The First Peoples of Canada
Where Did Canada's First People Come From?
Canada's Multicultural First Peoples

Today Canada is the most multi-cultural country in the world, and the home of immigrants of every ethnic and religious group from every country in the world.

But less than 500 years ago, the only people living in Canada  were the Aboriginal people of Canada. "Aboriginal" means the original inhabitants, the people who were here first. The words "Native" or "Indigenous" are also used, and mean the same thing.

Today they all collectively refer to themselves as the First Nations or First Peoples of Canada. However, there are many different cultural groups.

Canada’s first people used at least 53 different languages. Each group referred to themselves by a specific name in their own language.

For instance, the Inuit - colloquially know for years as Eskimos - have always referred to themselves as Inuit - the People. Or in the singular as an Inuk - a person.

Painter - Charles Bird King c1816-1835
Migration Across the Land Bridge Between Asia & North America

Scientists do not agree on where First Nations people came from, or how they got to North America, but they do know that First Nations people are genetically related to people in parts of Asia.

Scientists know that First Nations people have lived in what is now Canada for at least 12,000 years, because they have found bones and artifacts that go back that far. Many scientists now believe that some of the First Peoples may have been here for much longer than that. 

For a long time, scientists believed that the ancestors of all North American First Nations people crossed over on foot to North America from Asia at the end of the last ice age, about 12,000 years ago.

At that time Asia and North America were joined, and what is now the bottom of the Bering Sea between Russia and Alaska was dry land, (a "land bridge) because sea  levels were much lower than they are now. The earliest man-made artifacts – tools or ornaments that archaeologists have found – date from that time.

The theory is that nomadic hunting people followed the big animals (moose, deer, elk, buffalo) for food, and eventually moved south and spread out as the ice sheets melted back. Then they evolved different cultures to suit different environments.

Other Scientific Theories

Scientists now think that the ancestors of First Nations people may have come to North America from several different parts of Asia and Polynesia, following several different routes.

Some may have come on woven reed rafts, or boats, across the Pacific from Asia and various islands.

Still others may have crossed the ice fields that once connected Europe and North America. The Inuit, who live in the high Arctic, were probably the last to arrive.

thanks to
Reed Boat on Lake Titicaca
Courtesy of

Local Oral Traditions Indicate Long Occupancy

Some First Nations people believe, through their oral tradition, that their ancestors have lived in North America for much longer than scientists indicate.

Scientific theory is always evolving as new evidence is found, and some startling discoveries continue to push back the earliest known dates for human occupancy of North America.

Important Recent Archaeological Finds

To learn more about the ancestors of First Nations people, scientists study human bones that are found preserved in dry caves, or in frozen riverbanks where they have not rotted away.

Scientists determine the age of the bones from the age of sediment layers where they are found, or from the style of tools found with the bones.

Some of the most important finds of human skeletons have been in the Yukon, in the American Southwest, and in the Andes in South America.

Yukon Archaeology site
Yukon archaeological site
Courtesy of Government of the Yukon
Studying the Bones

For countless years, white anthropologists and archaeologists have dug up bones of First Nations peoples and taken them away and stored them in drawers in museums, taking the bones out every now and then to probe, and poke them for information. This practice made many Aboriginal People angry.

Recent laws state that any bones found must be turned over to the First Nations bands in the area for burial.

Today, many bands are cooperating enthusiastically in the anthropological study of ancient human bones, because they want to learn more about their ancestors.

These days, First Nations people are working alongside the scientists, and some are becoming scientists themselves.

Courtesy of Smithsonian
Dave Hunt, Collections Manager for Physical Anthropology,
discovers what the bones tell -
in this case a poorly healed fracture of the femur.
Smithsonian National Museum of Natural History
Cultural Signs of Past Occupation of the Land

Tipi rings are circles of rocks that were once used to hold the bottom of a tipi down.

In eastern Canada, archaeologists have found post moulds, that show them where Iroquois longhouses once stood.

By mapping all these cultural signs, scientists can find the places that were occupied by First Nations people, and trace the routes they followed over the years.

Courtesy of Royal Saskatchewan Museum
Aerial view of tipi rings in Saskatchewan
Courtesy of Royal Museum of Saskatchewan
Canada's First Peoples: Official Categories

Canada’s Native people are still referred to officially  in three broad categories by government for administrative purposes, and in the Charter of Rights and Freedoms:

  • The Inuit are the people who originally lived in the Arctic. Their language is Inuktitut, but it has several dialects the differ considerably from place to place.

  • The First Nations were called "Indians" by Christopher Columbus when he landed in North America, because he thought he had reached India. Many now prefer to call themselves First Nations, though many still call themselves Indians in everyday conversation.

    They are still legally categorized by the Canadian Government under the Indian Act as Status Indians. Those who have lost their legal status are called Non-Status Indians. Prime Minister Pierre Trudeau tried to get rid of the Indian Act, but First Nations political groups insisted on keeping it, because it defines their special status.

  • The Métis, are the group of people who resulted from the mixing of European and Native men and women. The Métis developed a unique culture that included elements of both European and Native ways and artifacts (clothes, tools, means of travel, etc.). They pride themselves on their distinctiveness from both the cultures from which they are descended.

In the Charter of Rights and Freedoms, Canada's First Peoples are referred to as Indians, Inuit, and Metis. The Charter recognizes the special Aboriginal Rights of Inuit, Indians, and Metis.

The Canadian Government Department that specifically deals with First Peoples and the North is called Indian and Northern Affairs Canada (INAC)
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