• Indigenous peoples in Canada

    Indigenous peoples in Canada

    The indigenous peoples of Canada are collectively referred to as “aboriginal peoples”. Canada recognizes three groups of aboriginal peoples: First Nation, Inuit and Métis. Canada’s aboriginal peoples are challenged by the slow implementation of the UN Declaration on the Rights of Indigenous Peoples, child welfare, and violence against indigenous women and girls.

The Indigenous World 2021: Canada

Indigenous Peoples in Canada are collectively referred to as “Aboriginal Peoples”. The Constitution Act of 1982 recognizes three groups of Aboriginal Peoples: Indians, Inuit and Métis. According to the 2016 Canadian Census, there were 1,673,785 Aboriginal Peoples in Canada, accounting for 4.9% of the total population. 977,230 people identified as a First Nations person. First Nations (defined as “Indians” in the Indian Act (R.S.C., 1985., 1985, c. I-5) and the Constitution Act (1982)) are diverse Nations and peoples representing more than 600 distinct First Nations and encompassing more than 60 languages. The Métis constitute a distinct Aboriginal nation, number 587,545 in 2016, many of whom live in urban centres. The Inuit represent an Indigenous people who have occupied Inuit Nunangat in Canada’s north, and numbered 65,025 in 2016.

Indigenous Peoples in Canada are represented by a number of representative organizations regionally, provincially and nationally. National Indigenous representative organizations include, but are not limited to, the Assembly of First Nations, the Congress of Aboriginal Peoples, the Inuit Tapiriit Kanatami, the Métis National Council, and the Native Women’s Association of Canada.

Canada’s Constitution Act recognizes and affirms the existing Aboriginal and treaty rights of Aboriginal Peoples. The Supreme Court has called the protection of these rights “an important underlying constitutional value” and “a national commitment”. In 2007, Canada was one of four states that voted against the United Nations Declaration on the Rights of Indigenous Peoples (UN Declaration). In 2010, the Canadian government announced its endorsement of the UN Declaration and, in 2016, Canada re-affirmed its support “without qualification”. Canada has not ratified ILO Convention 169. The Aboriginal Peoples Television Network serves Canada’s Indigenous Peoples as an independent television network and news broadcaster, broadcasting programs made by, for and about Indigenous Peoples, with government support.

United Nations Declaration on the Rights of Indigenous Peoples

In November 2019, British Columbia (BC) became the first province in Canada to enshrine the human rights of Indigenous Peoples into law by unanimously passing Bill 41, the Declaration on the Rights of Indigenous Peoples Act.[1] The Act establishes a process to align BC’s laws with the UN Declaration. The Act was developed in partnership with provincial Indigenous representative organizations (the BC Assembly of First Nations, the First Nations Summit, and the Union of BC Indian Chiefs). The legislation requires the co-development of an action plan to achieve provincial alignment with the Declaration over time, with appropriate transparency and accountability mechanisms.

In addition, the legislation allows the flexibility for the Province to enter into agreements with a broader range of Indigenous governments. Further, it provides a framework for decision-making between Indigenous governments and the Province on areas of joint concern. The Act will be far reaching, covering a range of policy areas including: Children and Families, Fisheries and Aquaculture, Agriculture and Ranching, Forestry, Environmental Assessment, Mining and more.

The Action Plan was delayed due to a fall 2020 Provincial Election which resulted in a majority BC NDP (New Democratic Party) government. The BC NDP’s campaign platform included a number of promises to increase support for First Nations’ rights to self-determination, shared decision-making and the creation of a dedicated Secretariat to ensure that new legislation and policies align with the UNDRIP.[2]

In 2019, the Federal Government of Canada, under the leadership of Prime Minister Trudeau and the Federal Liberal Party, was unable to pass Bill C-262, a federal private member’s bill which sought to “ensure that the laws of Canada are in harmony” with the UN Declaration. Following their reelection in the fall of 2020, the incumbent Prime Minister Trudeau committed to passing Bill C-15, An Act respecting the United Nations Declaration on the Rights of Indigenous Peoples.[3] Bill C-15 uses the failed Bill C-262 as the floor for recognizing and implementing the UNDRIP within a domestic framework.

