Culture in Canada is celebrated for its diversity, but long before colonists arrived about 400 years ago, it was home to a wide variety of Indigenous Peoples. Inuit, Métis and numerous First Nations are the First People of this vast colonial country, representing the rich Indigenous culture in Canada. For as long as 14,000 years, they have been living on the land now known as Canada but also called “Turtle Island” by some Indigenous People.
Today, in addition to the Métis and Inuit Peoples, there are 634 First Nations communities representing more than 50 Nations and speaking more than 50 distinct languages. While some aspects may be similar, each Nation has a distinct Indigenous culture. In other words, learning about one community of Indigenous People in Canada means just that — you have learned about one. And there are so many more.
Some Indigenous communities are in the process of reclaiming their culture and languages. Learning about the history of the Indigenous People of Canada will help you to understand why this important and necessary process of reclamation is happening.
The local travel experts at Canadian Train Vacations can help you plan your visit to Canada, taking care of all the arrangements — from train and hotel bookings to special activities and tours. This guide includes information on Indigenous culture in Canada and ways to experience authentic cultural tours.
Ways to Experience Indigenous Culture in Canada
For Canadians and visitors alike, exploring Indigenous culture (1) in Canada is a journey into a world rich with traditions, practices, languages and knowledge that continue to be at the centre of life in these diverse, resilient communities in every part of the country. Most importantly, it is a journey best experienced first-hand so you can take in the landscapes that hold such significance in Indigenous culture, feel the power of the spirit that imbues the ceremonies, and look into the eyes of the people who are sharing their stories in their own voices.
Here are ways to respectfully explore Indigenous culture in Canada while on your Canadian train vacation.
1. Stay at Haida House in Haida Gwaii, British Columbia
Off the Northern coast of British Columbia is Haida Gwaii — Xaayda Gwaay.yaay — one of the most ancient cultures in Canada. You can immerse yourself in an authentic Haida cultural experience in this renowned and geographically spectacular place. Overlooking the Tlell River and surrounded by ancient rainforest, Haida House at Tilaal provides deluxe accommodation, regionally inspired cuisine and authentic Haida hospitality. It is also the starting point to guided and self-guided eco-adventures into the pristine wilderness to discover the many natural attractions and cultural sites found on Haida Gwaii’s Graham and Moresby Islands.
A trip to Haida Gwaii is an easy add-on to our West Coast train vacations.
2. The Sk̲wx̲wú7mesh Lil̓wat7úl Cultural Centre in Whistler, British Columbia
Whistler is world renown as a ski-resort, but the mountain has long been significant to the local Indigenous Peoples. Two First Nations communities that live in the Whistler area are showcased at the Sk̲wx̲wú7mesh Lil̓wat7úl Cultural Centre. Both the Sk̲wx̲wú7mesh and L̓il̓wat7úl are caretakers of the land, and their history is tied to the rivers, lakes and mountains. Here, you can learn the stories of the past and present of these communities on tours featuring presentations, song, short film and an exhibit of objects vital to their culture: baskets, blankets, canoes, carvings (also known as totem poles), drums, tools and regalia. Special events also take place throughout the year, for example canoe carving, crafts and holistic medicine.
#1 Travel Tip: Check out Indigenous Art
Indigenous art is a great way to experience the culture — in all its forms, it is an expression of spiritual beliefs. Stories are told, traditions are passed down, and honour is paid through paintings, sculptures, carvings and textiles. Its symbols carry deep meaning that provide insight into the Indigenous way of life.
3. Talaysay Talking Trees Tour in Vancouver, British Columbia
For those willing to listen and learn, every plant and tree has its own story to tell. On a Talaysay Talking Trees Tour, explore Vancouver’s Stanley Park with an Indigenous cultural ambassador, who will share how trees and plants of the Pacific Northwest have been harvested by Indigenous People for food, medicine and technology for thousands of years. The tour also includes ecological practices, ancient and contemporary history, stories, legends and Indigenous ways of living. Talaysay Tours is owned by Candace and Larry Campo of the Shíshálh (Sechelt) and Sḵwx̱wú7mesh (Squamish) First Nations and all tour guides are members of Indigenous communities locally and in the surrounding region.
