By: Charlene Camillo and Starr McGahey-Albert

Charlene Camillo

Education Collaborator

Charlene Camillo is from the Moose Cree First Nation and of Italian heritage.  She is a teacher and coach in the Thames Valley District School Board (TVDSB).  

From 2016-2022, Charlene was the Learning Coordinator in TVDSB for First Nations, Métis, and Inuit Education.  In this role, she led professional learning for staff and helped to develop various opportunities for Indigenous students.  She also created lesson plans and resources for use in classrooms, and shared best practices in bringing Indigenous content into schools.  

Charlene taught multiple subjects from 2010-2016 at Saunders Secondary School in London, ON.  In 2022, she returned to Saunders and has been teaching History and Indigenous Studies while coaching Girls Basketball and Girls Hockey, and supporting the Indigenous Student Association.

Charlene has been fortunate to work with multiple First Nations as a teacher and a coach.  She continues to take feedback and learning from Indigenous students and families to provide opportunities for staff and students to enhance their knowledge of Indigenous experiences. 

Starr McGahey-Albert

Collaborating Writer

When educators are facilitating learning about Indigenous Peoples, terminology is one of the first topics to cover.  There are many terms that students are familiar with, and it is important to ensure that students have an understanding of the history and current context of each term.

This blog contains some common questions that arise regarding terminology and directions for educators along with supporting resources. Educators can read this blog and additional resources as preparation for using the terminology lesson plan.  The terminology chart handout included in that lesson plan has additional information about each term included within this blog.

Original Names

There have been multiple terms used in Canada, however, each Nation has a name for their people in their own language. 

For example, Anishinaabe is a name used by the Ojibway and is interpreted to mean “the original [person].” (ETFO)

In 2008, Chief Patrick Madahbee of Aundeck Omni Kaning stated:

Referring to ourselves as Anishinabek is the natural thing to do because that is who we are. We are not Indians, [N]atives, or [A]boriginal. We are, always have been and always will be Anishinabek*.” (First Nations Drum

*Anishinabek is plural for Anishinaabe.

Why are there so many terms?

There have been multiple terms that Canada has chosen to assign to the First Peoples of this land.  

Today, Indigenous is a common term.  Indigenous is a term that includes First Nations, Inuit, and Métis.  Remember that Canada has selected the terms used in the English language and has had control over the changing of terms over time.

The history of relationships between the Canadian state and [Indigenous] peoples is complex, and has oftentimes been paternalistic and damaging. As a result, terminology can represent something more than just a word. It can represent certain colonial histories and power dynamics. Terminology can be critical for Indigenous populations, as the term for a group may not have been selected by the population themselves but instead imposed on them by colonizers. With this in mind, one might understand how a term can be a loaded word, used as a powerful method to divide peoples, misrepresent them, and control their identity…” (Indigenous Foundations)

Prior to the term Indigenous, Aboriginal was the common term used in Canada that included First Nations, Inuit, and Métis.

Aboriginal Peoples moved into popularity as the correct collective noun for First Nations, Inuit and Métis and was widely adopted by the government and many national groups. This distinction was made legal in 1982 when the Constitution Act came into being. Section 35 (2) of the Act states:

In this Act, “aboriginal peoples of Canada” includes the Indian, Inuit and Métis peoples of Canada.” (Indigenous Corporate Training)

For some Indigenous Peoples, the term Aboriginal is still important to use to connect to rights that are part of the 1982 Constitution.  Section 35(1) of the Constitution Act, 1982 states: The existing aboriginal and treaty rights of the aboriginal peoples of Canada are hereby recognized and affirmed.

There are also many Indigenous Peoples who are not supportive of the term Aboriginal.  

The “ab” in Aboriginal is a Latin prefix that means “away from” or “not,” so in that sense, Aboriginal can actually mean “not original” – not exactly what we’re trying to convey with the term.

Furthermore, by using one English word — Aboriginal — to describe a large and diverse group of people, we’re not fully recognizing the diversity within the Indigenous Communities in Canada. “Aboriginal” has been an umbrella term used by Canadians and Canadian institutions for convenience. It’s used to categorize all Indigenous Peoples from across Canada as one big homogenized group. ”Aboriginal” is an oversimplification that hides more meaning than it conveys. Just as one province differs from the next province, Indigenous Peoples and communities vary dramatically from coast to coast to coast in regards to culture, language, and traditions.” (Animikii)

In the 2010s, use of the term Aboriginal declined, and was often replaced with Indigenous.  

The term “Indigenous” has gained credence as a more appropriate terminology as it refers to rights laid out in the United Nations Declaration of the Rights of Indigenous Peoples. Both terms, Aboriginal and Indigenous, are tied to legal documents with important consequences in terms of consultation and rights, although Indigenous carries a more global undertone.” (Maclean’s)

For example, in 2017, Prime Minister Justin Trudeau officially changed National Aboriginal Day to National Indigenous Peoples Day in Canada.

Some terms are outdated but may be used when referencing official documents.  For example, “Indian” is no longer a common term used, unless it is referencing the Indian Act.

Which terms should be used?

Indigenous is the appropriate term, or being specific and using First Nation, Inuit, or Métis is generally acceptable. 

