Indigenous health

A short history of Indigenous health 1600-2015


It is difficult to understand current attitudes of Indigenous people and of non-Indigenous people without knowing a little of the history of Indigenous interactions with the Europeans who colonized Canada. Here we outline four aspects of Indigenous and non-Indigenous interactions which have shaped the current health situation of the Indigenous peoples of Canada: land, language, customs and children. The story is told by Indigenous people, either in written form or orally by Indigenous elders. The other voices are those of the government and the press.

Some definitions

How does one refer to the people who were in Canada when the Europeans came in the sixteenth century? While “Indian” is still seen in some older publications and government documents (e.g., The Indian Act), “Indigenous” is the term most often used and accepted in Canada to refer to the three groups: First Nations, Inuit and Métis. “Aboriginal” is also commonly used to refer to the three groups.


Indigenous is the collective noun used for the original inhabitants of Canada. It comprises the three groups: First Nations, Inuit and Métis. It came into common usage in 2015, replacing the word “Aboriginal” as the term most used.


Aboriginal was the collective noun most commonly used for the original inhabitants of Canada before Indigenous came into common usage in 2015. Like Indigenous, it comprises the three groups: First Nations, Inuit and Métis.

First Nations

The term First Nations refers to the peoples formerly called “Indians.” These comprise more than 600 First Nation communities with differing languages and cultures; First Nations people should not be thought of as one homogeneous people.


The Métis are a people of mixed Indigenous and non-Indigenous blood, initially of French and First Nations ethnicities, who settled primarily in the prairies. Only in 2013 were Métis included as one of the Indigenous peoples of Canada under section 35 of the Constitution Act, 1982. Prior to this change, they were largely ignored in the political negotiations between the Canadian government and Indigenous peoples.


Previously referred to as “Eskimo,” the Inuit are the Indigenous people of the Arctic. Their culture is unique and is different from that of First Nations and Metis.

Overview of the history of Indigenous-European relationships

Many have referred to the situation of Canada’s Indigenous peoples as being similar to that of third world poverty, caused by a sometimes deliberate, sometimes thoughtless “cultural genocide.”

When Europeans came to Canada, they encountered complex, rich societies comprising more than 50 individual nations. Canada’s Aboriginal peoples were radically altered by the arrival of Europeans. They fought as allies beside the French and English during the battles of the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries; they were hunted to the point of extermination in Newfoundland, and their numbers were decimated by European diseases. In the nineteenth and twentieth centuries Canada tried to legislate Aboriginal cultures out of existence, as the official assumption remained that assimilation would bring an end to any Indian “problem” … Amerindians and Inuit have responded to persistent colonial pressure in various ways, including attempts at cooperation, episodes of resistance, and politically sophisticated efforts to preserve their territory and culture. (O. Dickason, 2009)

Read the following article before continuing:

Those interested in more thorough exploration of these issues are referred to the many books available on the subject, especially the following:

The land

The early contact between Indigenous people and Europeans involved whaling, fishing and the fur trade. The Indigenous people, as experts in these skills, willingly entered into trade agreements. The small, temporary European settlements did not pose a threat, although the introduction of new diseases did. As European settlers began to colonize North America, tensions increased between them and the Indigenous people, whose attitude to land ownership and economics was quite different. Individual ownership and a capitalist approach to wealth, which characterized the settlers, were not only foreign to the Indigenous people, but were at odds with their spiritual and moral beliefs, which centred on communal stewardship of the land and sharing of resources.

As colonial demand for land increased, a series of agreements, and then numbered treaties, were made between First Nations bands and the British and federal or provincial governments. In these treaties, the government position was to persuade Indigenous people to give up their way of life in return for reserve land, and some goods and services to help them adapt to their changing world. Although many of the Indigenous leaders were skillful negotiators and realized what was happening, the governments had a “take it or leave it” approach, drafting treaty conditions without consultation. Subsequently, in many instances, government promises were not kept and additional aboriginal land was expropriated or allowed to be taken by colonists. The protests of the First Nations people with regard to land claims have persisted to the present and are a major source of distrust and animosity toward non-Indigenous people and the government. Consider the following two examples:

Grand River

In the 1820s, the Grand River Navigation Company wanted to open up the Grand River to navigation. The Six Nations band opposed this because part of their reserve would be flooded and their fishing area destroyed. Nevertheless, the government of Upper Canada (later Ontario) aided the company by providing $160,000 worth of stock bought with band funds without their consent. In addition to the flooded areas, 369 acres of reserve land were given to the company, again without the consent of the band. The Grand River Navigation Company went bankrupt and the Six Nations have been seeking restitution ever since, up to the Supreme Court of Canada. The matter is still outstanding.


At the beginning of World War II, the Government of Ontario expropriated land from the Ipperwash band that it needed for the war effort. It agreed to return the land as soon as hostilities ended. Having repeatedly and unsuccessfully petitioned for the return of the land, the band staged a peaceful demonstration at Ipperwash in 1995. An Ontario provincial police officer shot and killed an unarmed band member, Dudley George. The findings of the provincial inquiry into the shooting were published on May 31, 2007, as reported in The Globe and Mail:

The single biggest source of frustration, distrust and ill feeling among aboriginal people in Ontario is our failure to deal in a just and expeditious way with breaches of treaty and other legal obligations to First Nations … [The government’s claim processes are] largely ineffective, painfully slow and unfair … They also lack accountability and transparency.

