Canadian law has long recognized the rights of aboriginal peoples, sometimes called First Nations, as the first occupiers of the land. With the founding of Canada in 1867 constitutional powers were divided between the federal government and the governments of the provinces. The federal Parliament was given exclusive authority to legislate in relation to “Indians” and their lands. The definition of Indians is now recognized to include the Inuit who occupy primarily northern parts of the country and Métis who are generally of mixed aboriginal and non-aboriginal ancestry. The Indian Act has for many decades been the principal legislation defining the relationship between the federal government and aboriginal people.

Some aboriginal groups are parties to treaties that give them defined rights. Early treaties were entered into with aboriginal people in the eastern parts of the country and may not include surrender of rights to the land. Later treaties were signed as European settlement spread across the western prairies. Common features of these treaties include extinguishment of land rights and the creation of reserves. Vast portions of Canada where aboriginal people have claims to historic aboriginal rights are not covered by treaties.

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