Celebrating living heritage, honouring the past: National Aboriginal Day



Kate Aley

Logo of the First Nations tribe in the Municipality of Pontiac.

June 21 is Canada's National Aboriginal Day (NAD), created to recognize the history, culture and contributions of First Nations, Inuit and Métis peoples. According to the Indigenous and Northern Affairs page of Canada.ca website, the Canadian Constitution recognizes these three groups as Aboriginal peoples, also known as Indigenous Peoples.

Pontiac 2020.ca asked Quyon's Garry Belair, Chief White Owl, now in his fifth year of leadership of the Pontiac Algonkin Outaouais tribe, to explain the significance of the day.

Garry Belair, Chief White Owl with two moose-hide drums

P2020.ca: What does NAD symbolize?

Garry Belair: It was created to recognize the First Nations' contributions to this country and all that indigenous people did for Canada. 

P2020.ca: Why isn't NAD more widely known?

GB: It was something kept hush-hush for a long time. Before 1996, people weren't declaring themselves to be aboriginal [if they lived] off reserve. You weren't talking about it. It's just that there was a bad reputation about native people. Other people in Canada used to think of them as people on welfare, abusing the system, free-loading on the government.

The feather is a deeply siginificant symbol for First Nations.

P2020.ca: What has changed?

GB: Now with the revelations from the Truth and Reconciliation Commission (TRC), we know what happened to the native people [in an attempt] to abolish them. They recognize it more, the rights of native people. The [findings from] the TRC were a big part of the recognition of the native people. Now a lot of people are going to the "red road", that's what we call it, seeking spiritual guidance from the First Nations culture. People are really seeking it [...] both non-native people and native people [who don't know about their native background]. We've been doing a lot of research, [making] family trees. People want to find out their roots, it's something to be proud of now.

Beautiful skies for the summer solstice

P2020.ca: Personally, how do you see Aboriginal Day?

GB: It's a day of thinking about our elders, thanking them for what they did for us and for what we have today. It's also a way to say thank you to the greater spirits for what they have given us. The 21st of June is the longest day of the year; that's why they gave us that day [for the NAD], because we always used to use that day for our celebrations.

Today there will be a spiritual ceremony on Victoria Island. There's always a big ceremony there, every different tribe comes to celebrate in their own way; smudging, drumming to celebrate that day. We thank Mother Earth and Father sun, because we are grateful for what they've given us.