Bill C-15, collaboratively developed with Indigenous organizations and leaders following decades of Indigenous advocacy, affirms the Declaration as a universal international human rights instrument with application in Canadian law and provides a framework for the Government of Canada’s implementation of the Declaration. The bill further seeks to bring Canada’s laws into alignment with the Declaration. To achieve these objectives, the Federal government, in consultation and cooperation with Indigenous Peoples, will develop and implement an action plan that will include measures to address injustice, prejudice, violence and discrimination against Indigenous Peoples and to promote mutual respect and understanding as well as good relations. Measures will also include a specific mechanism to monitor and provide oversight, resource, remedy or other accountability measures to the implementation of the Declaration. The Bill provides a three-year timeline for the collaborative development of the action plan.

Although the bill has received wide support from Indigenous groups and leaders, there are some that remain sceptical of Canada’s political will to act on its own obligations.[4] This mistrust has been fuelled by Canada’s response to ongoing conflicts surrounding its promotion of the resource sector and the assertion of Indigenous rights by Indigenous land defenders, as seen in the 2019 Wet’suwet’en protests opposed to the Coastal GasLink pipeline, the 2018 purchase of the TransMountain pipeline and the ongoing opposition of Indigenous communities, and the Teck Frontier mine, to name but a few.

Pipelines and the development of fossil fuel infrastructure

In 2020, the extractive resource industry and the development of fossil fuel pipelines continues to be a primary source of conflict between governments and Indigenous Peoples. On 13 December 2019, the UN Committee on the Elimination of Racial Discrimination released a two-page statement urging Canada to immediately stop the construction of the Coastal GasLink Pipeline, the Trans Mountain Pipeline expansion and the Site C Dam until it has obtained the free, prior and informed consent of First Nations. The committee noted its concern at the lack of free, prior and informed consent from the affected Indigenous groups, alongside the forced removal, disproportionate use of force, harassment and intimidation, and escalating threat of violence being used against Indigenous land defenders.

Coastal GasLink

In the province of British Columbia, there are plans to build a 670-kilometre pipeline, which is expected to transport natural gas from north-eastern BC to LNG Canada’s export terminal in Kitimat on BC’s coast. Despite having been reviewed by the BC Environmental Assessment process and obtaining the approval and required permits from the provincial and federal governments, a large portion of the pipeline crosses the territory of the Wet’suwet’en Nation, a route rejected by most of the Nation’s hereditary chiefs, who remain fiercely opposed to the project and the potential impacts on their lands and way of life. This is further complicated by the five elected Indian Act band councils that constitute the Wet’suwet’en Nation having signed benefit agreements with both Costal GasLink and the BC government.

In 1997, hereditary Wet’suwet’en and Gitxsan chiefs won a landmark ruling in the Supreme Court of Canada when all nine judges affirmed the existence of Aboriginal title post-Confederation. The Wet’suwet’en, like most First Nations in the province of British Columbia, have neither signed treaties with the Crown nor ceded their respective territories through sale or loss of territories through warfare.

In an expression of their Indigenous and sovereign rights, Wet’suwet’en Hereditary Chiefs, members and supporters have reoccupied their territory and established a number of checkpoints and healing camps. These checkpoints and camps are currently preventing Coastal GasLink workers and contractors from accessing the Nation’s territory to clear the permitted right-of-way for the construction of the pipeline.[5]

On 13 January 2020, the Wet’suwet’en Hereditary Chiefs submitted a formal request to the United Nations to monitor the actions of the RCMP, the State and Coastal GasLink on their traditional, unceded territory.[6]

2019 saw significant conflict between Indigenous land defenders and the pipeline proponents, supported by the RCMP. In the year since these conflicts and RCMP raids, the Coast GasLink project has laid more than 140 kilometres of pipeline in northern BC. Indigenous groups have accused the company of taking advantage of the 2020 COVID-19 pandemic and the disproportionate vulnerability of Indigenous communities in the north to push the project forward while Indigenous communities are caring for their communities, elders and most vulnerable members.[7]

Children and families

Canada has introduced a new Indigenous child welfare law, Bill C-92,[8] which came into force 1 January 2020.

The new legislation creates national standards on how provincial and territorial child welfare agencies deal with apprehended Indigenous children. It also delineates jurisdiction for Indigenous governing bodies - First Nation, Inuit and Métis - to pass laws governing their own child welfare systems that would supersede provincial, territorial and federal laws.

Indigenous Peoples have criticized Canada for failing to work in cooperation with Indigenous organizations to prepare for the new law’s implementation, although many organizations celebrated the law’s passing as the result of a collaborative effort between Indigenous Peoples and the Canadian government.


