A while ago, I heard from a reader in Victoria who wondered why The Globe and Mail did not capitalize the term “first nation.” It was an excellent question and one deserving of a serious look. The Globe’s Style Guide said very simply that when the term first nation is used “it is lower case unless we are giving the band’s formal name: the Kettle Point First Nation. The term applies to status Indian bands that belong to the Assembly of First Nations…”
But our reader, Michael Asch, sent in a very well-reasoned argument on why this needed changing. Professor Asch, an expert in Canada on the issue, is professor emeritus of anthropology at the University of Alberta and an adjunct professor in anthropology and political science at the University of Victoria. He has been studying political relations between indigenous peoples and Canada for 40 years.
I asked him why he thought the capitalization was more correct than the grammatical argument that you do not capitalize titles if they are generic rather than specific. For example: “a prime minister could be expected to…” versus “The Prime Minister is expected to…”
He noted that First Nations has become a term of self-designation among those that society has labelled “Indian” in the past. “People once identified (perhaps even self-identified) as ‘Indians’ now use the term to describe themselves collectively and individually. And, when they do that in writing, it is always using capital letters – that is, it strikes me that it is being used as a substitute for the word ‘Indian’ which is always capitalized. Therefore it is the matter of equivalence. To change what they say is ‘First Nations’ to ‘first nations’ is to change ‘Indians’ to ‘indians.’ In short, if it is a mistake not to capitalize ‘Indians,’ than it is a mistake not to capitalize ‘First Nations.’
His very strong argument was passed on to senior editors at The Globe who were considering that change and also whether to make further updates to the Style Guide. During that time period, Prof. Asch noted a Globe story that showed the problem with the current usage. The story said: “That first nations, Inuit and Métis people are overrepresented in federal prisons is not news.” Prof. Asch noted that in that phrase, “first nations” was being used as a synonym for “Indians” and you would never use that term without capitalizing it.
So you will notice Monday that The Globe’s style has changed and the organization will capitalize First Nations. It is a definite strength of The Globe that there are knowledgeable readers who ask these questions and hold The Globe to a high standard.
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