Upon building relationships with Nations, you may become familiar with the original name in their language and learn from people of that Nation on how to say the word and when it should be used. 

Do not assume an Indigenous person will know the name of their people in their language.  Assimilation policies and practices by the Canadian government such as residential schools have impacted Indigenous identities and language transmission.  Many Indigenous Peoples are reconnecting with their identities and/or languages.


On capitalization:

Always capitalize Indigenous, Aboriginal, First Nation, Inuit, Métis as a sign of respect the same way that English, French and Spanish etc. are capitalized.” (Indigenous Corporate Training)

On pluralizing:

Indigenous Peoples: using “Peoples” plural respectfully recognizes that more than one distinct group is included in the Indigenous populations in Canada.

Why do some Indigenous Peoples not want to be called Canadian?

In North America, or Turtle Island, many Indigenous Nations have been here for over 10,000 years.  Canada is very young in comparison to Indigenous Nations. The atrocities connected to colonialism are still happening today.  Indigenous Nations and Peoples are negatively impacted by ongoing colonialism in many ways.

Avoid using possessive phrases like “Canada’s Indigenous Peoples” or “our Indigenous Peoples” as that has connotations of ownership. Consider “Indigenous Peoples in Canada” (not “Indigenous Peoples of Canada”) instead.

Some Indigenous Peoples would be greatly offended by being called “Indigenous Canadian.”  Avoid “Indigenous Canadians” as a term in order to show respect and understanding of the history of Indigenous Peoples and Canada.

Indigenous peoples have been on these lands for time immemorial, thousands of years before Canada became a nation. Indigenous peoples are NOT Indigenous or Native to Canada.

Many Indigenous peoples DO NOT consider themselves Canadians. They are part of their own sovereign nations and do not consider themselves part of one that has actively worked to assimilate their people.

Stop saying “our. ” Indigenous people do not belong to Canada. Canada is bound to Indigenous peoples through treaties that were made by early representatives of the Crown. By saying “our” or “Canada’s Indigenous peoples,” you are reinforcing a false narrative that is paternalistic. This narrative is one that was created by the Canadian state and is false.
” (Queen’s University)

In a interview with CBC in 2020, Jason Henry, Chief of Kettle and Stoney Point First Nation shared: 

As the Crown came and began to colonize North America, there were nations here that were pre-existing. The Crown signed treaties with individual, distinct sovereign nations and as time goes on, along comes Canada. Canada creates the Gradual Civilization Act and the Gradual Enfranchisement Act and eventually they’re amalgamated to form the Indian Act in 1876. These nations that were sovereign and distinct had their own territory, their own governance, their own language, their own rights, their own way of being entirely, now become colonized by another sovereign nation. Indigenous people still hold to that, that we are sovereign, that our nations are still here, I am an Anishinaabe. That is my nation.Underneath that, I belong to three linguistic groups. I am Ojibwe, I am Potawatomi, and I am Odawa. That is what I believe. That is what Indigenous people across Canada believe. That’s what we hold to.

When we have to go to another sovereign and ask them to recognize our right to enforce our rights, ourselves we’re giving into that system, myself I am an Indian Act elected chief. I was elected under the laws that were put in place by another sovereign. So until, as Canadians, and as Indigenous people living in this country, until we can all recognize that we were sovereign — we have never given up our sovereignty — the colonization movement is still trying to happen.

I know this is contentious: I don’t believe I’m a Canadian. I live in Canada. Yes. I am boundaried by Canada. But when you step across the road into the First Nation, you have now stepped into another nation.” (CBC)

To gain further understanding, please watch this video: GEDSB National Anthem 2.0.

Direction for Educators

If your school board has designated staff to support Indigenous Education, contact the department and ask for support.  Take time to build relationships with Indigenous staff and students in your school.  When a relationship has been established, take direction from them on Indigenous initiatives.

If learning about original names, ensure the resources you are using are created by Indigenous speakers representing their own Nations.  Audio and video resources are encouraged to support correct pronunciation.

Additional Information

The first chapter in Chelsea Vowel’s (Métis) book Indigenous Writes provides a comprehensive, plain language overview on how the terminology used to refer to Indigenous Peoples has changed over time. She provides definitions, examples, and a list of offensive terms (which is expanded on in chapter six of Gregory Younging’s (Cree) book, Elements of Indigenous Style). It’s recommended to read both or either of those chapters, or appendix one in Bob Joseph’s book (Kwakwaka’wakw), 21 Things You May Not Know About the Indian Act. Here you will find an introduction to the topic and some definitions, and some information on how libraries are approaching the work needed to change terminology in collection records. 

For many people, knowing how to refer to Indigenous Peoples can be stressful due to not knowing the correct terminology (Vowel, 2016 ; Younging, 2018). What’s important is not causing offense, and taking cues from the Nation or community you’re engaging with. This may mean asking, and being open to receiving feedback or corrections if you don’t get it right the first time (Vowel, 2016). 

What’s important to remember is that “there is no across-the-board agreement on a term” (Vowel, 2016, p. 8). This is because terms and names evolve over time (Vowel, 2016 ; Younging, 2018). Younging recommends when using a historic work that contains inappropriate language, include a note or explanation to identify it as such in the body of your work, a footnote, or an endnote (2018, p. 61).” (Simon Fraser University)