Canada’s remote Indigenous communities have been particularly vulnerable to the global COVID-19 pandemic. First Nations people living on reserves have been experiencing COVID-19 cases at a rate 40% higher than the general Canadian public.[9] Contributing to Indigenous Peoples’ vulnerability are ongoing, disproportionate health impacts that include vulnerabilities to diabetes, obesity, asthma and arthritis, all of which place individuals at greater risk of morbidity when exposed to COVID-19.

Many First Nations communities have developed and implemented their own pandemic plans. Multiple First Nations communities have issued a state of emergency due to COVID-19 infections,[10] or have closed their communities to the public, tourism and industry through the use of blockades and checkpoints. This has been mirrored by the Assembly of First Nations, the national advocacy body for First Nations in Canada, which declared a state of emergency in March 2020.[11] Some First Nations have gone further by introducing fines to individuals who enter the community unlawfully.[12] Indigenous cultures, languages and traditional knowledge have been particularly vulnerable given the threat the pandemic poses to Indigenous knowledge holders, including holders of specific ecological and cultural knowledge, including culturally significant sites, cultural practices, languages and stories. The loss of these elders would significantly deprive not only the family and the community of a mentor and loved one but would also represent a significant loss to the cultural survival and distinct identities and practices of current and future generations.[13]

Advocacy organizations and Indigenous leaders have called on the federal and provincial governments to prioritize vaccine distribution amongst remote and urban Indigenous communities to help offset the particular vulnerabilities of Indigenous Peoples. The roll-out of COVID-19 vaccinations falls under provincial authority and, as a result, the beginning of 2021 saw a range of vaccination strategies, the majority of which accounted for the vulnerabilities of remote Indigenous communities with plans to prioritize and expedite vaccine delivery to remote communities and Indigenous elders. Unfortunately, urban Indigenous communities that live in densely-populated Canadian cities appear to have been overlooked in the initial vaccination strategies, despite being subject to similar vulnerabilities.


In conjunction with the COVID-19 pandemic and, given the particular vulnerability of Indigenous Peoples, a number of events across Canada have revealed the prominent racism existing within Canada’s healthcare system, representative of a long-troubled relationship between Canada’s public healthcare institutions and Indigenous patients.

The recent focus on Indigenous Peoples’ treatment at the hands of healthcare professionals was partly triggered by the death of Joyce Echaquan of the Atikamekw Nation in a Quebec hospital in September 2020. Echaquan was seeking treatment for stomach pain and recorded her experience within the public healthcare institute, revealing the racist practices of her attendants. The attendants were recorded eschewing racial epithets, disparaging and taunting Echaquan, and refusing appropriate treatment.

Since Echaquan’s death, the racist treatment of Indigenous Peoples within Canada’s healthcare system has become a focus across the country. In November 2020, Mary-Ellen Turpel-Lafond released her report, “In Plain Sight: Addressing Indigenous-specific Racism and Discrimination in BC Health Care.”[14]

The report was mandated following the reporting of a racist game being played in some BC hospital emergency departments in which healthcare workers attempted to guess the blood alcohol content of Indigenous patients. The report found that, of the more than 2,700 Indigenous people surveyed, 84% reported experiencing discrimination within the healthcare system. The report made a number of findings which suggest “a major problem of Indigenous-specific racism in the BC healthcare system. This problem has significant impacts on Indigenous patients, women and healthcare workers. It contributes to inequitable health outcomes, including in the context of the public health emergencies of COVID-19 and the overdose crisis.”[15] The report makes 24 recommendations aimed at advancing structural and comprehensive change.


On 25 May 2020, following the death of George Floyd Jr. in the United States at the hands of Derek Chauvin and three other American police officers,[16] the rise of the Black Lives Matter movement, alongside calls for the defunding and abolition of police forces and for a comprehensive inquiry into the systemic discrimination within policing institutions began to spread from the U.S. into Canada.

