Indigenous Peoples’ History and Culture

Indigenous Peoples in Canada and Vancouver


In Canada, the term Indigenous peoples (or Aboriginal peoples) refers to First Nations, Métis and Inuit peoples. These are the original inhabitants of the land that is now Canada. In the 2016 census by Statistics Canada, 1,673,785 people in Canada identified as Indigenous, making up 4.9% of the national population. Though severely threatened — and in certain cases extinguished — by colonial forces, Indigenous culture, language and social systems have shaped the development of Canada and continue to grow and thrive despite extreme adversity.

‘Aboriginal identity’ refers to whether the person identified with the Aboriginal peoples of Canada. This includes those who are First Nations (North American Indian), Métis or Inuk (Inuit) and/or those who are Registered or Treaty Indians (that is, registered under the Indian Act of Canada), and/or those who have membership in a First Nation or Indian band. Aboriginal peoples of Canada are defined in the Constitution Act, 1982, Section 35 (2) as including the Indian, Inuit and Métis peoples of Canada.

The Indian Act

The Indian Act is a Canadian federal law that governs in matters pertaining to Indian status, bands, and Indian reserves. Throughout history it has been highly invasive and paternalistic, as it authorizes the Canadian federal government to regulate and administer in the affairs and day-to-day lives of registered Indians and reserve communities. This authority has ranged from overarching political control, such as imposing governing structures on Aboriginal communities in the form of band councils, to control over the rights of Indians to practice their culture and traditions. The Indian Act has also enabled the government to determine the land base of these groups in the form of reserves, and even to define who qualifies as Indian in the form of Indian status. While the Indian Act has undergone numerous amendments since it was first passed in 1876, today it largely retains its original form.

Aboriginal, Native, or Indigenous?

The use of the word “Indian” is considered offensive by many First Nations. The word “Aboriginal” was a replacement for “Indian” and “Native”. “Indigenous” is becoming the most accepted word.

First Nations:

First Nations is a term used to describe Indigenous peoples in Canada who are not Métis or Inuit. First Nations people are original inhabitants of the land that is now Canada, and were the first to encounter sustained European contact, settlement and trade. According to the 2016 census by Statistics Canada, 977,230 people in Canada identified as being of First Nations heritage, a growth of 39.3 per cent since 2006. There are 634 First Nations in Canada, speaking more than 50 distinct languages.

The City of Vancouver is on the traditional territories of three Local First Nations: the Musqueam, Squamish, and Tsleil-Waututh.

NRP is located located on the traditional, ancestral, and unceded territory of the xʷməθkʷəy̓əm (Musqueam) people. It is also named for the late Musqueam elder and lifelong education advocate Norma Rose Point. The article Norma Rose Point school a fitting tribute has introduced Norma and her contribution.

Elder Rose Point at the 2012 First Nations Longhouse Graduation Celebration

Residential Schools:

Residential schools were government-sponsored religious schools that were established to assimilate Indigenous children into Euro-Canadian culture. Although the first residential facilities were established in New France, the term usually refers to schools established after 1880. Residential schools were created by Christian churches and the Canadian government as an attempt to both educate and convert Indigenous youth and to assimilate them into Canadian society. However, the schools disrupted lives and communities, causing long-term problems among Indigenous peoples. The last residential school closed in 1996. (Grollier Hall, which closed in 1997, was not a state-run residential school in that year.) Since then, former students have demanded recognition and restitution, resulting in the Indian Residential Schools Settlement Agreement in 2007 and a formal public apology by Prime Minister Stephen Harper in 2008. (See also Inuit Experiences at Residential School and Métis Experiences at Residential School.)

Total First Nations, Métis, and Inuit children placed in residential schools:
more than 150,000

Estimated number of residential schools student deaths:
over 6,000 (records are incomplete)

Odds of a student dying over the life of the program:
1 in 25 (if 6,000)

Residential Schools in Canada: A Timeline

Since May 2021, more than 1, 412 human remains / unmarked graves were found at former residential schools in Canada.

