Aboriginal Studies Changing to Centre for Indigenous Studies

By Taylor MacLean


The Centre for Aboriginal Initiatives, which houses the Aboriginal Studies Program officially changed its name as of July 1, 2016 to the Centre for Indigenous Studies.

Back when the program began in 1994, the general consensus was to use “Aboriginal” as a way of referring to all Indigenous nations across Canada. But as political climates shift and relationships change, new priorities and understandings emerge.

Refining our language is a way of polishing relationships, establishing greater connections, and breaking down structures of oppression. Directing our attention towards language and terminology gives us greater insight into the ways complex political entities relate to one another and the power dynamics that govern those relationships.

Looking back, we can see the Canadian state’s paternalistic relationship with Indigenous nations  reflected in the ever-shifting terminology and legal definitions that attempt to capture indigeneity.

The term “Indian” dates back to the 15th century: Upon arrival in North America, Christopher Columbus assumed he had reached eastern Asia. He mistakenly named the Indigenous people he encountered, “Indians.” The term was picked up by British colonial officials and used throughout the 19th and 20th centuries to legislate identity for the purpose of limiting the rights of Indigenous nations. While “Indian” is considered by many to be outdated and disrespectful, the term is still used in a legal context to categorize the rights afforded Indigenous peoples.

“Aboriginal”  comes from the 1982 Constitution Act, where Aboriginal rights were finally made a part of the Canadian Constitution. While carrying less historical baggage, “Aboriginal” is still a term coined by the Canadian Government instead of by Indigenous nations themselves.

In contrast, the term “Indigenous,” first used in the 1970s, represents a shift from externally-imposed terminology. The self-descriptor was developed by a group of transnational Indigenous communities who came together to fight for greater representation in the United Nations. “Indigenous” is generally used to refer to people who have longstanding ties to a particular place, a deep connection to their ancestral lands, and a history of territorial intrusion or displacement.

Over the past ten years, there has been a general shift in Canada towards using “Indigenous.” Most recently, the new federal government renamed Aboriginal Affairs and Northern Development to Indigenous and Northern Affairs. Hopefully, the attempt to correct errors in naming and pay greater attention to how language reinforces colonial hierarchies represents a larger movement towards restoring a nation-to-nation relationship between Indigenous communities and the Canadian government.

Of course, naming can be contentious and Indigenous nations across Canada have their own individual preferences for how they and others speak about their communities; it is important not to assume homogeneity among Indigenous nations.

The faculty and staff at the Centre for Aboriginal Initiatives agree that the term Indigenous is the most appropriate for our unit. It connects us to Indigenous communities across Canada and around the globe, while allowing us to ground our curriculum in the language and culture of local Indigenous communities. We do, however, respect any and all naming choices that come from Indigenous nations across Canada.

The right to name oneself, to determine how one will be referred to, is important. Therefore, ensuring that name changing comes from Indigenous communities themselves is essential: It is an act of self-determination and the rejection of externally imposed terms.