Exploring Indigenous Tradition in Canada
Discover the deep cultural history of Canada’s earliest residents.
Author: Tariq Engineer
Canada’s spectacular scenery, adventure opportunities and warm hospitality are reason enough to visit. But a journey that includes and interacts with the indigenous peoples of Canada will provide you with a deeper and more memorable experience. Let yourself be shown how a Canadian trip can be enriched by exploring indigenous cultures.
The indigenous peoples of Canada
There are three broad categories of indigenous peoples of Canada: the First Nations, Inuit, and Métis. Each group has its own language, culture and history. The First Nations peoples were the indigenous people of Canada with areas south of the Arctic Circle. Today Canada recognizes over 600 First Nations governments spread across the country. The Inuit, whose homeland is known as Inuit Nunangat, mainly occupy the northern regions of the Arctic Circle and live in mostly small, isolated communities of fewer than 1,000 people. The Métis have mixed European and Indigenous ancestry and live mostly in Ontario and the Prairie Provinces.
According to the 2016 census, Canada has 1.67 million indigenous peoples who make up approximately 5% of the population. They are also the fastest growing demographic in the country, growing 42.5% from 2006 to 2016.
Like indigenous groups around the world, these indigenous peoples suffered from the European settlers. Their land has been conquered and their culture and heritage neglected when efforts have been made to integrate them. In 2008 Canada formed a Truth and Reconciliation Commission to “shift the national narrative away from a culture of domination and oppression and towards a culture of respect, reciprocity and understanding.”
Promotion of indigenous art and culture
Today the Canadian government is actively committed to promoting and preserving indigenous art and culture. Quebec’s Indigenous Art Center is home to more than 4,300 indigenous works of art created by both established and emerging indigenous artists. Pieces from the collection are shown in changing exhibitions.
Within the Métis community, artisans still practice traditional art forms such as beading, embroidery, carpet hooking, and sash making. The Canadian Museum for Human Rights in Winnipeg has an impressive permanent exhibition “Truth and Reconciliation” with works by Jennine Krauchi, a pearl artist and designer from Métis. Colorful ribbons of fabric known as “L’Assomption” sashes are a symbol of this group. Initially designed as a back support for canoeists, they became popular for their versatility. The brightly colored sash can be used to tie items to your body, identify other tribe members, claim a slain buffalo as your own, or even as an emergency sewing kit as the fringe ends can be used as thread.
Nature also plays a central role in indigenous culture. The First Nations peoples have a special bond with the earth based on respect for the gift of nature. They only take what they need for themselves, their families and their communities, with the understanding that what nature offers must be preserved for future generations.
Orcas off the west coastLake MoraineHerds of bisonSkiing on Sun Peak
Ways to Experience Indigenous Culture
There are countless opportunities to explore the various indigenous cultures of Canada, both within cities and in nature. Watch this short video to learn in your own words why indigenous people in Canada want to tell their story:
In Vancouver, take a tour of Stanley Park with locals Squamish Nation and Shíshálh, revealing their traditional uses for the plants in the park. You can also try the food at the Mr Bannock Food Truck (Bannock is a traditional fried bread served with honey butter), where Squamish chef Paul Natrall serves what he calls “Fusion Indigenous Cuisine.”
Spend the night in a teepee at Alberta’s Blackfoot Crossing Historical Park, where you can explore the Siksika / Blackfoot First Nations Museum, learn the medicinal uses of certain plants, and make your own hand drum.
Explore the indigenous culture and art of Tofino, a coastal village on the west shore of Vancouver Island, or listen to stories and watch the Northern Lights glimmer across the sky with the Dene Nation in Great Slave Lake in the Northwest Territories.
Aerial view of Tofino Clayoquot Wildness TentTemperate rainforestTofino boating
A great way to immerse yourself in indigenous culture is to attend a pow wow, a celebratory gathering that includes dance, music, and food. Powwows happen across Canada during the summer, so there are many options.
Finding indigenous experiences in Canada will take you beyond a typical vacation to gain a deeper understanding of how this spectacular land came to be what it is today. We would love to help you create an unforgettable experience in this varied and spectacularly beautiful country.