The tribes that inhabited Canada before European contact are generally known as First Nations today. From what I can tell, this term is fairly new.

What term could I use to refer to First Nations people that:

  1. can refer to indigenous people from different tribes, and
  2. would probably have been understood by someone from the 1800s, and
  3. would generally not be offensive to people today?

In the US, for example, the term American Indian meets all three criteria. Is there something similar for Canada?

  • 1
    Are you asking what were such persons typically called by europeans, in the era when europeans came to kill them?? Say, before 1850? Or are you asking what's another term I can use today for such persons, rather than 'first nations'?
    – Fattie
    Sep 13, 2014 at 10:28
  • 2
    I think #2 and #3 are in direct conflict. The indigenous people were perceived - and labelled - very differently in the 19th century than they are today. The phrase "First Nations", and its analog in different countries around the world, was introduced specifically because prior terms were considered offensive. Now, one way around this is to avoid umbrella terms altogether, and use precise, accurate tribal names, but that option is precluded by constraint #1. In other words, the best I think you can do is "native" or "indigenous".
    – Dan Bron
    Sep 13, 2014 at 11:38
  • @JoeBlow, during the fur trade, the Europeans were far more likely to trade with and marry the local people than kill them.
    – Joe
    Sep 13, 2014 at 15:33
  • 1
    @DanBron, in the US, a term like "American Indian" meets all three characteristics, even though attitudes have changed greatly. I'm trying to find a similar term that works for Canada.
    – Joe
    Sep 13, 2014 at 15:36
  • @JoeBlow, I'm asking for a non-offensive term I can use that would have been understandable to someone in the 1800s.
    – Joe
    Sep 13, 2014 at 15:44

3 Answers 3


Try aboriginal (as in the title of your question):


1 (Of human races, animals, and plants) inhabiting or existing in a land from the earliest times or from before the arrival of colonists; indigenous.


Around the world, 70 percent of uranium deposits are located on aboriginal land.

As a territory born out of the desire for an aboriginal land claims agreement, we are governed as a public government.

The site will be arranged to evoke the lands where the eleven aboriginal nations in Quebec live.


1 An aboriginal inhabitant of a place.


Using the aboriginals' own oral histories, the developer proved that the site had been designated sacred only within the past 10 years.

Use aboriginals (not natives) when an all-encompassing collective term is needed.

Women, youth, aboriginals [and] ethnic communities are all in there, but anglophones aren't mentioned anywhere.


mid 17th century: from Latin aborigines 'original inhabitants' (see aborigine) + -al.

(Definitions, examples and etymology from Oxforddictionaries.com)

  • I'm not sure that would fit criterion #3, though. Calling the pre-European inhabitants of Norther Canada aboriginals is quite likely to be offensive to quite a few people, I would think. (Using it as an adjective, as in the Quebec sample, is safer; but as a noun, I think you'd be on shaky ground in Canada.) Sep 13, 2014 at 9:38
  • @JanusBahsJacquet - As I'm not a Canadian (and I don't know any), I can't say if your perception is correct — we'd need some actual Canadians to give us their considered opinions. My suspicion is that using the term in "Get out of my way, you pesky aboriginal!" would be construed as offensive even by non-aboriginal Canadians, whereas the narrator of a documentary would raise few eyebrows if he announced, "This is the village of XXX, where some of the last remaining aboriginal inhabitants from the province of YYY still practise their traditional way of life". Context and intent matter a lot.
    – Erik Kowal
    Sep 13, 2014 at 9:59
  • I'm not Canadian either—but I have a vague memory of talking to some Canadians about this whole political correctness thing in regards to naming pre-colonisation peoples, and I think they all agreed that aboriginal was likely to cause offence even if used neutrally (unless talking about Australia, of course). That is purely anecdotal, of course. I could well be wrong. Sep 13, 2014 at 10:02
  • Erik - it's unclear what Joe's asking (note my comment). So you've probably wasted your time over an unclear question. (that's never happened here before! :O )
    – Fattie
    Sep 13, 2014 at 10:28

indige, aborigine, native -- all refer to original inhabitants of a region (or those first present there).

[But all such terms also apply to anyone born locally. Taken in its pre-1980 (or so) meaning, a native American is anyone born in America.]

However, you are likely to find someone who will be offended, whatever term you choose. If you do not want to offend someone, ask that someone what term they prefer.

FWIW, the same Wikipedia page discusses Canadian terminology.


My first choice would be to use the very word you did: "indigenous". My second choice would be "aboriginal".

I'm a Canadian of European extraction and my understanding of usage is mostly gleaned from casual media consumption and discussions with an older relative who had a senior management role in education in northern Manitoba, where most of the population is Cree. When he was active 10 years ago the preferred term seemed to be "aboriginal" but my impression is that lately the preference leans towards "indigenous".

Both of these derived from Latin and would therefore have presumably been accessible to any educated person in the 19th century. In contemporary Canadian French, the term autochtone (derived from Greek) serves a similar role.

Note that "First Nations" is disqualified for two reasons: first and most importantly, it is a legal term which is explicitly not inclusive of Inuit and Métis, and probably fails your criterion #2.

I don't think the problems with "Indian" need restating. The word "native" on linguistic grounds would seem suitable and AFAIK was the preferred neutral term as recently as a couple decades ago (and is still used that way by many Canadians without intended offence) but in political speech it's become tainted and could be interpreted as pejorative.

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