Words First: An Evolving Terminology Relating to Aboriginal Peoples in Canada


La version française de cet article, qui s’intitule Terminologie autochtone : une terminologie en évolution qui se rapporte aux peuples autochtones au Canada, figure dans l’outil Chroniques de langue.

Sheila M. Ross
(Terminology Update, Volume 36, Number 3, 2003, page 6)

In May of this year, the terminology guide Words First: An Evolving Terminology Relating to Aboriginal Peoples in Canada was presented to an enthusiastic audience of national and regional terminologists and language professionals at the 3rd annual symposium of the Federal Terminology Council hosted by the Translation Bureau.

Terminology relating to Aboriginal peoples is highly specialized, and many terms are significantly tied to legal interpretations. Words First provides guidance on the appropriate use of this terminology, and fosters standardization by providing a clear explanation to ensure that the right words are chosen and used consistently in publications.

With so many diverse Aboriginal peoples, communities and organizations throughout Canada, Words First helps clarify terms that are culturally and politically appropriate and respect the people they refer to. It also addresses regional and geographic differences.

Getting the words right is critical in many cases for Aboriginal-related vocabulary and can reduce or eliminate potential legal risk. Terms such as Status Indian and Non-Status Indian define the legal status of people, and affect their rights and entitlements. In some documents it is necessary to use these terms, now considered to be offensive in common usage. It is easy to see how using the wrong word might affect interpretations of political status, land ownership, financial entitlements and more. The synonym, First Nation person or First Nation member, is respectful and culturally sensitive. It has no legal authority, but is now used wherever the legal term is not required. It is, therefore, very important to ensure that the plain-language products being published, particularly by the Government of Canada, also respect the legal definitions.

Words First is not a legal document. It carries a disclaimer that clearly says that the provisions of the Indian Act, its regulations, other federal statutes and their interpretation by the courts take precedence over the Words First terminology guide and other plain-language documents containing definitions.

Words First answers frequently asked terminology questions on a complex subject. Computers and other technologies have dramatically changed the way we work, and increased the speed at which information is shared globally. Words First provides an essential resource for the many new "writers" created in the new media explosion.

The document was first created for writers, editors and translators in the Communications Branch of Indian and Northern Affairs Canada (INAC), and to assist both the communications contractors working with them and their INAC clients across Canada. In 1997, we began to develop information to enhance the 1994 "Recommendation No. 2," produced and distributed by the Terminology and Language Standardization Board. Words First now replaces this recommendation.

Words First answers specific questions on language usage. It provides sample sentences to clarify meaning and demonstrate context, helping the user to understand and select the correct word. It also contains sample sentences correcting common errors and gives accepted and, in some cases, alternative spellings.

Words First does not include First Nations names, e.g. Mi’kmaq or Micmac. It does not address the spelling of the more than 700 First Nation community and organization names. Further, a recent ruling from the Department of Justice (DOJ) instructed that these are legal names and are not to be translated. These names and their spellings should be confirmed by the community or organization you are writing about.

Before this terminology guide could be considered for broader distribution, a consultation process was undertaken in partnership with the Translation Bureau’s Terminology and Standardization Directorate. In 1999, we consulted with all major stakeholders including the five principal national Aboriginal organizations (Assembly of First Nations, Inuit Tapiriit Kanatami, The Métis National Council, The Congress of Aboriginal Peoples, and the Native Women’s Association of Canada). We consulted with the Treasury Board, Finance Canada and other central agencies, and with all Government of Canada departments responsible for Aboriginal files. Within INAC we consulted the two committees representing Aboriginal employees: the Committee for the Advancement of Native Employment (CANE) and the Inuit Committee of Employees (ICE).

The approvals process included INAC communications, program and sector officials, DOJINAC Legal Services—for both the English and French versions—and INAC’s Deputy Minister.

Who should use Words First? Everyone who writes! This is a primary tool for writers, editors, proofreaders, translators, all INAC staff, employees and communicators in the Government of Canada, federal agencies and Crown corporations, as well as members of the media, educators, politicians, private and public sector organizations and publishers. In fact, it should be used by everyone who writes on this subject, and publishes in print and electronically. In short, it is a resource for everyone involved in writing.

What about other style guides? Words First supplements and overrides The Canadian Style on Aboriginal-related usage, and all media stylebooks such as the Canadian Press and Globe and Mail style guides. Those writing for the media should continue to use the appropriate media style guide but should use Words First conventions such as capitalizing Aboriginal. When in doubt, consult with the manager of INAC’s Language and Editorial Division at (819) 997-0332.

This reference document is easy to use and is available on the Internet at www.ainc-inac.gc.ca/pr/pub/wf/index-e.html [link no longer available]. Users can search by term and also download it and print it as needed.

We are now working to put this terminology in TERMIUM® Plus. There will be one more round of consultations and approvals. Stakeholder input will again be reviewed and included where appropriate. Together with the Terminology and Standardization Directorate, we will convene stakeholder meetings for final review in 2004.

New words and new interpretations will continue to emerge. A process is being set up to identify, research, validate and incorporate new terms. The required consultations and approvals will take place before these terms are added to TERMIUM® Plus.

Some examples of the entries found in Words First

American Indian
"American Indian" is a commonly used term in the United States to describe the descendants of the original peoples of North America (see also Native Americans). Some people are dissatisfied with this term, because it: (a) retains the misnomer "Indian" in its name, and (b) covers peoples who consider themselves distinct from Indian peoples, namely the Inuit, Yupik and Aleut peoples in Alaska. The term is not popular in Canada.

"Eskimo" is the term once given to Inuit by European explorers and is now rarely used in Canada. It is derived from an Algonquin term meaning "raw meat eaters," and many people find the term offensive. The term is still frequently used in the United States in reference to Inuit in Alaska.

Inuit are the Aboriginal people of Arctic Canada. Inuit live primarily in Nunavut, the Northwest Territories and northern parts of Labrador and Quebec. They have traditionally lived above the treeline in the area bordered by the Mackenzie Delta in the west, the Labrador coast in the east, the southern point of Hudson Bay in the south, and the High Arctic islands in the north.

Inuit are not covered by the Indian Act. However, in 1939 the Supreme Court interpreted the federal government’s power to make laws affecting "Indians, and lands reserved for the Indians" as extending to Inuit.

The word "Inuit" means "the people" in Inuktitut, the Inuit language, and is the term by which Inuit refer to themselves. Avoid using the term "Inuit people" as the use of "people" is redundant. The term "Eskimo," applied to Inuit by European explorers, is no longer used in Canada.

Suggested usage:

Use as a noun and a modifier. The term is acceptable as both. According to the national organization Inuit Tapiriit Kanatami, the preferred use of "Inuit" as a noun is simply "Inuit," not "the Inuit" nor "Inuit people."

X As hunters, the Inuit led a seasonal existence, living according to nature’s schedule.

X Contact between Inuit people and Europeans increased with the arrival of whaling ships in the 19th century.

checkmark As hunters, Inuit led a seasonal existence, living according to nature’s schedule.

checkmark Contact between Inuit and Europeans increased with the arrival of whaling ships in the 19th century.

checkmark With the birth of Nunavut in 1999, Inuit embarked on an exciting new era in their history.
Capitalize. The Department capitalizes "Inuit" as it would other designations like "Francophone," "Arabic" or "Nordic."
"Inuk" is the singular form of Inuit. Use "Inuk" when referring to one Inuit person.

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