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Facing History & Ourselves
 Graphic from cover of "Stolen Lives: The Indigenous Peoples of Canada and the Indian Residential Schools."


Examine how Indigenous identities in Canada have been shaped by the ways European settlers responded to real and imagined differences between themselves and the Indigenous Peoples.


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This resource is intended for educators in Canada who are teaching in English.

At a Glance

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English — CA


  • Social Studies


  • Genocide


About This Chapter

This chapter examines the forces that have shaped Indigenous identities in Canada. In particular, we will consider the ways in which Canadians of European descent responded to both real and imagined differences between themselves and the Indigenous Peoples of Canada.

  1. How do ideas about other cultures come into being?
  2. What did it mean to be Indian in the eyes of Canada’s European settlers?
  3. How did ideas about Indians affect both the legal status of indigenous people and their sense of belonging in Canadian society?

This chapter is from the Membership section of Stolen Lives and includes:

  • 5 readings
  • Connection questions

The previous chapter explored some of the ways in which language and culture shape how individual identities are formed. In this chapter, we focus on group identities. Like individuals, groups take on their own identities in a process that is affected by ideas and traditions that come from inside and outside the group. The separation between group and individual identity is often arbitrary. Sociologist Norbert Elias argues that we all have both an I-identity and a we-identity. Our we-identity, he claims, comes from the life of a group as a group— from the collective social and economic practices, from a shared tradition, and from the cultural institutions in which members of a group partake. 2 (We will return to this important insight later in the guide.) Elias suggests that the balance between a person’s we-identity and I-identity is reflective of the society in which a person lives and the ideas his or her group shares. Elias suggests that in smaller, traditional societies, the we-identity 1 is stronger, as it is characterized by strong customs, close-knit communities, and an uncontested worldview. In modern mass societies, individuals veer toward their I-identity because many of the traditional bonds inside a group are disrupted by such processes as urbanization, industrialization, immigration, and the proliferation of ideas and beliefs. 3 The traditional indigenous life, with its emphasis on interdependence, strong and expansive families, and a deep connection to tradition, fostered a powerful collective identity (we-identity). And it was this sense of “groupness” that was threatened when the government wanted the Indigenous Peoples to become part of a nation of white Christian farmers and urban dwellers.

This chapter explores the forces that shaped indigenous identities in Canada. In particular, we will consider the ways in which Canadians of European descent responded to both real and imagined differences between themselves and the indigenous people who lived on the land before Europeans arrived.

In the first few readings, we will look specifically at the role of language in group identity. How do classification, categorization, labels, and stereotypes create new groups or shape membership in existing ones? Later in the chapter, as we move to the discussion of policies, including the Indian Act , we will explore how social policies might create groups or divide existing ones. And, more importantly, what would be the benefits of belonging to a group and the consequences of being excluded? These are questions of what we might call membership, and they are central both to understanding the history we will examine in this guide and to knowing ourselves and our behaviour more deeply.

These stories provide insight into the ways that humans respond to difference. We live with differences in our daily lives. We make distinctions and categorize the world around us as a way to organize it and make it meaningful. In doing so, we rely on both conscious and unconscious ideas about which differences matter and which do not. Psychologist Deborah Tannen argues that it is natural for people to stereotype others—to ascribe characteristics to them solely because of their membership in a particular group. She explains:

We all know we are unique individuals but we tend to see others as representatives of groups. It’s a natural tendency, since we must see the world in patterns in order to make sense of it; we wouldn’t be able to deal with the daily onslaught of people and objects if we couldn’t predict a lot about them and feel that we know who or what they are. 6

While this grouping can easily lead to stereotyping, are there times when categorizing people into groups might be helpful? Very often, recognized differences can help create or support collective norms. Those in turn determine who is a member of our social groups as well as of larger communities, such as nations. In this chapter, we will examine how Europeans understood and imagined the original peoples they encountered in North America. In other words, the chapter presents images of indigenous people constructed by Europeans and explores some of the stereotypes, partial information, and prejudices that informed the creation of these stereotypes. Those misconceptions and stereotypes have influenced the way that Canada has expressed its universe of obligation—the name Helen Fein has given to the circle of individuals and groups “toward whom obligations are owed, to whom rules apply, and whose injuries call for [amends]." 7

The answer to the question “Who am I?” defines our individual identity. But the answer we give is often complex, since we all have more than one identity. We are members of specific communities and ethnicities, we have religious (or non-religious) affiliations, and we speak different languages, so “Who am I?” is tied closely to other questions, including “Who are we?” All of those factors contribute to our complex identity at different times. Moreover, many people think of their identity as something they can create for themselves. Therefore, it is worth considering how much of our identity is the result of our own choices and how much of it is shaped by other factors outside our control. In the Canadian context, two unique factors also need to be considered: the effect of the residential schools, which were designed to reshape indigenous identities in the image of European white men and women, and the legal system, which defined the Aboriginal Peoples as separate nations with a special relation to the Crown. This was reaffirmed in the 1982 constitution.

Here we focus on language and its power to impact identity. Language can help create a shared sense of identity and belonging. Indeed, the language we speak often connects us to a shared experience, a shared past, a shared culture. When a language disappears, these bonds can be broken. In other words, when people cannot learn the language of their traditional community, they will find it hard to connect with their ancestors’ religion, culture, and history.

As recorded in 2011, there are more than 60 indigenous languages in Canada, which are grouped into 12 distinct language families. Canadian law recognizes only three broadly defined indigenous population groups, so this wide variety of languages is perhaps more revealing of the diversity within the indigenous population. But many of these languages are at risk; some have only a handful of speakers alive. Some are no longer spoken at all. Critics argue that very little is being done to help keep these languages alive.

  • 2Christopher Powell and Julia Peristerakis, “Genocide in Canada,” in Colonial Genocide in Indigenous North America, ed. Andrew Woolford, Jeff Benvenuto, and Alexander Laban Hinton (Durham: Duke University Press, 2014), 71–73.
  • 1Norbert Elias, Society of Individuals, trans. Edmun Jephcott (New York: The Continuum International Publishing Group, 2001), 183–84, 196–97.
  • 3 Many contemporary observers and commentators have used the terms “modern” and “traditional” societies to imply the superiority of modern societies to traditional ones in terms of religion, civilization, and morality. We have made every ef- fort, in this guide, to use the terms strictly in the sociological sense: that is, as a commonly accepted distinction between two historically different societies. Our working assumption is that all human societies are in fact civilizations and that they all possess belief systems, worldviews, and moral or ethical codes that should be judged in their own right.
  • indigenous indigenous: A generic term for communities of people who resided on territories before they were invaded and/or colonized (primarily by Europeans). Many descendants of these communities have a historical and cultural continuity with their pre-colonial ancestors. For some, the term indigenous is preferable to Aboriginal in reference to the First Nations, Métis, and Inuit in Canada.)
  • Indian ActIndian Act: Enacted by the federal government in 1876, the Indian Act combined all previous legislation regarding the First Nations and brought them under federal jurisdiction. This act created the term Indian as a legal category and defined Status Indian (registered Indian), which excluded Inuit and Métis people. It gave the government, through the Department of Indian Affairs, the power to create laws and policies regarding “Indians” and “Indian” affairs such as membership, reserve infrastructure and services, systems of governance, culture, and education.
  • 6Mary Roth Walsh, Women, Men and Gender: Ongoing Debates (Rensselaer: Hamilton Printing Company, 1997), 84.
  • 7 Helen Fein, Accounting for Genocide (New York: Free Press, 1979), 4.

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