Understanding B.C.'s culture and systems

Last reviewed: March 11, 2024

Topics on this page

Indigenous peoples
Canada's legal system
Social customs
Personal safety and avoiding fraud

Indigenous peoples

There are more than 1.6 million Indigenous peoples in Canada, and more than 600 different Indigenous communities. Just over 200 of these communities are in British Columbia. About 80% of Indigenous peoples in B.C. live outside of Indigenous communities, in towns and cities across the province.
The people who are Indigenous to Canada belong to 3 groups – First Nations, Métis, and Inuit. First Nations people have lived in B.C. since time immemorial, which means before memory or record. Tens of thousands of First Nations people were here when Europeans arrived and colonized B.C. in the mid-18th century. The Métis people are of mixed European and First Nations ancestry. They are a distinct people and Nation. The Inuit are from the northern regions of Canada.

There are many stereotypes and prejudices toward the people who are Indigenous to Canada. This comes from the history of how European settlers treated the Indigenous peoples.

Indigenous peoples and European History

Long before the first Europeans came to North America, the Indigenous peoples of the country now called Canada managed their lands with their own systems of government, laws, traditions, and economies. They had (and still have) their own languages, ceremonies, traditions, cultures, and spiritual beliefs.

When explorers arrived in North America, their countries were fighting for power and control over land all around the world. Many of the settlers here did not recognize Indigenous peoples at all, or their laws, governments, cultures, beliefs, or relationships.
In 1867, the Government of Canada was formed. The government created the Indian Act, which was a law governing Indigenous peoples that controlled every aspect of their lives and tried to erase their cultures and ways of life. Indigenous peoples have always fought against the oppression of the Indian Act and colonization, and for the recognition of their rights. Amnesty International, the United Nations, and the Canadian Human Rights Commission have called the Indian Act a human rights abuse.
One of the darkest periods in the history of Canada was the creation of residential schools, which aimed to destroy the culture of First Nations, Métis, and Inuit peoples. The Government of Canada took thousands of Indigenous children away from their homes and families. They were put in schools far from their homes. They had to learn English and were stripped of their language, culture, and Indigenous identity. Most children suffered terrible abuses at the schools. The last official residential school closed in 1996.
The lasting damage and trauma caused by residential schools – and many other examples of injustice and racism in Canada’s history – still negatively affect Indigenous peoples, families, and communities today, as well as the country as a whole.

Recent history and reconciliation

In recent years, governments across Canada have recognized how their actions have hurt First Nations, Métis, and Inuit peoples. In 2008, the Government of Canada created the Truth and Reconciliation Commission to begin to look at and recognize the injustices against Indigenous peoples across the country.
In 2007, the United Nations General Assembly adopted the United Nations Declaration on the Rights of Indigenous Peoples (UN Declaration, or UNDRIP). The UN Declaration has been adopted by 148 nations. It emphasizes Indigenous peoples’ rights to live in dignity, to maintain and strengthen Indigenous institutions, cultures, and traditions, and to pursue self determined development in keeping with Indigenous needs and aspirations.
In November 2019, the B.C. government passed a law to implement the UN Declaration, which the Truth and Reconciliation Commission said governments in Canada should fully adopt and implement as the framework for reconciliation with Indigenous peoples. The Declaration on the Rights of Indigenous Peoples Act means the B.C. government has to recognize and respect the human rights of Indigenous peoples.

With this law, the government has promised to work with Indigenous peoples to create an  action plan that will help build a better future for Indigenous peoples and everyone in B.C. https://declaration.gov.bc.ca/

Indigenous peoples today

Although the colonial governments of Canada tried to destroy Indigenous peoples’ connections to culture, traditions, economies, laws, and rights to the land, those connections remain strong today. Indigenous peoples are restoring culture and languages that were almost lost because the government tried to erase them through the residential school system and colonial government policy. Indigenous peoples have fought to keep their cultures alive, and today they raise children to be proud of their cultures and identities. There are many celebrations and festivals in communities that welcome non-Indigenous people.
Traditionally, some First Nations leadership was passed down through a family (hereditary). Under the Indian Act, the Canadian government created “bands” – a different form of government that was imposed on First Nations. Who can be a member of the band is defined by the Government of Canada, not a First Nation. Many bands now have an elected council, called a “band council” and an elected chief.

