Author: Jennifer Burgess is a Technical Editor and Staff Engagement Lead
As an editor, I’ve noticed companies and groups I work with often don’t have consistent guidelines for language referring to Aboriginal people and bands. There’s frequently confusion about when and how to use phrases like First Nations, Indians, and Inuit. There are a few media-created guidelines, like The Globe and Mail Style Guide; however, they have a national focus and do not address issues specific to Alberta. Many companies have Aboriginal Engagement programs but they do not consider basic communication standards needed to engage with these communities. And if communication standards are considered, there is no easy way to access this information in one place. Following is a compilation of various guidelines, with a complete list in the references section. This article is intended to be a starting point for discussion not an authoritative reference.
The Department of Aboriginal Affairs and Intergovernmental Relations (DAAIR) defines Aboriginal Peoples as: “The descendants of the original peoples of Canada.” Section 35 (2) of the Constitution Act, 1982 defines the Aboriginal peoples of Canada as Indians, Inuit, and Métis. The term “Aboriginal” is commonly used when referring to the three groups of indigenous peoples as a whole. It is a broad term that refers to several different groups of people and technically is interchangeable with the terms “Native” and “Indian.” The Globe and Mail Style Guide claims native leaders advocate the terms “Aboriginal” and “Aboriginal person,” but the terms “Native” and “Indian” are still used by the vast majority of Native people themselves. However, other sources suggest First Nations groups feel this term attempts to assimilate many different groups into one. It is best to be as specific as possible when referring to these groups.
All sources, including the Canadian Oxford Dictionary, emphasize this word should be capitalized and only used as an adjective, never as a proper noun. The Public Works and Government Services Translation Bureau also recommends using Aboriginal people(s) in Canada, not Aboriginal Canadians. The Canadian Press capitalizes “peoples” in Aboriginal Peoples.
The Canadian Oxford Dictionary defines First Nations as: “1. The North American Indian peoples of Canada, considered collectively; 2. A particular community of Canadian Indians, esp. one recognized as an administrative unit by the federal government.” Aboriginal Affairs and Northern Development Canada refers to First Nations people as status and non-status “Indian” peoples in Canada. The Canadian Press Stylebook also includes “Treaty Indians” in this term. However, The Globe and Mail Style Guide suggests this term is misleading because it implies a much larger group than the term technically includes. Keep in mind the term First Nations has no legal definition, so it should not be used in formal documents.
Most sources consistently capitalize First Nations, however the Globe and Mail does state, “When we do use first nation, it is lower-case unless we are giving a band’s formal name: the Kettle Point First Nation.”
This term was first used in a legal context in Section 91 (24) of the Constitution Act, 1867, which gives the federal government responsibility for “Indians, and Lands reserved for the Indians.” The AP Stylebook states the use of American Indian or Native American is acceptable for those in the US; however, it does not refer to the term’s use in Canada. The Globe and Mail claims it is an acceptable term to use to distinguish Indians from other native groups. However, it does seem to be falling out of use. The Oxford English Dictionary confirms this, stating it is being replaced in non-legal contexts with First Nations. The Canadian Press Stylebook suggests using it with discretion.
The Canadian Press Stylebook suggests this is another term for Aboriginal. It does not capitalize the terms, although the Public Works and Government Services Translation Bureau prefers “Indigenous people(s).” This term is very general and a more specific term, like First Nations, Inuit, Métis, or a specific band name should be used instead whenever possible.
The DAAIR defines Inuit as: “the Aboriginal people of Arctic Canada [...] The word ‘Inuit’ means ‘the people’ and is the term by which Inuit refer to themselves.” This term is specific to Canada, other Northern communities use slightly different phrases to describe themselves. It has replaced the pejorative word Eskimo, which is only now appropriate to use when referring to the dog breed. The singular form is “Inuk.” Inuit and Inuk should always be capitalized.
Native is a word generally synonymous with Aboriginal. According to the Globe and Mail, Native leaders are pushing the use of “Aboriginal” but most Aboriginal people themselves still use “Native.” Most technical and formal documents would use Aboriginal. Like Aboriginal, Native is an adjective not a noun, i.e., Native people(s) not Natives.
Bands are in lowercase unless referring to a specific name. Do not use reservation, which refers to American Indian groups.
There are many different Aboriginal languages, be careful not to imply they are the same or say someone is “speaking Indian.”
Terms like igloo, tupek, umiak, teepee, hogan, longhouse, and totem can contribute to stereotypes so make sure the description is accurate. Do not use insulting terms such as squaw, buck, brave, papoose, Indian list, and Indian-giver.
Creation of a plural possessive when referring to Aboriginal groups is possible only when using English plurals (e.g., the Mohawks’ religion). For non-English names, treat the name as an adjective (i.e., the Gitxsan religion) or resort to a phrase (i.e., the religion of the Gitxsan, practiced by the Gitxsan).
Aboriginal Affairs and Northern Development Canada. http://www.aadnc-aandc.gc.ca. Accessed January 31, 2014. Government of Canada.
An Evolving Terminology Relating to Aboriginal Peoples in Canada. 2002. Communications Branch. Indian and Northern Affairs Canada. October.
Canadian Oxford Dictionary. 2nd ed. 2004. Oxford University Press.
Department of Aboriginal Affairs and Intergovernmental Relations (DAAIR). www.daair.gov.nt.ca. Accessed January 31, 2014. Government of the Northwest Territories.
Schertow, John Ahni. Anishinabek Outlaw Term ‘Aboriginal’.2008. IC Magazine. http://intercontinentalcry.org/anishinabek-outlaw-term-aboriginal/. Accessed December 20, 2013.
TERMIUM Plus. Public Works and Government services Translation Bureau. Government of Canada. http://www.btb.termiumplus.gc.ca. Accessed January 31, 2014.
The Associated Press Stylebook. 2013. The Associated Press.
The Globe and Mail Style Guide. Online Edition. http://v1.theglobeandmail.com/servlet/Page/document/sub/Styleguide/StyleguidePage. Accessed January 31, 2014.