Policing institutions in Canada have a long and troubled relationship with Indigenous Peoples, playing a significant role in the historic and continuing removal of Indigenous children from their homes, families and lands, and the removal and arrests of Indigenous land defenders from their territories, as seen in the Wet’suwet’en protests in opposition to Coastal GasLink pipeline.[17]

The past year has seen Canada’s national and local policing institutions coming under close scrutiny and criticism. This attention has largely been driven by a number of events involving the RCMP throughout 2020, including: the June 2020 recording of the violent treatment of Chief Allan Adam by the RCMP on 10 March,[18] the failure of the RCMP to respond to the terrorizing of Mi’kmaw fishermen by lobster fishermen in Nova Scotia;[19] the 2020 police killings of Regis Korchinski-Paquet, 29-year-old Black-Indigenous woman, Eishia Hudson, a 16-year-old Indigenous girl,[20] Chantel Moore, a 26-year-old Tla-o-qui-aht/Nuu-chah-nulth woman[21] and Rodney Levi, a 48-year-old man from the Metepenagiag First Nation.[22]

In response to these events, Indigenous leaders have called for the defunding or abolition of the RCMP as well as various municipal/regional police forces,[23] and the funding of Indigenous approaches to cultural safety and mental health. In October 2020, the AFN called on the Prime Minister to remove RCMP Commissioner Lucki[24] in response to the Commissioner’s denial of ongoing systemic racism within the police force.[25] The Prime Minister has yet to act on these requests.

Murdered and missing Indigenous women and girls

In response to the ongoing crisis of Canada’s murdered and missing Indigenous women, Canada has begun work to develop a national action plan to address this issue. The action plan was co-developed with the federal, provincial and territorial governments alongside Indigenous leaders, families and women’s groups as a follow-up to the 2019 National Inquiry into Missing and Murdered Indigenous Women and Girls and its 231 recommendations. The COVID-19 pandemic has been cited as a delaying factor in the release of this plan and the community engagements required to inform it. Indigenous leaders have criticized the delay in the action plan, and the government’s delay in actioning the recommendations of the 2019 inquiry.[26]

Matthew Norris is a member of the Lac La Ronge First Nation in Northern Saskatchewan, Canada. He is a PhD student in the University of British Columbia’s Department of Political Science and is researching issues pertaining to international Indigenous rights frameworks. He is the President of the Urban Native Youth Association in BC and, prior to enrolling in school, was a Policy Analyst for the Union of BC Indian Chiefs.

This article is part of the 35th edition of The Indigenous World, a yearly overview produced by IWGIA that serves to document and report on the developments Indigenous Peoples have experienced. The photo above is of the Indigenous community of Kawemhakan, Suriname, where they blocked their airstrip to prevent outsiders from arriving into their villages and potentially bringing COVID-19 with them. This photo was taken by the Mulokot Foundation in Kawemhakan and is the cover of The Indigenous World 2021 where this article is featured. Find The Indigenous World 2021 in full here


Notes and references

[1] Parliament of BC. “Bill 41 – 2019 Declaration on the Rights of Indigenous Peoples Act.” Legislative session: 4th Session, 41st Parliament, 2019. https://www.leg.bc.ca/parliamentary-business/legislation-debates-proceedings/41st-parliament/4th-session/bills/first-reading/gov41-1

[2] https://www.bcndp.ca/platform

[3] House of Commons of Canada. “Bill C-15, An Act respecting the United Nations Declaration on the Rights of Indigenous Peoples.” Second Session, Forty-third Parliament, 3 December 2020. https://parl.ca/DocumentViewer/en/43-2/bill/C-15/first-reading

[4] McIvor, Bruce. “Hope for the Best from Canada’s UNDRIP Law. But Expect More of the Same.” The Tyee, 28 December 2020. https://thetyee.ca/Analysis/2020/12/28/Hope-Best-Canada-UNDRIP-Law-Expect-More-Same/

[5] Wet’suwet’en Hereditary Chiefs. “No Access Without Consent.” Unist’ot’en, 7 January 2020. https://unistoten.camp/wetsuweten-hereditary-chiefs-no-access-without-consent/

[6] Wickham, Jennifer. “Wet’suwet’en Hereditary Chiefs Call for UN Intervention.” Unist’ot’en, 13 January 2020. http://unistoten.camp/unintervention/

[7] Trumpener, Betsy. “A year after West’suwet’en blockades, Coastal GasLink pipeline pushes on through pandemic.” CBC News, 5 February 2020. https://www.cbc.ca/news/canada/british-columbia/coastal-gaslink-pipeline-bc-wet-suwet-en-pandemic-1.5898219

[8] House of Commons of Canada. “Bill C-92, An Act respecting First Nations, Inuit and Métis children, youth and families.” First Session, Forty-second Parliament, 21 June 2019. https://www.parl.ca/DocumentViewer/en/42-1/bill/C-92/royal-assent

[9] Somos, Christy. “A year later, Indigenous communities are fighting twin crises: COVID-19 and inequality.” CTV News, 25 January 2021. https://www.ctvnews.ca/health/coronavirus/a-year-later-indigenous-communities-are-fighting-twin-crises-covid-19-and-inequality-1.5280843

