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Summer solstice celebrated on National Aboriginal Day

MONTREAL – After days of drizzle and dampness, the sun broke through grey skies to greet more than 100 people who gathered for Solstice des Nations, a summer solstice ceremony in the First Nations Garden at the Montreal Botanical Gardens June 21, Canada’s National Aboriginal Day.

The public solstice ceremony began at 10 a.m. A smaller private ceremony that included First Nations leaders and artists took place earlier on Mont Royal, the mountain in the middle of the city, where participants saluted the day at dawn.

The people at the public solstice ceremony gathered in a circle in a meadow on the banks of a pond in the First Nations Garden; a number of dignitaries from the political and cultural world attended.

The Quabbin Lake Singers (Nipmuc, Wabanaki) opened the public ceremony with drums and honor songs.

Alanis Obomsawin, an Abenaki filmmaker, greeted everyone around the circle and invited them to celebrate the beginning of the solar cycle by lighting what she called “the friendship fire.” She is the chairwoman of Land InSights, a Montreal-based nonprofit that promotes indigenous cultures and organizes the First Peoples’ Festival and the solstice ceremony.

Charles-Mathieu Brunelle, the director of Montreal’s Nature Museums, welcomed everyone and introduced a number of guest speakers.

The traditional ceremony was conducted by Sedalia Fazio, a Mohawk elder, and Dominique Rankin, an Anishinabe elder, and other First Nations people, who prayed and blessed the gathering. Gifts were exchanged among the guests. The ceremony ended with everyone placing tobacco on the sacred fire.

Following the ceremony, the gathering moved toward a building in the First Nations Garden to participate in what has become another tradition – the awarding of the ephemeral mural artwork. The annual art contest gives a First Nations artist the opportunity to create a work that is displayed on a wall of the First Nations building in the garden.

This year’s winner was France Trepanier, a Metis with Kanien’kehaka Mohawk and Quest parents. The work is called “An Imagined Cartography” and a video of Trepanier installing the mural is available on YouTube.

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The mural consists of 12 transparent panels on which she has created a mosaic with encaustic. Eleven of the panels represent each of the First Nations communities in Quebec, and the 12th panel represents the Metis.

Trepanier asked artists from each of the communities to contribute natural materials from his or her territory for the mural. The artists collected branches, feathers, stones, shells, roots and other natural objects and put them in a box along with a single word of their choice in their aboriginal language. All the items then became part of Trepanier’s mural, creating “an imagined cartography” linking the territories and nations of Quebec and providing a tribute to their vitality.

The First Nations Garden, where the mural is displayed, is a unique public space that opened in August 2001. The six acre garden represents the close connection First Peoples and the Inuit have always had with plants. The garden is designed as a natural woodlands garden, containing only indigenous plants.

The garden has a Web site with a wealth of information about the plants, trees, history, legends and links.

The Solstice des Nations ceremony culminated the First Peoples’ Festival – a 10-day showcase of aboriginal art, history and culture, featuring song, dance, films, lectures, workshops and forums, story-telling and other traditions and marked Canada’s 13th National Aboriginal Day.

The day was proclaimed in 1996 by then Governor General of Canada Romeo LeBlanc to recognize the cultures and contributions of the North Country’s First Nations, Inuit and Metis peoples. It occurs every year on June 21, though most provincial governments do not recognize it as a statutory holiday.

The 1996 proclamation came after more than a decade of lobbying for such a celebration by the country’s First Peoples. In 1982 the National Indian Brotherhood, now known as the Assembly of First Nations, called for a national holiday in honor of the contributions of aboriginal people of Canada; June 21 often coincides with the summer solstice.

Indian and Northern Affairs Canada is the Canadian federal government department responsible for meeting Canada’s obligations and commitments to First Nations, Inuit and Métis. The department’s Web site – at www.ainc

-inac.gc.ca – provides news, speeches, issues papers, notices of events and several free reports, publications and educational materials.

National Aboriginal Day kicks off a series of celebrations. The June 21 holiday is followed by St. Jean Baptiste Day June 24 (Jean Baptiste being the patron saint of Quebec), Canadian Multiculturalism Day June 27 and Canada Day July 1.