Speak to your Vacation Advisor about adding a walking tour to your Canadian train vacation.
4. Huron Traditional Site, Wendake, in Quebec
Experience the past and present traditions of a culture in Canada with the Huron-Wendat First Nation at the Huron Traditional Site in Wendake, a municipality within Quebec City. Guided tours led by Hurons in traditional costume and medicine-wheel making are available year-round, as well as a variety of seasonal tour and activity packages. In the summer months, sign up for a canoe ride, nature stroll, traditional meal and live performance. In the winter, take a guided snow-shoe trip and visit the long house for a presentation on traditional ways of life. The Nek8arre restaurant is open in the summer months and offers new and traditional dishes that are mainly game and fish based.
Add a visit to this cultural site to your Canadian History and Culture by Rail trip.
5. Warrior Women in Jasper, Alberta
Matricia Bauer and Mackenzie Brown are Warrior Women, an award-winning, mother-and-daughter duo that hosts a number of Indigenous cultural experiences in Jasper, as well as at events and conferences across Alberta and Canada. Through drumming, singing and storytelling, the Warrior Women are ambassadors of their Cree culture and knowledge. They also host walking tours where they share traditional learnings about plants and their medicinal and nutritional uses and hold workshops on a range of topics, such as Medicine Wheel, Spirit Animals, and Indigenous awareness.
Many of our Canadian Rockies train vacations include time in Jasper.
6. Grizzly Tours at Knight Inlet Lodge, British Columbia
Imagine the thrill of viewing grizzly bears in their natural habitat on tours led by Indigenous guides — truly a bucket-list vacation. Knight Inlet Lodge is located in a sheltered cove 240 kilometres (150 miles) northwest of Vancouver on the southern end of the Great Bear Rainforest. The fully Indigenous-owned property offers dining and accommodation in a magnificent setting. Bear viewing by boat starts in April when both black and grizzly bears begin emerging from hibernation to feed on spring growth. In late August, watch bears from viewing stands, where you can see bears drawn to the pink salmon making their way up the inlet to spawn. Other activities include whale watching, kayaking and marine tours as well as walking, hiking and tracking, all led by guides knowledgeable in local history and legend.
This incredible experience is part of our Lords of the Wilderness Bear Viewing trip.
#2 Travel Tip: Take time to reflect
et out in nature and consider what it means from an Indigenous perspective. Indigenous cultures in Canada are all land-based cultures. The land means the earth, water, sky and all that live within it. There is no separation between human beings and the natural world. It is less about property ownership and more about stewardship.
Cultural Traditions Today
To get an understanding of today’s Indigenous people of Canada, the first step is to recognize that these are not stagnant cultures. They have evolved and adapted to changing times, incorporating aspects of their cultural traditions to various degrees and bringing these learnings forward to today.
In some cases, languages and traditions have been lost either purposely — and often violently — repressed by the colonists or because the community population was affected in ways that made retaining the wisdom of the Knowledge Keepers difficult and sometimes impossible. Many Indigenous communities are making valiant efforts to learn and record the wisdom, celebrations and languages of their Elders before it is too late. Some communities are farther along in this process, while others are seeking guidance spiritually and from communities that are more established in this respect.
Overview of Different Indigenous Cultures in Canada
There are three broad categories of Indigenous People in Canada: Inuit, First Nations, and Métis.
Inuit: Approximately 70,545 Inuit live in Canada. While the Inuit population is the smallest of the three Indigenous Peoples, they live spread across the largest land mass. The Inuit are the people of the north, whose culture revolves around the long dark winters and the short bright summers. Nunatsiavut (Labrador), Nunavik (Quebec), Nunavut and the Inuvialuit Settlement Region of the Northwest Territories are the four main regions.
About 69% of the Inuit population lives in 53 Inuit communities or “Inuit Nunangat,” which means “the place where Inuit live.” Inuktituk is spoken throughout the 53 communities. Many Inuit also live in urban areas of Canada.
Inuit art is world-renowned and an important part of Inuit culture and economy. Take every opportunity you can to see the incredible work by Inuit artists. For example, look for the stylized owls of Kenojuak Ashevak, prints by Tivi Etok, sculpture by Gilbert Hay, and colourful illustrations by Agnes Nanogak Goose, to name a very of many.
