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Canada First Nations Families

To discuss First Nations families in Canada is to simultaneously learn about a core concept of indigenous social organization and to come to terms with the legacy of several centuries of colonialism.

The common sense notion of family—a social unit comprised of husband and wife/parent(s) and child—is full of cultural connotations that render it ineffective as a way of understanding First Nations societies. However, this does not mean that families do not exist nor that families have no meaning for First Nations peoples: families, groups of people related by marriage, birth, and history, are in fact at the core of First Nations societies. It is important to pay attention to the local, historical, and cultural manifestation and structure of what a particular culture or society call a family. In First Nations societies families are best understood in the context of social networks of related people, called kinship in anthropological studies, in which an individual's identity, rights, and responsibilities are defined and given meaning. Historically, these networks were also the basis of First Nations economies. Membership in family groups determined ownership of territories, access to knowledge, and defined local systems of production and consumption.

When colonizers arrived in North America they realized this essential truth, and the ensuing generations of colonial policy have been targeted at undermining the strength and vitality of indigenous families through polices ranging from direct genocide, to forced assimilation in residential schools, to child apprehension policies of the 1960s and 1970s in which indigenous children were taken from their home communities and raised in nonaboriginal foster homes, "for their own good." Although the specific histories of colonialism vary across Canada, the underlying process has been one in which outsiders have invaded, disrupted, stolen, and denigrated indigenous experiences, ways of life, and societies.

Since the late 1880s the Canadian government regulated indigenous people under an act of Parliament referred to as the Indian Act. Among other things, this act was designed to enforce a Eurocentric concept of family on First Nations people. This was most evident in the provisions of the Indian Act that defined an individual's legal status as Indian. Until 1985, when this clause was repealed by Bill C-31, a status Indian women would lose her status upon marrying a nonstatus man. However, if a status Indian man married a nonstatus woman, he would not lose his status and his nonstatus wife actually gained status. Losing status under the Indian act resulted in many women being expelled from their home communities and losing access to important social and educational programs. These women were also prohibited from owning land in their home communities. Their forced expulsion contributed to undermining the social fabric of indigenous communities. The impact was particularly severe in matrilineal communities in which family membership was defined by one's mother.

Family ties continue to be important in maintaining the well-being of indigenous communities. Thus, when families are broken down the implications can be far more severe than might otherwise be expected in surrounding nonindigenous communities. Although there may be utilitarian value in repeating the cold numbers and describing the harsh trend lines of domestic abuse, child neglect, or lone-parent families in indigenous societies, dwelling on the symptoms of a cancer will not lead to a cure. There is, in fact, much to celebrate about First Nations families that should not be overshadowed by the troubles and difficulties that too often feed the prurient interests of tabloid and broadsheet journalism.

As discussed above, family or kinship ties set the limits of an individual's rights and responsibilities within the indigenous community. These ties also provide access to important food gathering areas, create opportunities to share responsibility for raising and caring for children, and play a critical role in contemporary politics. In First Nations communities more emphasis is placed on large multigenerational families than on nuclear families. How this is manifest in each First Nations community varies greatly. Some First Nations, such as the Tsimshian emphasize the matrilineal line. Others, such as the Mi'kmaqs, reckon descent bilaterally. Still others highlight the importance of the patrilineal line. In every case family networks of sharing and reciprocity continue as a crucial aspect of First Nations society. The following examples highlight some of the complexity of First Nations family organization.

Amongst the Tsimshian of the Pacific Northwest, for example, membership in a matrilineal extended family grouping, called a walp, confers specific rights of access to rich food gathering areas. The walp is critical in the maintenance of Tsimshian social structure and ownership even in the face of colonial incursions. Ceremonial feasts, known as potlatches to nonaboriginal peoples, are held to officially recognize the transfer of leadership and social rights to territory and hereditary names. Current efforts to reaffirm Tsimshian authority over their territories are being propelled by the walps as they reassert their control over tribal politics and local economics.

Mi'kmaqs family structure has adapted to their contemporary role in seasonal and off-reserve wage labor. Historically, Mi'kmaqs's family size alternated between small groups of closely related kin and larger, extended household groups during the spring and summer months in accordance with cycles of hunting, gathering, and fishing. Membership in these family groups was more fluid than amongst the Tsimshian, for example, in that it is determined bilaterally; that is, an individual had membership in both their father and mother's family group. In the contemporary world this flexibility is relied upon to provide care and support for children. Adults engaged in off-reserve labor can leave their children with relatives on reserve. The experience of growing up on reserve in an extended family headed by their grandmother or aunt provides Mi'kmaqs children with an important opportunity to develop a sense of their identity. This is an important point of difference between most Euro-Canadian families who tend to value the direct role of parents, over grandparents, as primary caregivers.

Throughout the Canadian Arctic and sub-Arctic regions few First Nations or Inuit peoples have adopted a Euro-Canadian nuclear family pattern. Instead, the most important social units remain extended family groups or alliances of associated family groups. These groups are the essential social units of production, consumption, cooperation, and reciprocity. Amongst the Innu of eastern Quebec, for example, social life is organized around flexible household units based on bilateral principles of kinship. Even with the growing importance of a wage economy, coupled with social assistance programs, critical networks of sharing and reciprocity continue to play an important role in social life. Families returning from extended hunting or fishing trips share food with members of their extended families and with community members in need.

The different types of First Nations families are linked in their common history as the social and economic backbone of indigenous society. From the complex social organization of the Tsimshian on the Pacific to small, mobile communities of Cree or Innu peoples everyday needs were produced and consumed by groups of people connected by kinship. A person who had no relations was not a person in First Nations society. First Nations families also share a common colonial experience in which outsiders attempted to eradicate local family forms and recast indigenous society in the image of Euro-Canadian desires. Although the impact has been devastating, First Nations people have found power in their relations and are today looking to the past to find solutions with which to overcome the legacy of colonialism. Many of the social problems can only be solved by a reaffirmation and reestablishment of the power of First Nations families and kinship networks. Although there is no one single solution, there is a common theme: all my relations.


DeMallie, R. J. (1998). "Kinship: The Foundation for Native American Society." In Studying Native America: Problems and Prospects, ed. R. Thornton. Madison: The University of Wisconsin Press.

Fiske, J.-A., and Johnny, R. (1996). "The Nedut'en Family: Yesterday and Today." In Voices: Essays on Canadian Families, ed. M. Lynn. Scarborough, Canada: Nelson Canada.

Fourniers, S., and Crey, E. (1997). Stolen from Our Embrace: The Abduction of First Nations Children and the Restoration of Aboriginal Communities. Vancouver: Douglas and McIntyre.

Frideres, J., and Gadacz, R. (2001). Aboriginal Peoples in Canada: Contemporary Conflicts. Toronto: Prentice-Hall.


Additional topics

Marriage and Family EncyclopediaMarriage: Cultural Aspects