Why the term ‘aboriginal’ has fallen out of favour in Saskatchewan

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Is the word aboriginal out of fashion?
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Many were outraged when a Regina Qu’Appelle Health Regina job posting from 2003 surfaced using the word “Native.”

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It’s a term long abandoned when describing First Nations people. But another term — more recently considered appropriate — is also facing criticism.

The word aboriginal has been widely used to encompass First Nations, Inuit and Métis people since the 1980s. But some indigenous people, like Shawna Oochoo, a Regina resident, do not recognize the word. Oochoo said she does not celebrate National Aboriginal Day because of how she perceives the identifier.

“To me, I put it along the lines of being a somewhat derogatory word,” Oochoo said.

Oochoo pointed to a popular theory that the “ab” in aboriginal is a Latin prefix that means “away from” or “not.” Therefore, aboriginal can mean “not original.”

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But according to Jesse Archibald-Barber, a First Nation University of Canada Indigenous Literacy associate professor, that popular line of thinking is a misperception.

“The ‘ab’ prefix actually means ‘of’ or ‘from’. In that sense, [aboriginal] means ‘from the origin’ or ‘from the beginning’ or ‘from the original’,” Archibald-Barber explained.

“The thing with words in the English language and really in all languages… some words or parts of words have multiple meanings and some of those can be contrary.”

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But Oochoo isn’t the only one who is against “aboriginal.” The Federation of Sovereign Indigenous Nations (FSIN) — recently renamed from Federation of Saskatchewan Indian Nations — also does not recognize the word.

READ MORE: Saskatchewan aboriginal organization changes name

“The term aboriginal has never been one that we’ve supported…that’s not our people,” FSIN Chief Bobby Cameron said.

Archibald-Barber said while aboriginal was used in mainstream vocabulary with good intentions, it may be time to move on.

“It’s not a pejorative word. But there is a current perception that the word has negative connotations. So that does become an issue,” he said.

In many ways, the language has already evolved. Indigenous, an identifier supported by many indigenous communities, is now broadly accepted as a word to describe Canada’s original people.

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“For me, when something’s indigenous, that’s who I am. I come from these lands. This is where I’m from,” Oochoo said.

“There’s no ambiguity when using [indigenous], as opposed to ‘aboriginal’ where there is ambiguity even when it’s not pejorative,” Archibald-Barber explained.

But as time passes, some words can be burdened with negative associations. Archibald-Barber believes indigenous may not be excluded from that.

“Can we see a day where the word indigenous is no longer adequate or maybe we it as having problematic associations?,” he said.

“Quite possibly.”

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