Today, hereditary leadership still exists in many Nations, and some bands have both hereditary and elected chiefs, leaders and matriarchs. Many elected band councils manage education, band schools, housing, water and sewer systems, roads, and other community businesses and services.
Some First Nations communities now have self-government agreements. Self-government means First Nations can take control of and responsibility for decisions affecting them. These can include making laws, deciding how to spend money, raising money through taxation, delivering programs, and building economic opportunities.
In many parts of Canada, First Nations signed treaties (contracts with the government) that gave new settlers rights to the land. Very few treaties were signed in B.C. In fact, 95% of B.C. is on First Nations land that never had a treaty agreement. Today, people recognize this issue. For example, you may hear someone begin an event in B.C. by saying, “We would like to acknowledge the territory of the Coast Salish people.” This recognizes that First Nations people did not give up their land or legally sign it away to Britain or Canada.
Surprisingly, most non-Indigenous people living in Canada do not know much about Indigenous peoples, their histories, cultures, and ways of living. Although this is starting to change, there are many reasons for this lack of knowledge.
  • For many years, the government policy was to assimilate (absorb) Indigenous peoples into Canadian society, so they would lose their unique identities as First Nations, Métis or Inuit.
  • Many First Nations people have lived on reserves (communities) far from Canadian cities.
  • The Canadian school system has not taught students about Indigenous peoples and their real history.
  • Often Canadians only hear about Indigenous peoples through the media. Most of these stories are about Indigenous peoples protesting for their rights. These are often described as “negative” actions. Frequently the media do not try to reflect the truth as known by Indigenous people.
The language we use when talking about Indigenous topics in Canada is important. Some Indigenous peoples used to be called “Indians” or “Natives.” Today, most Indigenous peoples identify these words with government oppression. This is not an acceptable way for non-Indigenous people to refer to Indigenous peoples. It is best to ask an Indigenous person what terms they prefer.
Cultural appropriation happens when someone takes something from another culture to use for their own benefit, with the original meaning or cultural importance lost or changed. Non-Indigenous people have taken important symbols and traditions sacred to Indigenous peoples and used them to sell products and make money. This is considered stealing and should not be done.

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Canada has 3 levels of government:
  • federal
  • provincial or territorial
  • municipal or local
These governments are elected by Canadians. For information about voting in British Columbia elections, visit Elections BC.

Government of Canada

The federal government is based in Ottawa. It is responsible for things that affect all Canadians. These include immigration, national defence, foreign affairs, employment insurance, banking, postal services, shipping, railways, telephones, pipelines, and criminal law. You can get information about the federal government from Service Canada. All information is available in French and English.
Toll-free: 1 800 622-6232 (1 800 O-Canada)
Find a Service Canada location near you.
Every province and territory in Canada has federal ridings (election districts). Each riding elects 1 Member of Parliament (MP) to the Government of Canada. There are 42 federal ridings in British Columbia. The MP for each riding has an office in the community. This is called a constituency office. Use your postal code (part of your mailing address) to find your MP on the Our Commons website.
For information about voting in Canadian elections, visit Elections Canada. 

Provincial government

Canada has 10 provinces and 3 territories. Each has the power to change its laws and manage its own lands. Provincial and territorial governments are responsible for education, health care, some natural resources, and road regulations.

Sometimes, federal and provincial governments share power. For example, both the federal and provincial government make laws about agriculture, natural resources, and immigration. You can get information about the B.C. government from Service BC.
There are 87 provincial ridings in British Columbia. Each riding elects 1 Member of the Legislative Assembly (MLA) to represent them. The MLA has an office in the community. It is called a constituency office. You can find your MLA online.

Local government

Local governments are for cities, towns, villages (municipalities), and regional districts. Local governments usually provide police service, fire protection, garbage collection, drinking water, sewers, and recreation (parks and community centres). Every local government has an office where you can ask questions, discuss problems, pay property taxes, and get a business licence. These are often called “city hall”. Local government offices and websites have parks, recreation, and other programs for residents.

Find your municipality or regional district.

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Canada’s legal system

There are 3 main levels of government in Canada. Each level of government makes laws. The Canadian (federal) government makes laws for the whole country. Provincial and territorial governments make laws for their province or territory (like British Columbia). Municipal governments make laws for their town or city (like Vancouver or Victoria). Canadian citizens have the right to vote for all levels of government.
People who are charged with breaking the law may have to go to court. The court will decide if they are guilty. If a person is found guilty, the courts will decide the punishment. Canada’s court system is separate from the government. The laws in Canada may be different from your previous country.

One of the most important laws in Canada is the Charter of Rights and Freedoms. The Charter says that all Canadians have the right to speak freely, have their own religion, live and work anywhere in Canada, and be part of peaceful political activities.

Human rights

Human rights laws protect people from discrimination. Discrimination is when someone treats you differently because of:
  • your race, the colour of your skin, where you were born, or your ancestry
  • your age, whether it be because you are old or because you are young
  • your sex, whether you were assigned male, female, or intersex (not fully male or female) at birth
  • your sexual orientation, whether you are attracted to people who have the same gender as you, a different gender than you, who do not identify as either male or female or people of more than 1 gender
  • your gender identity (whether you are a woman, a man, non-binary, or Two-Spirit)
  • your gender expression, or how you present and show your gender, including your name, the clothes you wear, or the activities you like to pursue
  • your family situation (whether you are married, divorced, single, raising children, pregnant, or able to get pregnant, for example)
  • your religion, including how you dress in public, at home, and at places of worship
  • your political beliefs, including who you vote for and the changes you want
  • whether you have a physical or mental disability
If someone treats you differently for any of these reasons (for example, if a landlord will not let you rent a home, or someone will not serve you in a restaurant or store), this is discrimination.