Kamloops Residential School
Location: Kamloops, BC
Number of bodies: 215
Date found: May 27th, 2021

Brandon Residential School
Location: Brandon, MB
Number of bodies: 104 (78 confirmed)
Date found: June 4th, 2021

Marieval Residential School
Location: Marieval, SK
Number of bodies: 751
Date found: June 25th, 2021

Kootenay Island Residential School
Location: Cranbrook, BC
Number of bodies: 182
Date found: June 30th, 2021

Kuper Island Residential School
Location: Kuper Island, BC
Number of bodies: >160
Date found: July 12th, 2021

Canadians are mourning the children by placing shoes at memorials in various communities and cities. The shoes represent the children who dies at the school. (Image credit: Donna Zhou, NRP PAC)

Orange Shirt Day – September 30

Orange Shirt Day is a legacy of the St. Joseph Mission (SJM) Residential School (1891-1981) Commemoration Project and Reunion events that took place in Williams Lake, BC, Canada, in May 2013. This project was the vision of Esketemc (Alkali Lake) Chief Fred Robbins, who is a former student himself. It brought together former students and their families from the Secwepemc, Tsilhqot’in, Southern Dakelh and St’at’imc Nations along with the Cariboo Regional District, the Mayors and municipalities, School Districts and civic organizations in the Cariboo Region.

The events were designed to commemorate the residential school experience, to witness and honour the healing journey of the survivors and their families, and to commit to the ongoing process of reconciliation. Chief Justice Murray Sinclair challenged all of the participants to keep the reconciliation process alive, as a result of the realization that every former student had similar stories.

National Day for Truth and Reconciliation – September 30

September 30, 2021 marks the first National Day for Truth and Reconciliation. The day honours the lost children and Survivors of residential schools, their families and communities. Public commemoration of the tragic and painful history and ongoing impacts of residential schools is a vital component of the reconciliation process.

The creation of this federal statutory holiday was through legislative amendments made by Parliament. On June 3, 2021, Bill C-5, An Act to amend the Bills of Exchange Act, the Interpretation Act and the Canada Labour Code (National Day for Truth and Reconciliation) received Royal Assent.

Truth and Reconciliation Commission of Canada

The Truth and Reconciliation Commission of Canada (TRC) was officially launched in 2008 as part of the Indian Residential Schools Settlement Agreement (IRSSA). Intended to be a process that would guide Canadians through the difficult discovery of the facts behind the residential school system, the TRC was also meant to lay the foundation for lasting reconciliation across Canada. As of December 18 2015, the TRC offices are now closed. But the journey of Truth and Reconciliation is far from over. The work of the TRC has now been transferred to the National Centre for Truth and Reconciliation.

Why Acknowledge Territory?

Territory acknowledgement is a way that people insert an awareness of Indigenous presence and land rights in everyday life. This is often done at the beginning of ceremonies, lectures, or any public event. It can be a subtle way to recognize the history of colonialism and a need for change in settler colonial societies.

First Peoples Galleries, Royal BC Museum

10 books about residential schools to read with your kids

Ages 4-8
by Nicola I. Campbell (Groundwood Books)

Shi-shi-etko is a young girl who has four days before she leaves home for residential school. Her family has many teachings to share with her, about her culture and the land.

Campbell’s story — and illustrations by Kim LaFave — follow Shi-shi-etko as she absorbs the world around her and collects a ‘bag of memories’ at the instruction of her grandmother. But she doesn’t take the memories with her. Instead she buries them under a tree, for safekeeping while she is gone.

Ages 4-8
Shin-chi’s Canoe
by Nicola I. Campbell (Groundwood Books)

This award-winning book tells the story of six-year-old Shin-chi as he heads to residential school for the first time with his older sister. It is the sequel to Campbell’s Shi-shi-etko.

As the children are driven away in the back of a cattle truck, Shin-chi’s sister tells him all the things they must remember about home. Shin-chi knows it will be a long time before he sees his family, not until the sockeye salmon return.

Shin-chi endures a long year of hard work, hunger and loneliness before returning home to his family with his sister.

Ages 4-8
Arctic Stories
by Michael Arvaarluk Kusugak (Annick Press)

This trio of stories about a 10-year-old girl named Agatha is based on the childhood experiences of beloved Inuit author Michael Kusugak. The book begins with a tale of Agatha ‘saving’ her community from a monstrous flying object.

The book also includes the story of Agatha being sent away for school, “The nuns did not make very good mothers and the priests, who were called fathers, did not make very good fathers,” Kusugak writes.

