National Indigenous Peoples Day was celebrated with a diverse array of events across the country June 21, with the summer solstice signifying an important occasion for renewal among numerous cultures.
“It is a time for us to praise our heritage, applaud all that we have accomplished and honour our ancestors who gave us the strength, knowledge and resilience to keep our nation strong,” stated the Grand Council of Crees. “It’s when Cree people would historically return from their ancestral hunting grounds to gather with friends and family and to commemorate life through feasts and traditional ceremonies.”
This season’s extraordinary forest fires forced some celebrations to be postponed or adapted. Evacuations had occurred to varying extents in Mistissini, Waswanipi and Ouje-Bougoumou, prompting some to reflect on the significance of this year’s events.
“It makes you wonder, if you’re not trying to make things happen, and suddenly things are happening anyway – it’s time to quieten your spirit and listen deeply,” posted Mistissini’s Kenny Blacksmith on June 21 after arriving in Quebec City and being sent to Mont-Sainte-Anne.
In his Indigenous Day message, Ouje-Bougoumou Chief Curtis Bosum noted that the fires brought into clear focus a collective need “to work together in a spirit of reconciliation and under common threat to protect the planet for future generations.”
This year’s Kwe! Meet with Indigenous Peoples festival culminated its five days of programming with a bigger celebration on Indigenous Peoples Day in the heart of Quebec City. With a third more activities offered than last year, executive director Mélanie Vincent expected attendance to top last year’s 20,000 visitors.
“Kwe is the vehicle offered to our nations to show how proud they are and at the same time create a better relationship with the people around us,” Vincent told the Nation. “Sometimes people don’t even know they have a neighbour who has been there for thousands of years. It’s like a trip through all our 11 nations in Quebec in three or four days.”
With school groups from across the province visiting the festival, expanded activities for children included dances, demonstrations, movies and crafts workshops like making medicine pouches. A new biodiversity and environment space highlighted Indigenous land knowledge while honorary president Dr. Stanley Vollant’s Puamun Meshkenu foundation organized its annual 4-km reconciliation walk, called “The Path of a Thousand Dreams.”
“Every year we have the ‘Let’s talk about it’ space where dialogues are created with guest speakers,” explained Vincent. “This space is emotional – people cry sometimes when we talk about the impact colonization has had on our peoples. People are really interested in learning about not only the history but also the contemporary point of view.”
Montreal’s Cabot Square, long a gathering place for the city’s Indigenous community, hosted its usual concerts and activities organized by the nearby Native Women’s Shelter, in collaboration with Resilience Montreal and POP Montreal. Performers included Beatrice Deer Band, Mattmac, Shauit, Cris Derksen and Buffalo Hat Singers.
World champion hoop dancer Scott Sixkiller Sinquah delivered an impressive performance, this time with his young son Sonny, while the popular soapstone carving workshop connected visitors with the traditional Inuit practice dating back 7,500 years.
While celebrations in Waswanipi were postponed – “We’re not cancelling them, we will celebrate,” insisted Chief Irene Neeposh – most Cree communities held gatherings with music, feasts and family-friendly cultural activities. Whapmagoostui’s local women’s association organized its first traditional fashion show for both Cree and Inuit community members.
In Wemindji, the day began with a sunrise ceremony at 6 am, followed by walking out ceremonies, traditional games, a community feast and a concert by Kevin Boudrias. Among the many events throughout the community, a small powwow was held for the first time in four years.
“Next year we’ll have the main one for sure,” said April Dawn Georgekish-Gull. “It was the busiest Indigenous Day ever in Wemindji. Everybody was hopping around – I think there were boat races, and the school had their year-end events with tons of games and food everywhere.”
With few dancers in regalia, the powwow featured mostly inter-tribal dances with music from Chisasibi’s Heart of the Land, head dancer Lindsay Visitor, flag carrier Sean Blackned and Elders Earl and Nancy Danyluk and Charlie Louttit. Cassandra Danyluk and the Wemindji Youth Council were instrumental behind the scenes, as t-shirts and Indian tacos were given away.
Waskaganish’s celebrations kicked off with a walking-out ceremony for 16 children. Older kids were thrilled to play on the bouncy castles and carnival ride, alongside the traditional games and displays. The day was an opportunity to greet recently elected Chief Greta Cheechoo and to enjoy a large community feast.
“One of the best things about this community is the family vibe that people have for celebrations,” said organizer Vanessa Stephen. “Everyone was way too excited at the feast – they just wanted to dig into the meal. Everybody brought their own plates to take whatever they wanted back home with them.”
Stephen was among the local talent performing at the closing concert, along with Bob Diamond, Queenie Stephen and James Jonah. Earlier in the day, people enjoyed boat rides on the bay and Flora Weistche unveiled a powerful new beadwork creation called “Remember Us”, dedicated to MMIWG2S.
“Thanks to the wisdom and foresight of our leaders past and present, we enjoy the freedom to exercise our inherent rights and liberties on Eeyou Istchee,” posted Charles J. Hester. “As we commemorate the summer solstice, we not only celebrate our rich culture and heritage, but we also acknowledge the numerous contributions our people have made in building this great nation.”