There are some exceptions. For example, some rental homes or condominium buildings are just for seniors (people over 55). They can refuse to rent to people younger than 55. Public buildings can have separate bathrooms for men and women.
You can get help if you have a problem related to discrimination. The BC Human Rights Clinic is operated by the Community Legal Assistance Society. It helps people understand and protect their rights. It also provides free legal services. It can help people with provincial human rights complaints.
The BC Human Rights Tribunal helps with provincial human rights complaints. If you experience discrimination from a provincial government department or agency, a landlord, or a local business, you should contact the BC Human Rights Tribunal. They can help you file a complaint. 
The B.C. government has more information about human rights online. The BC Office of the Human Rights Commissioner supports education, research and advocacy for human rights.
Watch videos about human rights in B.C. in English, Mandarin, and Punjabi.

The Canadian Human Rights Commission helps with federal human rights complaints. If you experience discrimination from a federal government department, bank, telecommunications company (telephone, internet, TV, or radio), or transportation company (airline, bus or train), you should contact the Canadian Human Rights Commission. They can help you file a complaint.

Hate crimes

It is against the law if someone hurts you, or says they will hurt you, for any of these reasons:
  • your race
  • skin colour
  • religion
  • national or ethnic origin
  • language
  • age
  • mental or physical disability
  • sex
  • sexual orientation
  • gender identity or expression
If you experience a hate crime, ask for help. Call 9-1-1 or your local police office. The B.C. government has an information website about hate crimes.

Help for victims of crime

The person who is hurt in a crime is called a victim of crime. VictimLinkBC has information and support for all victims of crime. They will help you find resources in your community. They also provide immediate crisis support to victims of family and sexual violence, including victims of human trafficking exploited for labour or sexual services. The service is free, confidential, and available in many languages.

VictimLink is funded by the B.C. government. It is available 24 hours a day, 7 days a week. 
Toll-free: 1 800 563-0808 Email: VictimLinkBC@bc211.ca
If you are a victim of crime, information and guidance are available to support you.

Freedom of Information and Protection of Privacy Act

B.C. has laws to protect your privacy. People and businesses cannot get or use your personal information (for example, your name, address, birth date, or Social Insurance Number) without your permission. The law gives you the right to see information about yourself (for example, your medical records). You also have the right to see any reports about you (for example, reports by teachers, employers, or the police).

You can ask to see records and personal information about you. This is called a “freedom of information request”. You can also ask for information about someone you are responsible for, such as a child.

Social customs

Canada is a multicultural country. Canadians come from many different countries, and people are proud of their traditions and history. All cultures belong in Canada, and all Canadian citizens are equal.

In Canada, you may find that people speak and behave differently from people in the country you came from. You may not understand why people say or do some things. You may disagree. You may feel confused or embarrassed. You may feel that the other person is not kind, or polite. This might happen because you do not understand Canadian society yet, or because Canadians do not understand yours.
Try to learn more about Canadian social customs. You can learn by watching how people behave together. Talk to people, make new friends, and ask questions. Most Canadians will be happy to answer your questions and learn about the customs from your home country. You can also talk to the people at your settlement agency

Community connections

Moving to a new country can be hard, especially if you don’t know a lot of people yet. Connecting with others in your community can help you make friends and contacts.

Community connections and recreation centres

Your settlement services agency may have a community connections program to help you meet local residents. Contact them to find out about activities with local residents and learn about life in B.C.

Most cities and towns have community or recreation centres. They often have swimming pools, ice rinks, tennis courts, and playgrounds. Community centres may have classes in arts and crafts, dancing, physical fitness, computers, and English as a Second Language (ESL).
Most community and recreation centres publish program guides. They list classes and groups people can join. You can learn what time the programs are and how much they cost. Community centre programs are usually not expensive. To find a centre in your area, search your local government’s website. You can also search online for “recreation centre” and your community name.
A neighbourhood house is similar to a community centre. Neighbourhood houses provide many programs and services and are open to everyone. The Association of Neighbourhood Houses BC can help you find a neighbourhood house near you.

Seniors’ programs

Most communities in B.C. have seniors’ groups. They have social and fitness programs and activities especially for seniors. For information, search online, call your local government, or contact your local community centre.


