Since I can remember, people have asked me "what are you?" When I tell them, inevitably I get "you don't look like one." Most think I am Portuguese or Spanish. Today's Aboriginal people don't look like the Indians romanticized in movies or popularized on television. Not all of us have dark skin and straight black hair or fit neatly into stereotypes such as the noble environmentalist, loyal sidekick or wise-cracking elder.
One time I walked out of room because I thought I was in the wrong place. I had come to meet with a group of American Indians to work with them on obtaining recognition as a Tribe. Their population had been decimated by disease but they survived by absorbing other peoples through marriage and maintaining their culture on their traditional lands. I was expecting them to look like their neighbours the Mohawk. I was not prepared for any of them to resemble African Americans. I learned an important lesson that day.
The Inuit, Metis and First Nations are Canada's Aboriginal peoples, each ethnically separate and distinct. According to Statistics Canada, more than 1.4 million people reported Aboriginal ancestry in 2011.
Actual numbers are probably much higher due to the failure the of census process to effectively reach Aboriginal people in both cities and on reserves.
First Nations are the largest group with over 850,000 registered as Indians under the Indian Act. Most Indians refer to themselves as First Nations or by their larger Nation grouping such as Coast Salish. There are over 50 distinct Nations with their own culture, language and histories who look very different from one another, and characterized by different physical attributes. For example, variation among Sioux, Iroquois and Nuu-chah-nulth is similar to differences among people who claim French or German ancestry. First Nations are moving away from the government race-based approach to defining them to create their own membership codes based on ethnicity, common ancestry and community connections.
Metis are the second largest group with a population just over 450,000. The notion of who is Metis has evolved since the time of Louis Riel when it meant offspring of mostly French settlers and Cree of the Red River Settlement. By the 1960s, the term signified any person of mixed First Nation heritage who identify as neither Indian nor non-Aboriginal. Not surprisingly a Metis could look just like a treaty Indian, like my grandfather, or more like their non- Metis parent and have blonde hair and hazel eyes like a few of my cousins.
Inuit are ethnically distinct from First Nations. Of the estimated 50,000+ Inuit over 70 per cent of them live in the Inuit Nunangut, the land, water and ice of northern Canada. There is no one identical look for an Inuk as the history of those living in the McKenzie Delta is not the same as those in northern Quebec or Labrador.
Racial purity and bloodlines are not pre-requisites to claiming Aboriginal ancestry. You either have Aboriginal ancestors or you don't. Like any cultural or ethnic group, it's a personal decision how you maintain your linkages to your community.
Sadly, many families either chose to hide their heritage or were prohibited from affiliating with their Nation as a result of disenfranchisement, historic racism and assimilation policies. Fortunately, many Aboriginal organizations are now proactive in welcoming people with Aboriginal ancestry back into the community.
After more than 500 years of contact, the face of Canada's First Peoples has quite literally changed. Inter-marriage with other ethnicities, races and cultures has resulted in a rich mosaic of Aboriginal people. The next time you are discussing Aboriginal issues with a group of people, one of them just might be Aboriginal without the stereotypical trappings of Natives or, they just might be a dark-skinned, dark-haired, decent human being willing to share their experiences with you. Either way, we all benefit from an exchange of opinions.
Tracy Samra is a lawyer, consultant and former bureaucrat with more than 20 years experience working with Aboriginal groups in Canada. She is Cree and recently relocated with Nanaimo to live the Island life. She will write a regular column for the Daily News and can be reached via email at: NDDColumn@gmail.com
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