First Nations people have been celebrating who we are and our culture since time immemorial. When the Federal government banned the potlatch and ceremonies from 1884-1951, our culture had to go underground but was still practiced when possible. Some was lost, but a lot was remembered and we keep that alive every day.
in 1996 when Romeo LeBlanc, the Governor General of the time “created” National Aboriginal Day it was not a day for First Nations, it was a day for Canadians to take the time to learn about First Nations, witness performances of some of our culture, and recognize the role First Nations have played in the history of this country. First Nations did not need a specific day to celebrate our culture as we do that every day, but we took the opportunity to use the day to help educate Canadians.
Over the years some First Nations have made this day their own and call it various things like the National Day of Action, Solidarity Day, or Cultural Day.
National Aboriginal Day is not a statutory holiday. There have been calls for this almost every year since its inception. Most First Nations, tribal councils and organizations have personnel policies that give their employees the day off to go and enjoy celebrating being First Nations in any way they choose.
It is too bad that when Romeo LeBlanc “created” National Aboriginal Day that he didn’t make it about settling land, water and resource issues. Don’t get me wrong, culture, language and way of life are integral to who we are, but as First Nations people we know that everything is connected and everything is one. Our land and our culture are strongly connected.
What I don’t think Romeo LeBlanc and governments today understood is that our culture is tied to the land, water and resources. Our regalia comes from the land, animals and plants. Our songs and dances are about Mother Earth, the water, the animals, the birds, Mother Nature. Our spirituality and responsibilities are tied to the land and water. Our ceremonies honour the trees, medicines, water, and earth. Without our ability to access our lands, water and resources, there will not be a strong culture. Our culture is not just about songs and dances, it goes so much deeper and is integral to the land.
If the governments had this recognition they may have done something long ago to protect our lands and waters. They would have tried to settle aboriginal title and obtained our consent for development in order to ensure that our culture would continue based on our uses of the land. Without this recognition, National Aboriginal Day is empty.
True reconciliation and giving true mean to National Aboriginal day means that First Nations title, use, access, and exercising our rights continues today, tomorrow and for many generations to come.
Lately the word “Reconciliation” is in the air. The provincial and federal governments are talking reconciliation. The problem with reconciliation is that it means something different to every person and without a common understanding of what needs to be achieved, reconciliation may never occur. We must come to that understanding.
The gap between First Nations and governments on lands, waters and resources is a huge chasm. The federal government is looking at reconciliation by endorsing the Universal Declaration on Indigenous Rights (UNDRIP). Ministers Bennett and Wilson-Raybould made the announcement at the United Nations Permanent Forum on Indigenous issues in May in New York. They were very careful in saying that UNDRIP would be implemented “within the constitution of Canada”. Which means, they can interpret the clauses the way they want in a limiting fashion.
Prime Minister Justin Trudeau campaigned on the promise that he would uphold Free, Prior and Informed Consent (FPIC) of First Nations regarding development and now has changed his position and said that FPIC does not mean a veto. Surely reconciliation means to implement UNDRIP and FPIC in the spirit in which it was intended. Without FPIC, the Declaration is meaningless.
The government of BC likes to measure reconciliation in terms of how many agreements they have signed on various things. For instance, the Minister of MARR was touting that almost all First Nations in BC have signed on to LNG revenue sharing agreements. He didn’t mention the terms and conditions First Nations have to agree to in order to get those benefits. Not every First Nation in BC has agreements, only where the province wants development are agreement negotiated as a priority.
The government of BC also believes that they can reconcile with First Nations while going ahead with projects like Site C that will destroy sacred and other sites, submerge valuable habitat for wildlife and birds and fish that the First Nations rely on for exercising their rights. Then they further aggravate the situation by apologizing to First Nations for damages caused by existing dams on the Peace knowing that Site C will cause the same kinds of damage and worse with the cumulative effects of a third dam on the Peace River. They say Site C is different because they have “consulted” with First Nations for 8-9 years, and did a comprehensive environmental review. Of course the review was done under the gutted environmental legislation and Fisheries Act. Consultation is not consent and if the First Nations were happy with the consultation they wouldn’t still be objecting to the dam in the courts and on the land.
What also prevents reconciliation between the province and First Nations is that by making the decision to proceed with Site C, they knew they would be taking away opportunities from First Nations to create renewable power. Billions of dollars in renewable energy projects with First Nations have been lost because the BC does not need more power for their system, in fact, with Site C they will have too much power and a large debt that will be paid by taxpayers.
If Canada and BC and all of Canada want to truly celebrate National Aboriginal Day to celebrate culture and First Nations contributions to Canada, they have to ensure that our culture that relies on our land, water and resources can continue by ensuring First Nations have consent on any developments on the lands and waters within their territories. Also to protect what is important to First Nations for the carrying out of our culture.
If you went to a First Nations performance today, know that First Nations cultures are much more than what is being seen on stage and those performances that you enjoy will change if First Nations are further removed from that which keeps our lives enriched or resources upon which our culture relies no longer exist.
As a First Nations person, I would like to celebrate National Aboriginal Day in a more meaningful fashion knowing that our territories, waters and resources are secure and that there truly is something to celebrate.