Stronger relationships with Indigenous stakeholders starts with better understanding, communication

By Calvin Crispo | August 9, 2018

Indigenous cultures and communities are some of our most important stakeholders in mining and infrastructure projects across the globe. They contribute to the development of socially responsible, sustainable solutions that meet our goals and values for future-oriented thinking, planning, and delivery.

We mustn’t underestimate the importance of good communication in nurturing strong professional relationships, particularly with multicultural populations. For Indigenous peoples on internal teams as well as external partnerships, this starts with a better understanding of cultural terminology.

Incorrect use of cultural terminology today is almost always a result of a knowledge gap as opposed to indifference. But these potential misunderstandings can be easily avoided with better cultural education and improved communication efforts.

The first step toward improving communication is understanding why and how we use different terms for different groups of people.


In Canada, the term “Aboriginal” or “Indigenous” refers to three very distinct groups. These groups are First Nations, Métis, and Inuit. In the 2016 Canadian Census, 1,673,785 people self-identified as Indigenous, comprising 4.9 percent of the national population. Of that number, 977,230 identified as First Nations, 587,545 as Métis, and 65,025 as Inuit. Within each of these populations there are several sub-classifications that exist with unique cultures and traditions (i.e., Ojibway, Cree, Mohawk, Anishinaabe, etc.).

First Nations are amongst the original Indigenous peoples of Canada and comprise over 634 unique populations with over 50 distinct languages. The Métis peoples of Canada originated with the amalgamation of First Nations peoples with European settlers. The Inuit peoples were the last Indigenous population to establish themselves in Canada.

While there is a shift towards using “Indigenous” as the collective term within many governmental departments, there is still disagreement on the distinction between “Aboriginal” and “Indigenous.” Others argue that using the catch-all term “Indigenous” to refer to all three groups is problematic.


In Australia, Indigenous groups make up 2.8 percent of the nation’s total population. The two largest groups are Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander. In the 2016 Australian Census, about 91 percent of the Australian Indigenous population identified as Aboriginal, while 5 percent identified as Torres Strait Islander. The remaining 4 percent identified as both Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander.

Within the Aboriginal group there are numerous regional groups and subgroups. It is estimated that between 120 and 145 different languages are spoken by different Indigenous groups in Australia, and each group has unique cultures and customs.

Australian Indigenous groups are still working on achieving constitutional recognition, and although the collective term “Indigenous” is gaining popularity, there is still debate around the appropriate use of the term “Aboriginal.”

South Africa

In South Africa, Indigenous groups are estimated to comprise around 1 percent of the roughly 50 million population, or around 500,000 people. These groups are collectively known as Khoe-San (or Khoisan), which comprise two distinct groups: San and Khoekhoe.

San groups include ‡Khomani San, Khwe and !Xun. Khoekhoe groups include Nama, Koranna, Griqua, and Cape Khoekhoe. Each group has its own cultural distinctions and resides in a wide range of different geographic areas.

Current socio-political changes in South Africa have enabled a shift away from racially-determined apartheid social categories to these self-determined categories. The country is working toward formal recognition of these categories with the government.

Changing terminology

The contentious and fluid nature of much of the terminology used to refer to Indigenous groups around the world requires a flexible, attentive, and respectful approach to communication.

Here are some good rules to follow for improving communication with multicultural groups:

  1. Don’t assume you already know the correct terminology. Even if you understand specific terms, be aware that they do change and evolve over time.
  2. Don’t attempt to use terminology unless you understand the meaning and origin of the term and the group it refers to.
  3. If in doubt, ask how an individual or group would prefer you refer to them and their ancestry.
  4. If specific ancestry is not identified, the term "Indigenous" is generally a respectful way to address people who identify with these groups.

By spending a little extra time in determining and using correct terminology in the first place, one can preclude tensions that could erode a relationship over time. One can also establish a higher level of trust and respect upfront, which often leads to more productive working relationships and more desirable outcomes for all involved.