[10] CBC News. “2 B.C. First Nations under state of emergency due to COVID-19.” CBC News, 5 February 2021. https://www.cbc.ca/news/canada/british-columbia/bc-first-nations-covid-state-of-emergency-1.5903312

[11] AFN. “Assembly of First Nations Declares State of Emergency on COVID-19 Pandemic.” AFN, 24 March 2020. https://www.afn.ca/assembly-of-first-nations-declares-state-of-emergency-on-covid-19-pandemic/

[12] Yellowhead Institute. “COVID-19 in community: How are First Nations responding?” Yellowhead Institute, 7 April 2020. https://yellowheadinstitute.org/2020/04/07/corona-in-community-the-first-nation-response/

[13] Grabish, Austin. “Vaccinating knowledge keepers part of effort to preserve Indigenous identity in Manitoba.” CBC News, 6 February 2021. https://www.cbc.ca/news/canada/manitoba/knowledge-keepers-vaccines-manitoba-1.5902957

[14] Turpel-Lafond, Mary-Ellen. “In Plain Sight: Addressing Indigenous-specific Racism and Discrimination in BC Health Care, Summary Report.” BC, November 2020.https://engage.gov.bc.ca/app/uploads/sites/613/2020/11/In-Plain-Sight-Summary-Report.pdf

[15] Ibid, 20.

[16] Hill, Evan, Ainara Tiefenthäler, Christiaan Triebert, Drew Jordan, Haley Willis and Robin Stein. “How George Floyd Was Killed in Policy Custody.” The New York Times, 31 May 2020. https://www.nytimes.com/2020/05/31/us/george-floyd-investigation.html

[17] Dhillon, Jaskiran and Will Parrish. “Exclusive: Canada police prepared to shoot Indigenous activists, documents show.” The Guardian, 20 December 2019. https://www.theguardian.com/world/2019/dec/20/canada-indigenous-land-defenders-police-documents

[18] Morin, Brandi. “Chief Allan Adam on being beaten by police and Indigenous rights.” Aljazeera, 15 July 2020. https://www.aljazeera.com/features/2020/7/15/chief-allan-adam-on-being-beaten-by-police-and-indigenous-rights

[19] Forester, Brett. “DFO, RCMP knew violence was coming but did nothing to protect Mi’kmaw lobster harvesters: Documents.” APTN News, 10 February 2021. https://www.aptnnews.ca/national-news/dfo-rcmp-knew-violence-was-coming-but-did-nothing-to-protect-mikmaw-lobster-harvesters-documents/

[20] Martens, Kathleen. “Family of Eishia Hudson calls for inquiry after Winnipeg police cleared in fatal shooting.” APTN News, 28 January 2021. https://www.aptnnews.ca/national-news/they-got-us-now-no-charges-laid-against-officer-in-shooting-death-of-eishia-hudson/

[21] Sayers, Judith. “A Nation Mourns for Chantel Moore.” The Tyee, 17 June 2020. https://thetyee.ca/Analysis/2020/06/17/Nation-Mourns-Chantel-Moore/

[22] Moore, Angel. “Metepenagiag First Nation left with many questions after RCMP shooting of Rodney Levi.” APTN News, 15 June 2020. https://www.aptnnews.ca/national-news/metepenagiag-first-nation-search-for-answers-after-rcmp-shooting/

[23] Sterritt, Angela. “‘It’s putting a Band-Aid on a broken leg’: Indigenous leaders say police training inept, join calls to defund.” CBC News, 13 June 2020. https://www.cbc.ca/news/canada/british-columbia/indigenous-leaders-say-training-not-working-1.5610501

[24] AFN. “AFN National Chief Perry Bellegarde Calls for the Removal of RCMP Commissioner Brenda Lucki.” AFN, 23 October 2020. https://www.afn.ca/afn-national-chief-perry-bellegarde-calls-for-the-removal-of-rcmp-commissioner-brenda-lucki/

[25] Palmater, Pam. “Brenda Lucki must go.” Maclean’s, 18 June 2020. https://www.macleans.ca/opinion/brenda-lucki-must-go/

[26] Stefanovich, Olivia. “Ottawa delays release of national action plan on missing and murdered Indigenous women.” CBC News, 26 May 2020. https://www.cbc.ca/news/politics/stefanovich-mmiwg-action-plan-delay-1.5583585



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