Objective: To identify issues and concepts to guide the development of culturally appropriate mental health promotion strategies with Aboriginal populations and communities in Canada. Methods: We review recent literature examining the links between the history of colonialism and government interventions (including the residential school system, out-adoption, and centralised bureaucratic control) and the mental health of Canadian Aboriginal peoples. Results: There are high rates of social problems, demoralisation, depression, substance abuse, suicide and other mental health problems in many, though not all, Aboriginal communities. Although direct causal links are difficult to demonstrate with quantitative methods, there is clear and compelling evidence that the long history of cultural oppression and marginalisation has contributed to the high levels of mental health problems found in many communities. There is evidence that strengthening ethnocultural identity, community integration and political empowerment can contribute to improving mental health in this population. Conclusions: The social origins of mental health problems in Aboriginal communities demand social and political solutions. Research on variations in the prevalence of mental health disorders across communities may provide important information about community-level variables to supplement literature that focuses primarily on individual-level factors. Mental health promotion that emphasises youth and community empowerment is likely to have broad effects on mental health and wellbeing in Aboriginal communities.