Dozens of people, tribal leaders, public officials (including Yukon Premier Darrell Pasloski and the area's Member of Parliament, Ryan Leef) were gathered around a fire in a prayer circle in Whitehorse, Yukon Territory in Canada. It was the solstice, the longest day of the year, as well as National Aboriginal Day. For nearly two decades, Canadians have celebrated June 21 to honor the Inuit, First Nations and Métis people.
Photo: Jaynie Parrish
Kwanlin Dun elder Ann Smith and her "grandbabies" at the Whitehorse celebration.
"For me, National Aboriginal Day is a day of celebration, acknowledgment and remembrance," said Jessie Dawson, a councilor with the Kwanlin Dun First Nation.
Especially this year. The recent Truth and Reconciliation Commission report chronicled what it termed as Canada's physical, biological and cultural genocide against aboriginal people. Yet the report said: "Despite the coercive measures that the government adopted, it failed to achieve its policy goals. Although aboriginal peoples and cultures have been badly damaged, they continue to exist. Aboriginal people have refused to surrender their identity."
The report "represents a breakthrough in time and a new day for our people," Dawson said. "It calls on our citizens to make peace. It gives us hope and a restored faith that appropriate measures will be taken."
It's that very debate, about what constitutes "an appropriate measure," that Canada has yet to conclude. The Truth and Reconciliation Commission proposes one standard: "Reconciliation is about establishing and maintaining a mutually respectful relationship between aboriginal and non-aboriginal peoples in this country."
On Friday June 19, the Royal Canadian Mounted Police (RCMP) updated its report on Missing and Murdered Indigenous Women, saying that while aboriginal women make up 4.3 percent of the population, they account for 16 percent of all female homicide victims. The federal policy agency once again said the overwhelming majority of those murders stemmed from family violence.
However First Nations advocates say the report is not broad enough because it does not include statistics from municipal governments.
“All jurisdictions need to look at what they can do to ensure that Indigenous women and girls are safe and secure," Assembly of First Nations Regional Chief Cameron Alexis said in a news release. "We need a national inquiry to get to the root causes and find long-term solutions, and we need immediate action to ensure they’re safe now. All municipal and accredited police services in this country, including the military police, need to work together on aboriginal policing issues such as missing and murdered aboriginal women.”
That again begs the question about appropriate measures as Canada's Conservative Prime Minister Stephen Harper has repeatedly dismissed calls for any national inquiry. But federal elections are coming in October. The leader of the New Democratic Party, Tom Mulcair, tweeted: "On #NationalAboriginalDay, the #NDP stands w/Canada's Indigenous Peoples to celebrate & work towards a better future." The Liberal Party, too, has demanded action. Its leader, Justin Trudeau, said, "Harper is on the wrong side of history. This issue requires national leadership and action to put an end to this violence.”
A three-party election will be an interesting one to watch—as well as how and where aboriginal voters participate. In a recent provincial election, Alberta voters tossed out the Conservatives after a 44-year run. According to the Aboriginal People's Television Network, a high number of aboriginal voters turned out for the New Democratic Party. The new premier, Rachel Motley, is promising a stronger partnership with aboriginal people. (The big question in any three-way election is, Can any party win a majority? In nations around the world, multi-party elections mean that governing coalitions must be formed, something that's rare in Canada.)
Back to Aboriginal Day and why it matters. It's true that holidays are often dismissed as merely days off. It's too easy to forget why there’s a Veterans' Day or especially a Labor Day. It's true that Canadians are no different—as is this holiday.
But National Aboriginal Day does have the potential to change the conversation. On Saturday, for example, an Aboriginal Day Live broadcast from Winnipeg and Edmonton showcased the incredible wealth of native talent. Thousands of people attended the concerts and shows, and more than a million people watched on television (and tweeted their reactions).
That's not bad. Perhaps every year more people will be inspired by the native artists who are raising issues that celebrate, acknowledge and remember the aboriginal place in modern Canada.
It's also an idea worth emulating in the United States. It would be fantastic if for a moment, even for a single day, we were defined by our remarkable talent, and not our challenges.