First Nations: Canada is home to more than 600 First Nations communities representing more than 50 Nations and speaking more than 50 languages. The history of the First Nations is thousands of years old. The term “First Nations” was introduced in 1980 to replace “Indian,” which was both incorrect and considered offensive. The term Native American has never been common in Canada.
In terms of culture, while there are some similarities among the traditions, practices and beliefs of some First Nations, it would be a gross generalization to say much more than that. Better is to consider each First Nation unique in terms of culture and tradition and learn about each one as a new experience.
Of particular interest may be the creation stories, or the knowledge about nature and the place humans have in it, or the way in which learnings are passed from one generation to the next. Learn about the art and discover the motifs and styles that identify a piece as belonging to — or detracting from — a particular tradition. First Nations medicines and natural curatives are fascinating and may well change your perspective on well-being.
While each First Nation can become a life’s study, there is much to discover even on a vacation.
Métis: In 2021, 624,220 Métis were living in Canada, an increase of 6.3% from 2016. By definition, a Métis is someone whose ancestry is mixed First Nations and European, mainly French but also British. In fact, when “New France” ceded to Great Britain in 1763, French Métis and Anglo Métis became important distinctions for a time.
The Métis can often trace their roots to the early days of the fur trade. The women in the unions in eastern Canada were usually Algonquin and Ojibwe, and in Western Canada, they were Saulteaux, Cree, Ojibwe, Nakoda and Dakota/Lakota or a mix. A distinct culture developed, in part dependent on the European country of descent, which also influenced the language.
While Métis live across Canada now, the “homeland” is the Prairies and parts of Northwestern Ontario and British Columbia.
Coast Salish People and Their Traditions
The traditional territory of the Coast Salish People includes parts of British Columbia, notably southern Vancouver Island (Victoria) and Vancouver and the Lower Mainland, as well as Washington and Oregon in the United States. It is an especially large group with numerous Nations and many distinct cultures, customs and languages.
Traditionally, the Coast Salish People were deeply connected to nature with lifestyles and activities revolving around the seasons. Because of their proximity to water, they relied heavily on fishing, especially salmon. You will see salmon depicted often in Coast Salish art. They developed land management practices to ensure their food security and used dozens of different plants for food, medicine and supplies, such as baskets, matts and twine. Longhouses are an example of Coast Salish architecture. These beautiful structures were sometimes designed to house more than 40 people.
First contact with Europeans dates to 1791, when Spanish explorers sailed the Strait of Georgia. In 1808, Simon Fraser arrived via Fraser Canyon. Fort Vancouver was established in 1824. European contact and trade increased as more forts were built to accommodate fur traders. Treaty negotiations began in the 1850s. These treaties continue to have negative effects on the Coast Salish People.
“Unceded” is an important term when discussing treaties in British Columbia. In effect, it means the First Nations never agreed to or signed the treaty giving their land to the Canadian government. As much as 95% of British Columbia, including the city of Vancouver, is unceded traditional First Nations territory. Despite not having anything even resembling an agreement, the colonists took over. First Nations people were moved to out-of-the way areas, completely disrupting their way of life, cultural practices and often their means of survival.
Coast Salish lands, which extended into coastal US, were further divided by the US-Canada border. In fact, it is believed that the Coast Salish are the most displaced of all the First Nations.
Among the many tragic effects of colonization, smallpox epidemics stand out. In some cases, entire communities were lost to the disease. In 1862, a smallpox epidemic started in Victoria and spread quickly. Police forced First Nations living in encampments near the city for work to return to their communities, a decision considered by some to be an act of genocide.
European response to Potlatches is another example of the negative effects of colonization. A Potlatch is a very special Coast Salish cultural practice. Potlatches were elaborate events, replete with regalia, feasts, dancing, singing and ceremonies. Territories, names and ranks were established, and marriages, births and funerals were celebrated. Wealth was displayed, possessions were destroyed to demonstrate prestige, land was redistributed, and gifts were given — in fact, the word Potlatch is derived from a word meaning “gift.”
