National Indigenous Peoples Day took place June 21 while the month’s National Indigenous History Month in June is also a significant time for Indigenous people in Canada.
The Canadian government established the event in 1996 as a symbolic national holiday to celebrate the unique heritage, cultures and contributions of First Nations, Inuit and Métis peoples. In 2009, the House of Commons passed a motion to designate June as National Indigenous History Month to honour the history, heritage and diversity of Indigenous peoples in Canada.
Before this special holiday and month were recognized, Indigenous people were seen as insignificant communities that occupied the fringes of society and did not require any special status or recognition. It was far worse in my parents’ and grandparents’ time when they were basically looked upon as a forgotten people and savages who did not really exist in any meaningful way.
There is a great amount of Indigenous history in this country to be acknowledged. If it weren’t for Indigenous leaders fighting to protect their homelands, so much of the northern wilderness would have been destroyed by mining, forestry and hydro development without any regard for the protection of the environment, ecology or even the people who lived on these lands. If First Nation leaders had not spoken up, the terrible history that my parents and others had to live through would all have been forgotten. There would have been no sense of justice or acknowledgement for the suffering my people had to endure for the simple fact that we happened to be a different culture than the one that colonized this country.
This year’s events are sad for myself and the people of my home community of Attawapiskat. In rapid succession within a month, we lost three prominent Elders – my aunt Martha Paulmartin, and Anna and Dominic Nakogee. These individuals grew up in a traditional lifestyle on the land and were raised by parents and Elders who only knew an old and ancient way of life on the James Bay coast. These Elders fluently spoke the James Bay Cree dialect and they knew so much of the history, traditions and customs of our people. I am comforted and reassured in the fact that they all raised a prominent group of sons and daughters who all carry their language and the histories of their families.
The great legacy that these Elders leave behind is in their humble nature and their never-ending sense of kindness, warmth and strength. Even after having endured periods in their youth of difficulty, discrimination and poverty, they still shared a sense of joy and happiness with others. Whenever I met these Elders, they were always happy to share a bit of history of our families, to speak our language and to make everyone laugh with the fun stories they shared. Through laughter and fun, they made every bit of knowledge a memorable experience.
Their passing reminds me how we should all remember their example of love and inclusion in the face of adversity. Even as the world changed in so many ways, Elders Martha, Anna and Dominic were always there to remind those around them to stay close to the land, to remember one another and to live life as harmoniously as possible. Their example reminds me to always remember my past, to remember where I come from, but also to stay strong and resilient to fight for future generations.
We all share the historic benefits and burdens of this country, and the recognition of Indigenous peoples’ history is just a step in the right direction of that shared past. This national holiday is a way for us to move out of the darkness of the past and walk together into a brighter future as a more inclusive nation of what we call Canada. Whether we know it or not, we all rely on one another to build this country while at the same time hearing the voices of our ancestors whispering in the wind to protect the land, the water, and the very air we breathe.
That spirit of cooperation and the memory of my Elders and my ancestors is what this holiday and this history means to me.