• 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 2023: 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 2021 Canadian Census, there were 1.8 million Indigenous people in Canada, accounting for 5% of the total population, up from 4.9% in 2016. More than 1 million 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 numbering 624,220 in 2021, many of whom live in urban centres. The Inuit represent an Indigenous people who have occupied Inuit Nunangat in Canada’s north and numbered 70,545 in 2021.

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 (UNDRIP). In 2010, the Canadian government announced its endorsement of the UNDRIP 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 (UNDRIP)

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 supports the implementation of the UNDRIP by:

  • Requiring the Province, in consultation and cooperation with Indigenous Peoples, to take all measures necessary to ensure the laws of BC are consistent with the UNDRIP (section 3);
  • Requiring the development and implementation of an action plan, in consultation and cooperation with Indigenous Peoples, to achieve the objectives of the UNDRIP (section 4);
  • Requiring the Province to report annually on progress made toward alignment of laws and achievement of the goals in the action plan (section 5); and
  • Enabling agreements with Indigenous governing bodies, including joint or consent-based decision-making agreements that reflect Free, Prior and Informed Consent (FPIC) (sections 6 and 7).

The Act provides a framework for decision-making between Indigenous governments and the Province on areas of joint concern. The Act is 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[2] to guide the implementation of the Act was developed in consultation and cooperation with Indigenous Peoples and was released in March 2022. The plan outlines 89 actions every ministry in the provincial government will take to implement the UNDRIP within the provincial jurisdiction. The 89 actions are divided into four themes: 1. Self-Determination and Inherent Right of Self-Government; 2. Title and Rights of Indigenous Peoples; 3. Ending Indigenous-specific Racism and Discrimination; and 4. Social, Cultural and Economic Well-being.

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 that sought to “ensure that the laws of Canada are in harmony” with the UNDRIP. Following their reelection in the fall of 2020, the incumbent Prime Minister Trudeau passed 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.

The United Nations Declaration on the Rights of Indigenous Peoples Act (UNDA), collaboratively developed with Indigenous organizations and leaders following decades of Indigenous advocacy, affirms the UNDRIP 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 UNDRIP. The bill further seeks to bring Canada’s laws into alignment with the UNDRIP.

The Act requires the Government of Canada, in consultation and cooperation with Indigenous Peoples, to:

  • Take all measures necessary to ensure that federal laws are consistent with the UNDRIP (Section 5);
  • Prepare and implement an action plan to achieve the objectives of the UNDRIP (Section 6);
  • Prepare annual reports on progress and table them in each House of Parliament (Section 7).

To achieve these objectives, in 2022 the Federal government began consultation and engagement with Indigenous Peoples across the country to collect Indigenous priorities in order to inform the creation of a National Action Plan. The action plan has a legislative deadline to be completed by June 2023. It is expected that this National Action Plan 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 for the implementation of the UNDRIP.

Actions to implement the UNDRIP have also begun at the local level. In 2022, the City of Vancouver became the first city to develop a strategy to begin implementing the UNDRIP within a municipal framework.[4] In March 2021, the Council of the City of Vancouver unanimously adopted a motion to create a UNDRIP Task Force. The Task Force consisted of elected Councillors from Indigenous Nations on whose territory the city was built, including the Musqueam Indian Band, the Squamish Nation and the Tsleil-Waututh Nation, alongside elected Vancouver City Councillors. The Task Force tabled the City of Vancouver’s UNDRIP Strategy, which was endorsed by the City of Vancouver in October 2022. The strategy provides Calls to Action for the City of Vancouver to implement the UNDRIP at the municipal level. These Calls to Action fall within the following themes:

  • Social, Cultural, Economic Well-Being;
  • Ending Indigenous-specific Racism and Discrimination;
  • Self-Determination and Inherent Right of Self-Government; and
  • Rights and Title of Indigenous Peoples.

The strategy calls attention to various issues impacting Indigenous Peoples within the city, including governance reform, right to water, right to sanitation, access to housing, cultural and heritage protection and representation, economic self-determination, environmental racism, policing, revenue-sharing and shared decision-making.



Since time immemorial, Indigenous Peoples in Canada have cared for their territorial lands and waters. In the face of ongoing climate crisis, large-scale industrial development and increased pressures on their natural eco-systems and traditional food systems, Indigenous Peoples are leading the way in environmental conservation in many ways, one example of which is through the Indigenous Guardianship Program. Approximately 30 teams of Indigenous Guardians exist across Canada, working to conserve and manage their lands.[5] Guardians provided a number of benefits to their communities including search and rescue, wildlife monitoring and are part of a larger initiative of reasserting leadership and stewardship over their Nations’ lands.

