent decades there has been a bit of an effort to play up Native history and culture as being a fundamental element of the Canadian identity. Some have even gone so far as to suggest that Native culture should be given equal footing to the current dual-cultures of French and English. As a result, these days you'll often see things like Native artwork on government brochures or Native dancers at Canada Day celebrations. Prime Minister Martin even had a Native elder perform a "cleansing" ritual on him as part of his official inauguration ceremony.