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More than simple semantics

Shift in terminology an important step on the road toward true reconciliation

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Jennifer Adese, a Métis professor in the University of Toronto’s department of sociology, has undertaken to answer a pair of deceptively simple questions: Why did “Aboriginal” become the catch-all term for members of hundreds of First Nations, Inuit, and Métis communities? And why did the term “Indigenous” supplant it?

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Jennifer Adese, a Métis professor in the University of Toronto’s department of sociology, has undertaken to answer a pair of deceptively simple questions: Why did “Aboriginal” become the catch-all term for members of hundreds of First Nations, Inuit, and Métis communities? And why did the term “Indigenous” supplant it?

Answering these questions is more complicated than it seems, as the book’s lengthy list of references and endnotes will demonstrate. But it is surely something that has crossed the mind of many Canadians, and not only university professors.

At the very end of 2015, the Truth and Reconciliation Commission of Canada (TRC), a body formed out of a class-action lawsuit representing the survivors of the genocidal Indian Residential School system, kicked off an era of widespread media, political and individual conversations about Canada’s history of racism, genocide and colonialism. The TRC did so by releasing a detailed report about residential school atrocities alongside 94 Calls to Action by which governmental and non-governmental organizations could do better in their relations with Indigenous peoples.

Amy Smart / The Canadian Press files

In this 2020 photo, Wet’suwet’en hereditary chiefs speak to the media in Smithers, B.C., about the proposed natural gas pipeline that would have run through their traditional territory.

The Calls include everything from educating Canadians about this history honestly, to sharing or compensating for land and resources seized by the government, to identifying and sharing the burial locations of children who died in residential schools with their families. Progress on many of the Calls has been slow, to say the least.

But simply ignoring Indigenous issues has become almost impossible for politicians. Land acknowledgments, up-to-date terminology and some reference to reconciliation has become a necessity for all but the most fringe political figures.

Words aren’t actions, but words can be important. The role Indigenous peoples themselves have played in moving on from the term Aboriginal, which was largely created and popularized by the Canadian government, is reason enough to prefer Indigenous as a term, even if the dictionary meanings are similar and even if the newer term is not without its issues.

Adese discusses how the term Aboriginal was used during the 2010 Vancouver Olympics to promote a sanitized history and present-day view of Canada on the world stage, treating Indigenous peoples not as the recipients of state violence but as happy members of a multicultural Canadian collective. The shift to newer language can’t eliminate this issue; government initiatives and political platforms (and sometimes corporations) often hijack language from Indigenous peoples and repurpose it for what is essentially a public-relations exercise.

For example, the language of reconciliation is used by Prime Minister Justin Trudeau in campaign speeches and Speeches from the Throne — a marked departure from his predecessor — but he has largely aimed to define the parameters of what Canada should and will do in its relations with Indigenous peoples. When parts of the Wet’suwet’en leadership — a nation that has never ceded their territories, and among which many consider the Canadian government as trespassers — refused to allow a contentious natural gas pipeline to be built on their land, it was Trudeau who stated that this “does nothing to advance the cause of reconciliation.”

Adrian Wyld / The Canadian Press files

In this December 2015 photo, Prime Minister Justin Trudeau (right) greets Justice Murray Sinclair in Ottawa at the release of the Final Report of the Truth and Reconciliation Commission of Canada.

Yet it matters that Indigenous peoples exercise their agency in the terms and names used, and how they are used. Indigenous peoples and their allies can cite the Calls to Action and ask how the Canadian government making demands of Indigenous nations on Indigenous territory is expected to mark a new kind of reconciliatory relationship compared to what preceded it. If the government is not given exclusive power to set the words used, it is less able to control the story and might be better held to account.

Aboriginal™ is an academic work, carefully but densely written and aimed at a scholarly audience. It’s not a casual read, but its ideas may well spill beyond university classrooms and into the public discourse, and this would be a good thing.

Joel Boyce is a Winnipeg writer and educator.

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