In December 2022, at the 15th Conference of Parties to the Convention on Biological Diversity, Canada announced CAD 800 million (approx. 552 million euro) of funding over seven years for large Indigenous-led conservation projects covering almost a million square kilometres of land.[6] Indigenous leaders have welcomed this funding as an acknowledgement of the powerful role that Indigenous Peoples have played in stewarding their lands and ensuring their integrity for generations to come.


Children and families

In 2007, Indigenous representative organization, the Assembly of First Nations (AFN), along with the First Nations Child and Family Caring Society of Canada, filed a human rights complaint alleging that Canada was discriminating against First Nations children and families in the provision of child protection services and the implementation of Jordan’s Principle.

Jordan’s Principle is a legal requirement that ensures that all First Nations children living in Canada are able to access the products, services, and the support they need.

In a landmark 2016 ruling, the Canadian Human Rights Tribunal (CHRT) ruled that Canada’s definition of Jordan’s Principle was discriminatory and ordered the federal government to take immediate measures to implement the full and proper scope of the principle.

After three decades of advocacy leading up to negotiations that concluded on 20 June 2022, the AFN approved a final settlement agreement (FSA) with the Government of Canada worth CAD 20 billion (approx. 13.58 billion euro) for First Nations children and families who have been discriminated against by Canada’s Children and Families services between 1991 and 2022.

In December 2022, the CHRT ruled not to endorse the FSA, noting that while the FSA “substantially addressed” the CHRT’s orders on compensation, it failed to “fully satisfy” these orders, effectively bringing Canada and the AFN back to the negotiation table.



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.

The year 2022 saw Canada’s national and local policing institutions coming under close scrutiny and criticism, with significant calls for reform to address ongoing systemic racism within the public institutions. Calls for change have been ignited by a number of events, including the death of an Ojibway father and grandfather who was shot by Vancouver Police Department (VPD) when responding to calls of “a man acting erratically” in August. This led to calls for a public inquiry and systemic change as to how the VPD interact with Indigenous Peoples in the city, including a shift from funding police services to community-based and trauma-informed services.[7] These calls were further compounded when the VPD failed to attend an apology ceremony hosted by the Heiltsuk Nation after a 2019 event that led VPD officers to wrongfully arrest a Heiltsuk grandfather and his granddaughter as they were attempting to open a bank account in the City of Vancouver.[8]

2022 also witnessed the death of a Williams Lake First Nations man after a distress call was made by his family to the police, which the family believes was handled improperly.[9] These calls for reform were further reinforced in early 2023 when Canada’s federal police force, the Royal Canadian Mounted Police (RCMP), were found to have covered up the sexual assault by RCMP officers of vulnerable Indigenous women and girls between the late 1990s and early 2000s in Prince George, a remote city in British Columbia and the epicentre of the ongoing murdered and missing Indigenous women and girls crisis.[10]


Murdered and missing Indigenous women and girls

Canada’s ongoing crisis regarding murdered and missing Indigenous women and girls continued in 2022. Indigenous advocacy groups have called for significant reform to policing institutions and for the full implementation of the 231 recommendations of the 2019 National Inquiry into Missing and Murdered Indigenous Women and Girls, following a number of widely-reported murders of Indigenous women and girls in 2022, including the death of Marcedes Myran and Morgan Harris of the Long Plain First Nation,[11] and the death of Chelsea Poorman.[12] While some initiatives are underway to address the crisis, many of the Calls to Action of the 2019 report have gone unaddressed, with Indigenous leaders criticizing the Government of Canada for underfunding its work to address the crisis and the lack of partnerships with Indigenous women, families, First Nations governments and organizations, and front-line/grassroots organizations.[13]



Following the discovering of 215 unmarked graves on the grounds of a former Indian Residential School in Kamloops, BC on 28 May 2021, Indigenous Nations across the country have been using ground-penetrating radar to confirm thousands of other potential grave sites at residential school sites across the country.

The Truth and Reconciliation Commission of Canada (TRC), whose mandate was to inform all Canadians about what happened in residential schools through the documentation of the truth of survivors, their families and communities, has estimated that 150,000 First Nation, Inuit and Métis children attended residential schools. The TRC has further provided a conservative estimate that between 4,000 and 6,000 children died while in attendance at Canada’s Indian Residential Schools between the 1870s and 1997.