(Judge Sidney Linden, quoted in The Globe and Mail, June 1, 2007).


This Ojibway Anishinaabe man talks about the importance of language.

  • My mother was, and I am, an Ojibway Anishinaabe. We didn’t hear our mother speak Ojibway until the day she died at the age of 69. As she was dying she started speaking Ojibway and I thought what a commentary that is. You know, as she lay there on her deathbed, that she only felt that she was allowed to speak her language as she was dying. You know, when you are ridiculed for your language. I don’t even know if she was in residential school because it’s not something she would ever talk about. She may have been. She never did inform us about that.

    But I think the fact that she never spoke her language speaks volumes about the possibility that she was in residential school, where she wasn’t allowed to speak her language, wasn’t allowed to do her ceremonies. You know, the important things that hold any culture together — language, religion, tradition, culture — all wrapped up into one. And to have that denied you, it is no wonder that there are people on the streets, First Nations people. And there is no wonder that there is the anger of the young people today. And there is no wonder there is the dysfunction, not only on the reserves but on the streets of Canada.

    I can recall as a youth, police harassment almost every day where they would pull myself over and my brother and rip our cigarettes apart, looking for marijuana. Like we’d be hiding marijuana in cigarettes. It was just ridiculous. Hence my brother has been in jail probably half his life. He went one way, and I tried to go the other way.

    But it’s not the fault of my mother. It’s the fault of losing our identity, the fact that we lost our culture. We had nothing to be proud of anymore and that’s a sad thing when you can’t be proud of your history. We have a very proud history.


Huge changes have been imposed on native people … Economic activity has come into our area which has changed our way of life, but has rarely given us a substitute in terms of jobs and ownership of that economic activity. Lost, too, in the changes were many traditions and values that kept our culture strong and our communities united. The taking of land, the imposition of another economic system and replacement of our social systems with systems of laws and government from outside meant the decline in local customs, local responsibility and local ways of life. The changes to the economy and the systems that have developed around native people have taught dependency rather than independence … In abdicating responsibility we have fallen into many problems. Alcohol, welfare and Indian Affairs threatened to replace our culture, our independence and our strength as a people … What we want to stress is that self-government means the ability to have local decision-making regarding matters which affect the lives of our people … the ability to develop independence … the ability to reinforce culture, customs and traditions.” (G. Friesen, 1993, p. 73)

Listen to this elder reflecting on the holistic view of the world that First Nations people hold.

  • Because I follow the teachings of the Clan Mothers, the Thirteen Clan Mothers, the first clan mother is Talks with Relations and what we do when we practice the way that Talks with Relations teaches, she tells us to check all our similarities. What’s similar?

    A plant, you break it open, there is food in it, right? I’ve got food in my body. If something happened to those trees, something is going to happen to me because we both need one another. I give up something for that tree so that it lives. It gives me something so that I live. And that’s what it’s all about. And the different herbs and plants … I don’t know them all because I was not given the teachings of all the medicines. I was given some but not all.

    Like I said, we’re all connected. And before we get into whatever colour body our spirits are going to jump into, we are the same energy force. There is nothing different. So, if we can get in touch with that and realize that we are all brothers and sisters …


In the 1800s, the government began removing First Nations children from their homes and families and sending them to residential boarding schools, usually run by religious institutions.

“The Annual Report of the Department of Indian Affairs in 1889 explained the government’s purpose:

‘The boarding school dissociates the Indian child from the deleterious home influences to which he would otherwise be subjected. It reclaims him from the uncivilized state in which he has been brought up. It brings him into contact from day to day with all that tends to effect a change in his views and habits of life. By precept and example he is taught to endeavor to excel in what will be most useful to him.’” (G. Friesen, 1993)

It is said that in Indigenous communities, the wealth is in the children, not in money or possessions. People without children are “poor.” The consequences of the residential school program and the subsequent “Sixties Scoop” have been devastating, and are a major source of anger toward and mistrust of white people, particularly the government.


Current issues

The Idle No More movement

The end of 2012 saw the start of an Indigenous movement that was later called Idle No More. The movement organized protests across the country in reaction to what they considered rights violations to treaty laws, in particular the federal government’s Job and Growth Act, 2012. The subsequent protests focused on an expanded number of grievances. The protests culminated in January 2013 with a meeting between First Nations chiefs and then Prime Minister Stephen Harper, as well as high ranking federal civil servants, at which all parties committed to working together to settle the grievances.

The Truth and Reconciliation Commission

The Truth and Reconciliation Commission of Canada (TRC) was constituted and created by the Indian Residential Schools Settlement Agreement. It travelled the country for six years to hear from the Aboriginal people who, for well over 100 years, had been taken from their families as children and placed in residential schools.

The TRC released its findings in June 2015 with 94 calls to action. These actions are the first steps towards redressing the legacy of the Indian Residential Schools and advancing the process of reconciliation.



Next: Part 1