However, European society, particularly missionaries and government officials, disapproved of Potlatches, considering them anti-christian and wasteful. Furthermore, the ceremonies involved the distribution of land — and First Nations land had all been taken. Consequently, Potlatch regalia was confiscated, and Potlatches were banned by the federal government from 1884 to 1951. While some communities hold Potlatches now, they are small events compared to the grand celebrations of the past.
History of Indigenous Peoples in Canada
Thousands of years before Europeans set foot on the North American continent, the Indigenous Peoples were here. As with any study of early human life, archeological evidence provides clues to how people lived and how their way of life evolved.
In the 400 years that followed first contact with Europeans, life changed drastically and tragically for the First Peoples. The devastating effects of colonization and the unequal treatment they faced under Canadian government policies continue to affect the Indigenous People of Canada today. Efforts towards reconciliation are being made but much work needs to be done.
The history of the Indigenous Peoples of Canada can be traced back 14,000 years, with archeological evidence indicating settlements across the country. Some of the earliest evidence of inhabitation is 9,000 to 13,000 years old in areas like Old Crow Flats and Bluefish Caves in the Yukon Territory, Haida Gwaii in British Columbia, along the Eramosa River between Lake Simcoe and Georgian Bay in Southern Ontario, and in Debert in Nova Scotia.
Canada’s First People settled in communities across the land, from the west coast to the east coast, from the far north to deep into what is now the United States. Unique cultures, practices and languages developed in every region of the country. Communities had social structures and justice systems, health practices and spiritual beliefs and education. They created systems for land management, farming and animal care. Communities were planned to meet the needs of the people in line with their beliefs about environmental stewardship.
For the purposes of study, historians grouped the early First Nations into six main geographical groups that shared similar cultures and environments. The Woodland First Nations in the boreal forests in the east, the Iroquoian First Nations in the fertile southernmost areas, the Plains First Nations in the prairie grasslands, the Plateau First Nations in the semi-desert and mountains and forests, Pacific Coast First Nations on the islands and along the shores of the Pacific, and the First Nations of the McKenzie and Yukon River Basins in the north.
Hunting and Gathering Practices
Archeological evidence, especially in the northern territories, indicates that the earliest First People were hunter-gathers. What they ate and used as medicines and supplies was derived entirely from the land and water in the area they lived. Sustaining their communities meant maintaining a harmonious relationship with the nature.
Traditional methods of acquiring food were hunting, fishing, trapping and gathering wild plants. Hunting practices involved spears, bows and arrows, traps and snares. Tools were made from stone, bone, antlers, teeth, wood and woven caribou hide and plant bark. Gathering practices meant learning about the plants — their uses and growing seasons, knowledge that was passed from generations to generation.
These traditional methods of sustaining life are often foundational to Indigenous identities and incorporated into their stories and art. Some traditional hunting and gathering methods are still practised in Indigenous communities today, both as a means of sustaining their communities but also for spiritual and symbolic reasons.
Buffalo hunting in the prairies provinces is especially interesting and creative. Buffalo were hunted on foot using spears. Sometimes the animals were hunted one at a time and other times a large number was killed at the same time. A Buffalo Pound involved luring the buffalo into a fenced-in area where they were killed with spears. The Buffalo Jump involved forcing a herd over a cliff to their deaths. These methods are no longer practised by anyone in Canada. Head-Smashed-In Buffalo Jump is a World Heritage Site in Alberta and home to a museum of Blackfoot culture.
Trading, Social Hierarchy, and Ceremonies
Prior to contact, the Indigenous Peoples had their own system for trading and an extensive network of trading alliances and routes. It is believed that some of these routes were hundreds of kilometres long. And while alliances allowed groups to trade for needed goods, it was also an opportunity to learn about others and even adapt cultural and social practices.
Using the six main geographical groups as general guide, some traditions and practices were similar within groups of Indigenous Peoples.
The many groups within the Woodland First Nations were generally led by a hunter who had proven his skills and courage. Knowledge of animal habitat and migrations was valued and meant following the animals was an important part of the lifestyle. Each group is believed to have been about 400 people.
