Rethinking the word 'Aboriginal'

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Aboriginal âe" "original or earliest known; native; indigenous."

"Recognized in the Canadian Constitution Act, 1982, sections 25 and 35, respectively as Indians, Métis, and Inuit. It also refers to self-identification of Aboriginal People who live within Canada, but who have not chosen to accept the extinction of their rights of Sovereignty or Aboriginal Title of their lands."

Okay. So now that I have finally looked it up, I can try to understand the term that I have been categorized under as Mohawk. Although, to be honest, when my family and friends in the community are referring to each other, we don't use this word. We're just us, we're Native if anything.

So yes, the term Aboriginal does mean the First Peoples of this land. For my part, it seems that it has become the norm to use this term frivolously, without restraint, and without giving particular attention to what this word encompasses. It is a freebie for the government.

Using an "umbrella" term removes their obligation to have to individually identify each of the federally recognized Indigenous "bodies" in this country. Which I guess is a tiresome task âe" having to actually name Native peoples, who really warrant recognition in all of our entities of being. Nationally the word has become a way to lump everybody together into one melting pot, dangerously in that the assumption is that as First Peoples, we're really all similar. And we're really not.

This rings especially true when talking about the Inuit. Having recently returned from Inuvik in the Northwest Territories, I myself was not even entirely aware of the uniqueness of the Inuit until I got there. Inuvik is located on the East Channel of the Mackenzie Delta, approximately 100 km from the Arctic Ocean and approximately 200 km north of the Arctic Circle. The population includes Inuit (Inuvialuit), Dene (Gwich'in) and Métis. Close to 90 percent of all Inuit communities are fly-in only. So needless to say, because of my geographic isolation while in this area, I embarked on a deep learning journey as soon as I got there.

I joyously discovered the distinctive culture of the Inuit from the drumming, dancing, and singing, to the life cycle teachings and forms of governance. There is not really a separation of men and women so much as there is a focus on family and the realities of the roles that have to be taken on accordingly.

There is a generalization in some history that all Indigenous peoples have identical systems of nationhood and understand the same philosophies, which is completely false, and differs greatly amongst the Inuit as well. They are community-based peoples and have so much strength in their lifestyle and heritage. Colonization is much more recent for the Inuit, yet resiliency remains and many have kept their language, Inuktitut, alive and well.

So I thought I'd ask my Inuk youth activist friend Allen Auksaq what he thought. "The word Aboriginal to me is a word that marginalizes other races within the dominant mainstream society. It's a way to divide how our government services us. Personally I don't like the word, I prefer to call people who are Aboriginal what they like to be called. For example Inuit love to be called Inuit; not Aboriginal, not Eskimo, just Inuit. Inuit means people, and Inuk is a person. So I prefer to not use the word, but I canâe(TM)t do anything about it because it's used by everyone and it seems like everyone just accepts it."

And Allen is quite right. Any Inuk who goes down south has one option for Inuit-specific services, which are only located in Ottawa. Everyone else has to go to the Native Friendship Centre, or somewhere else and hope that services will include them or that someone might speak their language.

Winnipeg alone has close to 1,000 Inuit living in the city, but there are no culturally competent programs available. Funding that is directed at Aboriginal initiatives is now going towards blanketed uses, without looking specifically at the various needs of the diversity of cultures.

The time has come to re-think how we are using the word Aboriginal. I too have to use it outside the community in official capacities, but I know that when I look around the country at "Aboriginal" programs, they're really First Nations and Métis centric. Recent articles I have read use the term quite frequently, particularly to reference cultural perspective and substance, yet there is no way for the reader to know who and what exactly they are talking about in the first place. The truth is lost in generalization and assumption.

It's quite far-fetched to think that they received a consensus from all of us, and that where we are coming from is all the same. For example, if I was reading an article about an "Aboriginal" defending their land in Saskatchewan, I should know that the person speaking up might come from a strong Cree family. We are all entitled to be known for who we are!

So is it really fair to use the word "Aboriginal" in the public sector? Do we really include, or have enough, information about the Inuit to truly use it? And what's more, is it really understood that even within "First Nations" every nation itself is distinct? While we have unity as Native peoples, we each have different traditions, customs, and languages. (I mean, I'm getting kind of tired of being told "miigwetch" all the time when I'm not actually Ojibway).

We have quite a long way to go before any of our peoples have fair representation and equality in services, as well as culturally appropriate programs in any capacity in Canada. Yet it is essential to acknowledge that as First Nations, Inuit and Métis, we deserve the fundamental comprehension of our diverse identities and ways of life before the "Aboriginal" label is thrown into the mix.

Education is the key to affect positive change. When we actually take the time to learn about the culture of Indigenous peoples and then respect it, we have a duty to ensure that all of our First Peoples are equally recognized.

Our right to self-determination doesn't hurt either.

Further Reading

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