Queen's Gazette | Queen's University

Search form

Indigenous perspectives: National Aboriginal Day, Canada 150

On National Aboriginal Day, student Taylor Bluhm can be found with her home community in Six Nations of the Grand River near Brantford, gathering with friends and family in a park for singing, dancing, and feasting.

The Whispering Wind Drum Group performed a traditional honour song during the special Senate meeting at Queen's in March that helped mark the university's 175th anniversary. At the meeting, Principal Daniel Woolf spoke about the university’s commitment to building good relations with Aboriginal Peoples and creating meaningful change on campus. (Photo by Garrett Elliott)

“National Aboriginal Day is very significant to me – it’s so nice that my people have a day to celebrate our successes,” says Ms. Bluhm, a third-year Nursing student who is Upper Mohawk and, beginning in the fall, will work with the Alma Mater Society as deputy commissioner of Indigenous affairs, taking over from Lauren Winkler (Artsci’17).

“To me, every day should be Aboriginal Day, and I really hope that one day Aboriginal Day can be a real holiday where people can take off work and school to celebrate it properly,” she says.

Janice Hill, Director of Four Directions Aboriginal Student Centre, and Marlene Brant Castellano, Elder and Co-chair, Aboriginal Council of Queen’s University, will also celebrate today with their home community – in Tyendinaga, west of Kingston, where cultural events generally focus on the Mohawk language, celebrating local talent, and engaging children and youth. This year there is a 5K Fun Run, a parade, a play performed by children of the community based on Mohawk cultural traditions, and, of course, food.

Kingston celebrations
Every year, National Aboriginal Day celebrations take place downtown Kingston. Today’s celebrations run from 11 am until 2 pm in front of Old City Hall on Ontario St. Festivities include dancing, storytelling, music, traditional food, and children’s activities.

“It’s a community gathering – a day to be together with family and friends,” says Ms. Hill, mentioning that the day was formerly called National Aboriginal Solidarity Day, chosen by the Assembly of First Nations. In 1996, the Canadian government announced, in cooperation with Indigenous organizations, that June 21 would be called National Aboriginal Day. (Prime Minister Trudeau announced today that the government intends to rename the day National Indigenous Peoples Day.)

Dr. Brant Castellano says, in past years, themes at Tyendinaga have emphasized solidarity with children in the broader Aboriginal community, joining petitions, and writing letters to the Prime Minister.

“Aboriginal Day makes an important contribution to community spirit and education for civic participation,” she says. “I would love to see that spirit represented more strongly in our neighbouring communities, recognizing that Aboriginal heritage is a pillar of Canadian heritage.”

With Aboriginal Day falling so close to Canada Day, Dr. Brant Castellano proposes the idea of a 10-day heritage festival – a national event “looking forward to our shared future and building on the best of our shared past.”

Canada Day and Canada 150 celebrations

Taylor Bluhm and fellow Queen's students Nicole Enge and Billie Kearns take part in a solidarity walk in Toronto in October 2016. (Supplied photo) 

This year’s Canada 150 celebrations have filtered into a lot of conversations, says Ms. Hill, who doesn’t celebrate Canada Day and is frustrated by the focus on the 150th anniversary.

“Our history on this land goes back a lot longer than 150 years – I’ve heard Indigenous people say there should be three more zeros on the end of that number,” she says. “Canada 150 carries a lot of baggage and it raises a lot of issues for a lot of people. What are Canadians celebrating? That would be my question. I don’t know what there is to celebrate.”

Ms. Hill notes that with the 2015 Truth and Reconciliation Commission final report, there has been a lot of focus on reconciliation, but she asks, “What does that even mean? What does reconciliation look like for Canadians? It’s a very troubling history for many of us as Indigenous people.

“I’ve heard many people from Indigenous nations say that reconciliation talks are about making something good that has gone bad, that was good and needs to be repaired. But in many people’s eyes, there never was a good relationship. So how do you reconcile? You have to really begin.”

At the centre of all the conversations, Ms. Hill says, are relationships and relationship-building. “We have to live together – we’re relatives, we’re neighbours, peers, colleagues, friends, family, and there are all these different intricacies to the relationships. But we have to have right and good relationships that are based on truth – and for that to happen, people have to understand our true history.”

Ms. Bluhm says she’ll attend some Canada Day events such as fireworks and little festivals (Ms. Hill says she and her family go to fireworks, too), but not with the intention of celebrating Canada Day. Her family always taught her to be respectful of other people’s celebrations, and Canada Day is no exception.

"We have to have right and good relationships that are based on truth – and for that to happen, people have to understand our true history."
​~ Janice Hill, member of the Turtle Clan, Mohawk Nation, Director, Four Directions Aboriginal Student Centre

But, she would like people to be aware of a few things. “I would like people to understand that yes, Canada may be 150 years old, but Aboriginal people have been around for many more years – hence why we are called First Nations people, because we were the first people on the land. I would like people to understand how lucky they are to have a long weekend to celebrate Canada Day and most people are able to get it off work.

“I would hope that one day National Aboriginal Day can be more significant for my people and even non-Aboriginal people. I believe that the treaties made many years ago need to be honoured, and with that this day should be a more memorable day. It is young people like me and even the generation younger that need to carry out these traditions because one day my elders will not be here, and it is up to us to become the new role models.”