Aboriginal peoples played a vital role in the settlement and development of Canada—many early European settlers were helped tremendously by the native peoples they encountered. These communities continue to be a vital part of Canada's population and many of the traditions of aboriginal peoples are observed and celebrated today as visitors and residents alike look to understand their unique heritage.
Canada's constitution recognizes three distinct aboriginal peoples: the Indians, Métis and Inuit. Beginning in the 1970s the term "First Nation" was often used in lieu of "Indian," which some people found offensive; either term refers to aboriginal peoples who are not Métis or Inuit. The Métis emerged out of relationships between European settlers and Indians and they live primarily in Western Canada; the Inuit live predominately near the arctic and can be found in greatest numbers today in Labrador, northern Quebec, Nunavut, and the Northwest Territories.
The Métis National Council estimates that the Métis population is anywhere between 350,000 and 400,000; based on those figures, the Métis constitute more than one-quarter of Canada's total aboriginal population.
The Inuit Tapiriit Kanatami, which acts as a voice for Canada's Inuit, estimates that 45,000 Inuit live in the country today. Based on the areas in which the Inuit live, they constitute a majority on 40 percent of Canada's total land mass. In 1999, Nunavut (meaning "our land") became its own territory, at which time Inuit were granted a financial settlement, equal representation with government officials on a number of boards including wildlife and resource management and surface rights to a large parcel of land. The population of Nunavut, which was formerly part of the Northwest Territories, is 80% Inuit and the establishment of Nunavut is widely considered to be a victory for the Inuit.
In terms of modern government, one of the defining moments in Canada's history took place in Charlottetown, Prince Edward Island, during the Charlottetown Conference in September 1864. Nova Scotia, New Brunswick, and Prince Edward Island representatives had discussed the idea of unification as Maritime entities, but it was soon decided that a broader union would be a better idea. In October of the same year, the Quebec Conference was held, at which representatives from around what is now Canada met and developed the 72 Resolutions, a basis for the new Canada. Beginning in December 1866, delegates met with members of British Parliament at the London Conference, at which the name "Canada" was chosen and a variety of details about the new country were determined. The British North America Act was enacted March 29, 1867, permitting a union of Canada on July 1.
Of all of Canada's provinces, Quebec is the anomaly. Long a French settlement, the area was turned over to British control under the 1763 Treaty of Paris. As an influx of European immigrants made their way to the area, English-speakers generally moved to "Upper Canada" (now Ontario), while "Lower Canada" (now Quebec) remained primarily French-speaking. Although demographics have changed and Quebec is now a multi-cultural province, a subset of the population has worked for a sovereign Quebec, in part because of its large French-speaking population.