In 2021 and 2022, the Canadian government committed CAD 2.2 million (approx. 1.5 million euro) in core funding to the National Centre for Truth and Reconciliation to support the centre’s documentary review and provide important information to be included in the National Residential School Death Register. Since the findings in 2021, the federal government has committed more than CAD 320 million (approx. 220 million euro) to residential school site searches and support for survivors and their families.[14]

In 2022, the confirmation of these gravesites resulted in an apology from Pope Francis and his penitential trip to Canada in July, in recognition of the Catholic Church’s role in Indian Residential Schools and the intergenerational trauma caused by the atrocities committed on Indigenous children. And yet Indigenous leaders continue to criticize the Church for not yet having met its full financial obligations from the Indian Residential Schools Settlement Agreement, while calling for the increased accountability of the Church.[15]




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 Vancouver, BC and a Senior Policy Analyst with the BC Assembly of First Nations.


This article is part of the 37th edition of The Indigenous World, a yearly overview produced by IWGIA that serves to document and report on the developments Indigenous Peoples have experienced. Find The Indigenous World 2023 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] Government of British Columbia. “Declaration on the Rights of Indigenous Peoples Act Action Plan 2022-2027”. Reconciliation Transformation and Strategies Division, BC Ministry of Indigenous Relations and Reconciliation, 2022, https://www2.gov.bc.ca/assets/gov/government/ministries-organizations/ministries/indigenous-relations-reconciliation/declaration_act_action_plan.pdf

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

[4] City of Vancouver. “City of Vancouver’s UNDRIP Strategy.” City of Vancouver, 25 October 2022, https://council.vancouver.ca/20221025/documents/p1.pdf

[5] See: A National Indigenous Guardians Network Backgrounder, https://www.ilinationhood.ca/publications/backgrounder-a-national-indigenous-guardians-network

[6] Coast Funds. “COP15: Government of Canada Commits Funding for Indigenous-Led Conservation in the Great Bear Sea.” Coast Funds, 8 December 2022, https://coastfunds.ca/news/cop15-great-bear-sea/

[7] “UBCIC Mourns the Tragic Murder of Ojibway Father and Grandfather by the VPD; Demands Immediate Reform.” UBCIC, 26 August 2022, https://www.ubcic.bc.ca/ubcic_mourns_the_tragic_murder_of_ojibway_father_and_grandfather

[8] Angela Sterritt. “Heiltsuk leaders reject Vancouver police apology after officers in bank arrest fail to attend ceremony.” CBC News, 25 October 2023, https://www.cbc.ca/news/canada/british-columbia/heiltsuk-reject-apology-call-out-vancouver-police-chief-adam-palmer-for-denying-vpd-racism-1.6628452

[9] “Williams Lake First Nation and UBCIC Call for Public Inquiry into Role of RCMP in First Nation Father’s Death.” UBCIC, 19 July 2022, https://www.ubcic.bc.ca/williams_lake_fn_ubcic_call_for_public_inquiry_into_role_of_rcmp_in_first_nation_fathers_death

[10] Kathleen Martens. “Head of BC First Nations Justice Council says RCMP ‘covered up’ Prince George allegations.” APTN, 14 February 2023, https://www.aptnnews.ca/national-news/head-of-bc-first-nations-justice-council-says-rcmp-covered-up-prince-george-allegations/#.Y-6nP94aQrI.twitter

[11] Rachel Bergen. “First Nations advocacy groups, daughters of slain woman demand resignation of Winnipeg police chief.” CBC News, 08 December 2022, https://www.cbc.ca/news/canada/manitoba/assembly-manitoba-chiefs-long-plain-winnipeg-police-danny-smyth-1.6678751

[12] “UBCIC Outraged with VPD’s Quick Dismissal of Chelsea Poorman’s Death, Demands Ongoing Investigation.” UBCIC, 12 May 2022, https://www.ubcic.bc.ca/ubcic_outraged_with_vpd_quick_dismissal_chelsea_poormans_death_demands_ongoing_investigation

[13] “First Nations Leadership Council Calls for Immediate Action to Address Colonial Violence Against First Nations Women and 2SLGBTQQIA+ People.” FNLC, 3 June 2022, https://www.bcafn.ca/news/first-nations-leadership-council-calls-immediate-action-address-colonial-violence-against

[14] Courtney Dickson. “Hundreds gather for memorial marking 1 year since discovery at Kamloops residential school.” CBC, 19 May 2022, https://www.cbc.ca/news/canada/british-columbia/tk-eml%C3%BAps-kamloops-indian-residential-school-215-one-year-1.6459131

[15] “BC Assembly of First Nations Acknowledges Apology from Vatican as First Step Towards Reconciliation.” BCAFN, 1 April 2022, https://www.bcafn.ca/news/bc-assembly-first-nations-acknowledges-apology-vatican-first-step-towards-reconciliation

Tags: Global governance



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