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Canada's largest Native festival draws thousands

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TORONTO - The Indian taco and buffalo burger booths stand where Madonna once played. The smell of freshly-baked scones fills the senses and tempts the taste buds as a fashion show featuring Native designs plays in the background. Off in the distance, young children adjust their feathers and prepare for their next dance. Around them tens of thousands of people have come to the latest Canadian Aboriginal Festival.

In its tenth year, the annual event held Nov. 28 - 30 in Toronto continues to grow. What started in the gymnasium of the Native Canadian Centre of Toronto has become one of the staples of the Sky Dome's calendar, a gigantic stadium that hosts megastar musicians and serves as home to the Toronto Blue Jays.

The biggest Aboriginal event in Canada is also the continent's largest indoor pow wow. The festival's three days feature the pow wow, a marketplace of more than 200 stalls, food booths, music performances, and a traditional teaching tent.

"Our first year we crossed our fingers and hoped that everything was going to work," laughed Ron Robert, who along with his wife Catherine Cornelius, founded and continue to coordinate the event. "Now the festival has become the national showcase of Canada's Aboriginal peoples and a sharing experience for everyone. Elders have told me that they thought they would never live to see the day where our people would take over a first class venue like the Sky Dome. Thirty years ago we could never have done something like this."

With more than 2,000 dancers the pow wow attracts participants from all over North America. Reigning Miss Indian World Onawa Lacy made the trip from Gallup, N.M. "This is my first time in Canada and I'm having a wonderful time," she said with a smile. "The people are wonderful and the pow wow is very well organized. My year has been amazing and I've made great friendships along the way."

The pow wow's Grand Entry honored the efforts of Canadian and international peacekeepers. "Speaking on behalf of members of the Canadian Forces, it is a great honor to be recognized and have this prestigious event dedicated to Canadian peacekeepers," said Debbie Eisan, Chief Petty Officer 2nd Class of the Canadian Forces. "Given the past conflicts between the federal government and Aboriginal people, I am very proud that my people are recognizing the sacrifices that all peacekeepers have made in the defense of our country and I feel very proud to be Anishinabe."

Traditional men's senior dancer Mark Routledge agreed. This is the third year he has traveled from Little Grand Rapids in Manitoba to perform and visit with friends. He also came to educate. "I love seeing friends I only see once a year at this festival. And I like to answer the questions visitors have about First Nations. Education and knowledge are power and the more knowledge they have about our cultures, the better off we will all be."