Ages 4-8
Kookum’s Red Shoes
by Peter Eyvindson (Pemmican Publications)

An elderly Kookum (grandmother) recounts her experiences at residential school – a time that changed her forever. The book has been described as running parallel to the story of Dorothy in The Wizard of Oz. “Her tornado had arrived. It rushed up and slammed to a halt just past the wonder world she had created,” writes Eyvindson.

Throughout the story Kookum reveals what was lost in her life, and how goodness persisted.

Ages 9-12
Fatty Legs: A True Story
by Christy Jordan-Fenton and Margaret Pokiak-Fenton (Annick Press)

Margaret, an 8-year-old Inuvialuit girl, wants to learn how to read so badly that she’s willing to leave home for residential school to make it happen.

When she gets there a mean-spirited nun known as the Raven is intent on making Margaret’s time at school difficult. But Margaret refuses to be defeated.

Ages 9-12
A Stranger At Home: A True Story
by Christy Jordan-Fenton and Margaret Pokiak-Fenton (Annick Press)

In this sequel to Fatty Legs, Margaret Pokiak is now 10 years old and can hardly wait to return home from residential school. But her homecoming is not what she hopes for. “Not my girl,” is what her mother says when she arrives.

The story follows Margaret as she moves through feelings of rejection and tries to reconnect with her family, language and culture.

Ages 9-12
No Time to Say Goodbye: Children’s Stories of Kuper Island Residential School
by Sylvia Olsen (Sono Nis Press)

This collection of fictional stories of five children sent to residential school is based on real life experiences recounted by members of the Tsartlip First Nation in B.C.
The children cope as best they can at Kuper Island Residential School but it’s a far cry from the life they’re used to.

The book is described as sometimes funny, sometimes sad.

Ages 9-12
As Long as the Rivers Flow
by Larry Loyie (Groundwood Books)

Cree author Larry Loyie writes about his last summer with his family before going to residential school, in Northern Alberta in 1944.

Lawrence learns things like how to care for a baby owl, and how to gather medicinal plants with his Kokom. Loyie’s story highlights how his education at home was disrupted by the residential school system.

Ages 9-12
My Name Is Seepeetza
by Shirley Sterling (Groundwood Books)

Written in the form of a diary, My Name is Seepeetza recounts the story of a young girl taken from home to attend the Kamloops Indian Residential School in the 1950s.

Sterling’s award-winning book has been described as an honest, inside look at the residential school experience – one that highlights the resilience of a child in a place governed by strict nuns, and arbitrary rules.

Ages 9-12
We feel good out here = Zhik gwaa’an, nakhwatthaiitat qwiinzii. (The Land is Our Storybook)
by Julie-Ann André and Mindy Willett (Fifth House Publishers)

We Feel Good Out Here offers a personal account of Julie-Ann André’s family story that includes a discussion about her residential school experience.

She also shares the story of her land, Khaii luk, the place of winter fish. She writes in the book, “The land has a story to tell, if you know how to listen. When I travel, the land tells me where my ancestors have been. It tells me where the animals have come and gone, and it tells me what the weather may be like tomorrow.”

André is Gwichya Gwich’in from Tsiigehtchic, NWT.

  1. Statistics Canada (2016)
    The Daily — Aboriginal peoples in Canada: Key results from the 2016 Census (
  2. Indigenous
  3. Aboriginal Awareness Canada
    Indigenous Awareness Training & Certification Canada (
  4. The Canadians Encyclopedia
    Home | The Canadian Encyclopedia
  5. Zach Parrott (2007), Indigenous Peoples in Canada
    Indigenous Peoples in Canada | The Canadian Encyclopedia
  6. René R. Gadacz (2006), First Nations
    First Nations | The Canadian Encyclopedia
  7. J.R. Miller (2012), Residential Schools in Canada
    Residential Schools in Canada | The Canadian Encyclopedia
  8. Daniel Schwartz (2015), Truth and Reconciliation Commission: By the numbers | CBC News
  10. Native Land Digital | Our home on native land
  11. First Peoples Galleries, Royal BC Museum
  12. Cheryl Rossi (2014), Norma Rose Point school a fitting tribute
    Norma Rose Point school a fitting tribute – Vancouver Is Awesome

Edited by Fei Liu, NRP PAC Parent Education Committee
September 2021