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Celebrating Centuries of Indigenous Country

Canada celebrates National Aboriginal Day on June 21, educating about everything from pre-European life through contemporary Indigenous Peoples.

Today began in Pukaskwa National Park, 1,878 square kilometers of protected lands, with a blessing in a language that has echoed for centuries along the rugged Lake Superior shore. Biigtigong Nishnaabeg elder Cynthia Fisher led a morning prayer to welcome the day and to officially open the revitalized the park’s Anishinaabe Camp with its newly built birchbark wiigwaam and jiibaakwewgamig (cook tent) and to kick off a host of events for National Aboriginal Day—which Prime Minister Justin Trudeau renamed National Indigenous Peoples Day, starting next year, reported CBC News.

At the camp in Ontario’s only wilderness park, lands with a long Anishinaabek history, visitors can come and learn the history and traditional crafts of these First Nations people.

“In the creation of a dreamcatcher or medicine wheel, we come into contact with each others’ creative energy,” the park’s website quotes Fisher, who hosted a 2016 workshop at that camp. “When we share in this activity on this land [Pukaskwa], we learn and understand that Anishinaabek are more than feathers and beads. Mino Bimaadziwin, ‘the good life,’ teaches us that balance is important, and we learn this from the medicine wheel. Balance of oneself creates a strong individual, strong individuals create strong families, strong families, create strong communities, strong communities create a strong nation, and through this, we all become strong.”

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Creating stronger ties and better understanding is the point of National Aboriginal Day in Canada. The summer solstice, June 21, was chosen in 1996, as a time to celebrate and recognize the “unique heritage, diverse cultures and outstanding contributions” of the country’s First Nations, Inuit and Métis people.

Canada’s government website lists nearly 200 activities across the country in celebration of the country’s indigenous people, from a proclamation of the day by the mayor of Wolfville, Nova Scotia, to the fireworks, flint knapping, storytelling and Moccasin Mile Run hosted by the Tk‘emlúpsemc people in Kamloops, British Columbia, more than 5,500 kilometers away. Concerts, speeches, art fairs, heritage festivals, pow wows and live-streamed coverage in some areas are all part of the activities.

This year for the first time the Yukon will celebrate June 21 as a statutory holiday, with the day off for many people, reported the Yukon News. Events are planned for Events Whitehorse, Haines Junction, Carcross, Mayo, Carmacks and Dawson City.

The Aboriginal People's Television Network (APTN) plans seven hours of live coverage starting at 7 p.m. EDT of concerts in Halifax, Montréal, Ottawa, Toronto, Winnipeg, Yellowknife, Edmonton and Vancouver. The full lineup of performers is found here.

For the province of Ontario, “National Aboriginal Day and the activities taking place this month give everyone in Ontario a chance to experience and celebrate the rich culture and traditions of First Nations, Métis and Inuit,” said David Zimmer, minister of Indigenous Relations and Reconciliation, in a statement. “For Ontario, this is part of our commitment to work toward lasting reconciliation, building upon the work we began when we released The Journey Together: Ontario’s Commitment to Reconciliation with Indigenous Peoples last year.”

In encouraging all Canadians to join in their local celebrations, Mi'kmaq Chief Terry Paul of the Membertou First Nation in Nova Scotia told CBC News, “Get the facts, recognize that we want to work with you, we want to work with the people in Nova Scotia so that we’re all better off as a result of it, in that our relations are much better. … Hopefully, that helps people to understand and perhaps educate themselves to who we are and what our history is. We’re a people that [have] contributed to this country for centuries, certainly more than 150 years.”

Some others also referenced the Canada 150 celebrations acknowledging the sesquicentennial of the Canada confederation. In a piece published Tuesday in the Toronto Sun, several people pointed out the ongoing need for the nation to truly recognize its indigenous history.

Jay Pariseau, a senior diversity recruitment consultant at the Canadian Imperial Bank of Commerce (CIBC), said it’s hard for him to watch the 150th birthday celebrations.

“I feel like it tries to once again to erase 10,000 years of a rich history we could all be proud of,” he told the Sun. “Don’t get me wrong, I am Canadian and love our country and want to celebrate, but I wish all Canadians could look beyond our revisionist history. The indigenous population is growing incredibly. Some studies even suggest that cities like Regina and Winnipeg could reach 50 percent indigenous in our lifetime. If we keep going on the trajectory we are currently on, what does that mean when half a city faces tremendous systemic barriers and gross educational discrepancies with the rest of the population?”

Other stories this month have referenced the many issues remaining for reconciliation and true acknowledgement of Canada’s indigenous people and its history fractured by injustices and systematic persecution.

In “Canada 150: Many Indigenous People Wonder What's Worth Celebrating,” the Huffington Post outlined hardships endured by people like renowned artist Alex Simeon Janvier, Dene Suline and Saulteaux, whose early life was dictated by malicious government officials and Indian agents, one of whom denied him a chance to attend the Ontario College of Art and Design because he wasn’t “smart enough.”

“I don't have to celebrate,” Janvier told HuffPo. “That 150 years is none of my business. It never included me, so why jump up and down and celebrate?”

While some may find the country’s commemoration a hard pill to swallow, today’s acknowledgement of the first people’s longer history is cause for reflection, celebration and education.

Promoting understanding of one’s neighbors is perhaps one of the most enlightened goals of National Aboriginal Day. At Serpent River First Nation, the community invited local schoolchildren to visit and learn, reported the Elliot Lake Standard.

“We wanted to share our culture with the school that our children attend in our community because there seems to be some confusion as to who we are,” SRFN community support services worker Carole Day told the Standard. “So, our children want to share their culture with their peers.”