Hans Tammemagi
Girls dance like angels at Alert Bay's Big House—but most likely not for Canada Day.

Indigenous People Eschew Canada Day Celebrations

Hans Tammemagi

It’s Canada Day north of the 49th Parallel, when bands play, fireworks light the sky, maple leaf flags flutter proudly in the breeze, and barbeques send tantalizing smells wafting into the summer heat.

The national holiday marks the anniversary of the July 1, 1867, passage of the British North America Act uniting three colonies into the country called Canada, and is a day of celebration across the land. But for many indigenous people, July 1 will be a day of rest, not of celebration. Indigenous people in Canada largely consider themselves Natives first and Canadians second. Furthermore, cynicism runs deep, making for widespread indifference to Canada Day.

“We don’t think about Canada Day one way or another,” said Johnna Sparrow-Crawford, Musqueam First Nation. “We don’t really recognize it, and enjoy it as a statutory holiday, a day off.”

Aboriginal Tourism B.C. is not planning anything official to mark Canada Day either.

“I am both Native and Canadian, but Native first,” said Paula Amos, Squamish First Nation and Communications Manager for Aboriginal Tourism B.C. “To me, National Aboriginal Day is more important than Canada Day. However, Canada Day offers an opportunity to educate [non-Native] people. Thus it’s important for us to have a role in the day, to gain leverage.”

RELATED: Joyous Celebration: Feting Canada With Indigenous Song, Dance and Art

Likewise, no Canada Day celebrations are planned at Ucluelet First Nation on the west side of Vancouver Island. There, National Aboriginal Day is considered more important. As a post-treaty nation, however, which since 2011 is self-governing rather than controlled by the federal Indian and Northern Affairs department, the Ucluelet consider their treaty implementation day as the most important of all. This anniversary is celebrated on September 21.

A sense of disillusionment is not surprising, given that indigenous peoples have historically been badly underrepresented in Canada’s parliament and thus have been barely able to contribute to the political nation-building exercise. The most famous elected Native was Louis Riel, who sought to preserve the rights and culture of the Métis during the encroachment of Europeans into Manitoba and the west in the 1800s. Riel was elected three times to the Canadian House of Commons, but because he was considered a criminal, he never sat. In 1885, he was hung. As a traitor for leading a Métis rebellion.

Elijah Harper, Ojibwa-Cree, was another noted Native politician. In 1990, as Manitoba's lone aboriginal member of the legislature, he held an eagle feather in his hand and steadfastly opposed the Meech Lake Accord—a constitutional amendment to gain Quebec’s acceptance of the Constitution Act. The accord had been negotiated without the consultation of First Nations, and Harper's stance permanently derailed the accord.

RELATED: Remembering Iconic Leader Elijah Harper, Two Years On

Both these men were heroes to their people, contributing enormously to raising the role of aboriginal peoples in Canada. Non-Natives, however, saw them in a completely different light.

To be sure, there have been some gains. Political representation has improved in recent years. A record seven aboriginals were elected in the May 2011 federal election, representing 2.3 per cent of the seats in the House of Commons (aboriginals form 3.8 per cent of the population). In the Senate, however, the situation still lags badly as only 15 indigenous people have been appointed since confederation in 1867.

A glimmer of hope for national understanding emerged with the June 2 release of the Truth and Reconciliation Commission’s report labeling the residential schools program as “cultural genocide.” The report, which calls for an ambitious overhaul of the entire relationship between aboriginal and non-aboriginal Canadians, offers far-reaching recommendations, with a dash of optimism about the future.

RELATED: 'Cultural Genocide,' Truth and Reconciliation Commission Calls Residential Schools

Canada's National Aboriginal Day Has Potential to Change the Conversation and the Government

“The Truth and Reconciliation report brings absolute certainty to history and the difficulties aboriginals faced,” said Keith Henry, Métis, and CEO of Aboriginal Tourism B.C. “We need to encourage governments. It’s easy to be cynical, but it’s better to be positive and build a real partnership.”

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