Iroquoian First Nations (now known as the Haudenosaunee) were renowned for farming, particularly for the Three Sisters: corn, beans and squash. The Three Sisters are grown together and considering physical and spiritual sustainers of life. The Haudenosaunee were also known for their longhouses and for establishing complex, democratic systems of government.
The Plains First Nations were migratory people, and each group had its own chief, as well as policing. In the summer, the groups gathered for ceremonies, dances, feasts and hunts. Some Plains First Nations adopted a social hierarchy of three classes, a hierarchy they learned about when their trading practices put them in contact with the Pacific Coast First Nations.
Pacific Coast First Nations had a three-class social hierarchy and an aristocracy. Lineage was important and most had crests featuring animals or depictions of beings that could be displayed on totems.
Living in a vast homeland where animals are scarce and winters are long, the First Nations of the Mackenzie and Yukon River Basins were primarily focused on day-to-day survival. Each group had leader and a hunting territory with boundaries.
First Contact to the 20th Century
When Europeans began to settle then establish colonies in the 16th century, an estimated 200,000 First Nations and Inuit were living in what is now called Canada. Initially, the relationships between the Europeans and the Indigenous People were based on trade. Later alliances were made for military reasons. Over the next 200 years, the Indigenous population declined mainly due to the loss of their lands and diseases brought by Europeans.
European Settlers Arrival in North America
Europeans first started settling on the eastern shores of Canada in the 1500s. Fisherman from various countries had already made contact and returned home with stories of abundant fish and resources. At the same time, Europe was looking to expand its wealth by acquiring lands in the New World. Soon there were colonies, with the British and the French dominating. The main interest at the time was the fur trade. Trade alliances were established between the French and the First Nations north of the St Lawrence River (the Huron, Algonquin, Odawa and Montagnais) and in Acadia (the Mi’kmaq, Maliseet and Passamaquoddy). The British allied with the Iroquois Confederacy (now known as the Haudenosaunee, which included the Mohawk, Oneida, Onondaga, Cayuga and Seneca First Nations) and First Nations of the Allegheny Mountain range.
The fur trade boomed. The Hudson’s Bay Company, Canada’s oldest corporation, was established in 1670 for the purpose of monopolizing the fur trade, particularly for beaver, which was very popular but nearly extinct in Europe. Forts were built for the purpose of trading beaver pelts for iron wares, firearms and other goods. The trade was so lucrative that conflicts occurred over interests, including between the Haudenosaunee and the Huron, who were driven from their lands around Georgian Bay. The battles ended with the Great Peace, a treaty between the French and 40 First Nations.
Meanwhile, the lands of the Haudenosaunee had been sold to the British in exchange for protection. These “peace and friendship” treaties had also been signed in the Maritimes. By 1755, the British administrator has established the “Indian Department.” In 1760, Montreal fell to the British and by 1763, the Treaty of Paris in 1763 ended 150 years of conflict between France and Britain and also meant Britain acquired Frances’s colonies in the New World. The western regions remained “Indian Territory” — at least for a while.
The American War of Independence effected the relationship between Britain and First Nations. United Empire Loyalists fled to Canada, asking colonial administrators for new lands. First Nations from the Six Nations of the Iroquois Confederacy who fought alongside the British also fled to Canada and asked for compensation in land. At the time, British military leaders and the Indian Department still valued their military alliances and fought together during the War of 1812 with the Americans.
When peace resumed, more settlers and colonists arrived and demanded land, including First Nations land. The First People were beginning to be viewed as an impediment to growth and prosperity — and even as dependents. Furthermore, the British no longer had to reply on First Nations military support because of the growing settler population. Soon, only pockets of First Nations lands remained in Upper Canada aka Ontario. Access to hunting grounds were lost. Most First Nations moved to small plots of land set aside in treaty negotiation or on lands belonging to religious missions.
Two treaties in particular — the Robinson-Huron and Robinson-Superior treaties of the 1850s — influenced future treaties in the West. Lands were ceded to the Crown in exchange for Reserves, annuities, and hunting and fishing rights on unoccupied Crown land.