Volunteering is an important part of Canadian life and connects you with your community. It is a good way to meet new people, learn new skills, get Canadian work experience and contribute to your community. Most communities need volunteers. There are often volunteer opportunities at hospitals, libraries, community centres, settlement agencies and community organizations. If you find an organization you want to help, contact them directly and ask if they need volunteers.
You can also contact Volunteer BC. It is based in Vancouver and provides service across the province. They also operate Volunteer Now, a website that lists organizations looking for volunteers.
Govolunteer.ca connects volunteers with not-for-profits and charities in the Vancouver area and Sunshine Coast.

Public libraries

Most communities have public libraries and public internet access. You can borrow books, magazines, CDs, DVDs, eBooks, and more. Many libraries also have books, magazines, and newspapers in different languages. They may also have books for English learners.

Public libraries are for both adults and children. They are free to use. You need a library card to borrow books and other items. You can apply for a card at your local library. Bring some identification (ID) with your name and address on it. Some libraries have an online form that will help you join or contact them from home.
Most libraries have activities for children, such as storytelling, reading and computer programs, and crafts. There are also events, workshops, and programs for adults and youth. Library staff can help you learn about life in B.C., find government or legal information, and apply for jobs. Staff may also know about community programs and other services to help newcomers.

Libraries have public computers you can use. Many libraries have special services for people with disabilities. For example, a library may have audiobooks or large-print books for people who don’t see well.
You can also borrow and download e-books, audiobooks, and online movies, magazines, or newspapers. Talk to library staff about what you are looking for. They can help you find it. Libraries are a good place to meet new people. You can find help settling into the community.

NewToBC is a website that helps newcomers learn about public libraries and their programs, resources, and services.

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Personal safety & avoiding fraud

Personal safety

Canada does not have a high crime rate. However, it is still important to protect yourself and your belongings. Thieves can steal physical belongings, such as a wallet or a bicycle. Thieves can also steal your personal information. They can use your personal information to commit a crime or steal your money. This is called identity theft. Keep important documents and information – such as your passport, Social Insurance Number, credit cards, and bank account number – in a safe place.
Lock your home, car, or bicycle. Do not hide extra keys outside your home. Do not leave valuable things where someone can see them.

Fraud and scams

Tricking people into giving money is called “fraud” or “scamming”. Scammers may pretend to sell something. After you give them the money, they don’t give you what you paid for. People can try to scare you into thinking that you owe money to the government, and that you will be in trouble if you do not pay them. Some scammers may try to make you feel sorry for someone and help by giving them money.

If you think someone may be trying to scam you, call the police. Many organizations will post information about scams that use their names. For example, if someone says they are from the federal government and you owe money, visit the Canada Revenue website. They will post information about scams.
Scammers use the internet, text messages, and telephones to find people. They will also use emergency situations like a natural disaster or a pandemic to trick or scare people into giving them money. When you are new to Canada or are trying to immigrate here, people may try to trick you with immigration fraud and scams.
The B.C. government has information about recognizing and reporting immigration fraud and scams here on this website.

Online fraud and scams

Most people in Canada use the internet to find jobs and housing, shop, do online banking, borrow library books, communicate with people, find information, and join activities. But there can be problems with the internet. Thieves try to steal your money or personal information. Some criminals use the internet to connect with children and hurt them.

It is important to protect yourself, your family, your money, and your information when you are online. The Royal Canadian Mounted Police (RCMP) website has information about online crime.
Talk with your children about internet safety. For most children, social media is an important part of their lives. You may want to stop your children from using it. However, this is hard for parents to control. It may be easier to talk to children and teach them about safety instead. The Royal Canadian Mounted Police (RCMP) has information to help parents keep children safe online.

It can be very easy to give personal information away by mistake. The Canadian government has information about how to protect your personal information.

The Canada Safety Council also has information to help you protect yourself and your family against cyberbullying and online scams.

Telephone fraud and scams

Criminals can also use the phone to trick people and make them give money. Phone scammers may call you and ask for information, such as your bank account number or credit card number. Scammers often pretend to be from the government. You may get a call from someone saying they are with the Government of Canada or Revenue Canada. They may say that you owe them money, or that they need to check your bank account or credit card number. Hang up immediately. Governments in Canada will never make a call like that.

Scammers may also pretend to be from a private company. These scammers may say that you have a bill or owe them money. They may ask for payment immediately. Some send a text message to your mobile phone. Do not click on links in text messages from unknown numbers.
Never buy anything over the phone from someone you don’t know. If someone calls you to sell you something, asks for money, or says they will cut off your service for something (such as heat, water or telephone service), hang up immediately. Call the police and tell them what happened.

Not all calls from unknown numbers are scams. Some are from real businesses trying to sell you their product. These are called “cold calls”. If you do not want to receive these calls, you can register for government of Canada’s Do Not Call list. You will get fewer calls from real companies. However, this list does not stop scammers from calling you.

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