Meanwhile, for some years, the Hudson’s Bay Company had been competing with a company of French fur traders called the Northwest Company. The Hudson’s Bay Company had an arrangement with Cree First Nation, who collected the furs from First Nations hunters. The Northwest Company cut out the middleman and went directly to the source. The Hudson’s Bay Company responded by cutting the Cree out of trade and pushing farther west into the prairies. Eventually, the two companies merged and the Hudson’s Bay Company stretched all the way to the Pacific Coast. Initially, where First Nations benefited from the fur trade, it also increased contact between First People and Europeans — often with devasting results: increased dependence European goods, especially iron wares, knives and firearms, and easy access to alcohol.
By 1820, British administrators, believing their culture to be superior, set out to “civilize” First Nations, specifically with christianity and agriculture, by encouraging them to abandon their traditional lifestyles and assimilate. The push to assimilate Indigenous People was legislated in the Indian Act, which included increasingly restrictive controls over Indigenous People. For example, residential schools, bans on spiritual ceremonies, and bans on fundraising to purchase land, effectively preventing land claims. While the Indian Act has been amended many times since it was first enacted in 1876 and more changes are being discussed, it still in effect in Canada.
Between 1871 and 1921, land surrenders took place on massive scale in Ontario, Manitoba, Saskatchewan, Alberta, British Columbia and Northwest Territories. Called the Numbered Treaties, there are 11 in all, and they model of the Robinson treaties of the 1850s by removing the First Nations to Reserves with annuities, hunting rights, and schools.
Impact on Language and Culture in Canada
Did you know the name of Canada’s capital city, Ottawa, comes from the Algonquin word “adawe,” which means to trade? Or that Quebec is derived from the Mi’kmaq word “kepék,” which means strait or narrows?
Many place names in Canada have been adapted from words in Indigenous languages. Even the name Canada is believed to have come from “kanata,” the Huron-Iroquois word for village or settlement. Barbecue, chipmunk, and hammock are also derived from Indigenous languages.
The First Nations not only taught explorers and fur traders the word “canoe,” but they also taught them how to build and paddle a canoe. The maple syrup Canada is world famous for is a First Nations invention and so are snowshoes and toboggans.
Every June 21 since 1996, Canada celebrates National Indigenous People’s Day to recognize the culture and contributions of the First Nations, Inuit and Métis people of Canada. The date was chosen because of the significance of the summer solstice as the longest day of the year. Communities across the country hold family events and activities.
September 30 is National Day for Truth and Reconciliation to honour the children who never returned home from residential school, as well as the survivors and their families. On the same day, people wear orange shirts, often with the words “Every Child Matters.” Orange shirts symbolize of the stripping away of culture, freedom and self-esteem experienced by Indigenous children over generations.
While Canada has a very long way to go on the path of truth and reconciliation. Among the devastating effects of colonization and forced assimilation were loss of Indigenous languages, culture, and heritage.
Learning language is a step in the preservation of the distinct cultures of the Indigenous People. Indigenous languages have been categorized into 13 language groups with more than 65 distinct dialects. Of those, only Cree, Inuktitut and Ojibwe have enough fluent speakers to be considered viable. That said, many Indigenous communities are making efforts to reclaim as much of their ancestral language as they can. For example, in British Columbia, North Island College has classes to learn Kwak’wala and Nuu-chah-nulth languages and Vancouver Community College has classes in more than 10 Indigenous languages.
Frequently Asked Questions
What is Canada called by the Indigenous cultures?
The name Canada is believed to have come from “kanata,” the Huron-Iroquois word for village or settlement.
How many Indigenous people are in Canada?
Of the approximately 38 million people in Canada, an estimated 1.8 million identify as Aboriginal (2021 Census) — also referred to the First People of Canada and the Indigenous Peoples of Canada. That’s about 5% of the total population. Ontario has the largest population of Indigenous People (284,470), followed by British Columbia at 290,210 and Alberta at 284,470.
What is Indigenous heritage in Canada?
Canada is home to a wide variety of Indigenous Peoples, including Inuit, Métis and numerous First Nations.
What is the native culture of Canada?
Inuit, Métis and numerous First Nations are the First People of Canada.
About the author: Carolyn Camilleri is a Contributing Writer with Fresh tracks Canada. A magazine writer and editor since 1996, she loves the discovery that comes from travel. Her work has appeared in several Canadian travel publications, including Where Victoria, Harbour... Read more
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