Today is National Aboriginal Day, a time to celebrate a diversity of cultures

Today is National Aboriginal Day, a time for all Canadians to celebrate the diverse cultures of Aboriginal Peoples, says Randy Pitawanakwat, coordinator of York’s Aboriginal Student Community, Office of the Vice-President of Students.

“It is an opportunity to learn more about and to recognize the contributions made by First Nations, Métis and Inuit peoples to Canadian society,” says Pitawanakwat, who helps organize York’s annual Aboriginal Powwow.

Right: A Fancy Shawl dancer at the 2010 Aboriginal Powwow at York. Photo by Jo-Anne McArthur.

The Aboriginal Student Community is one way York helps facilitate learning about Aboriginal history and culture, while supporting Aboriginal students, not only on National Aboriginal Day, but all year. This fall, it will move from the Health, Nursing & Environmental Studies Building into new offices at York Lanes. At the same time, it will enhance its services and expand its staff by two, adding an Aboriginal counsellor and an Aboriginal recruitment officer. “This is made possible with new government funding to develop and deliver support services to help Aboriginal learners succeed at the postsecondary level,” says Pitawanakwat.

An Aboriginal Peer Mentor Program will also begin in the fall that will help first-year students adjust to university life by matching them with upper-year students. Mentors will work with students throughout the year assisting in academic areas as well as providing moral support during crucial periods.

In addition, the Indigenous Speakers Series and a Visiting Elders Program, which began earlier this year, will be expanded in the coming academic year. “These two programs not only provide vital support to Aboriginal students, but give students the opportunity to learn about traditions and enhance their spiritual growth and identity,” Pitawanakwat says.

Left: Four Aboriginal students, left to right, Melissa Elliott, Jeremy Proulx, Brian Norton and Zachary Smith, enjoying the warm weather in front of York’s Vari Hall. Photo by Agostino Novello.

In some ways, York has taken a leading role in providing aboriginal learning opportunities. It was the first university in Canada to officially sanction graduate thesis work in one of the Aboriginal languages spoken in this country (see YFile, Aug. 13, 2008). And, before that, in 1993, York’s Osgoode Hall Law School developed an Intensive Program in Aboriginal Lands, Resources & Governments, the most ambitious of its kind in North America.

Three years later in 1996, former governor general Roméo LeBlanc officially proclaimed June 21 as National Aboriginal Day.

Then acting minister of Canadian heritage Lucienne Robilla said, “This day of celebration is an opportunity for all Canadians, especially young people, to learn more about the Aboriginal cultural heritages of Canada. By sharing our knowledge and experience, there will be greater understanding and harmony among all Canadians."

Right: Tom Jacobs (left) and David Jock perfoming a Haudenosaunee water drum social song at York’s 2010 Aboriginal Powwow. Photo by Jo-Anne McArthur.

It is a day that York’s Centre for Human Rights also encourages everyone to celebrate. “The Centre for Human Rights at York University is committed to fostering and advancing a culture of respect and acceptance as well as an appreciation of diversity and difference. Part of the centre’s mandate is to support and encourage initiatives and events that promote greater awareness and appreciation of York’s beautiful and diverse community,” says Noël Badiou, director of the Centre for Human Rights. “National Aboriginal Day is one such event that celebrates the important and continued contributions made by Aboriginal Peoples in Canada. The centre joins the York community in recognizing and appreciating York’s own Aboriginal students, staff and faculty and celebrates Aboriginal Peoples’ achievements.”

The date for National Aboriginal Day was chosen after consultations with various Aboriginal groups because it corresponds to the summer solstice, the longest day of the year, says Pitawanakwat. “In addition, many indigenous peoples throughout the world historically celebrate the summer solstice as it is considered symbolically important within their cultures. It is a time when indigenous peoples honour their connection to the sun, the source of the energy that sustains all life on Earth.”

Aboriginal groups have celebrated their cultures and heritage at this time of year long before it was declared National Aboriginal Day. Celebrations are held all across Canada including in the Greater Toronto Area where various Aboriginal agencies hold events and activities, not only on June 21, but throughout the month.

For more information about area events, visit the events page of the Native Canadian Centre of Toronto Web site or the City of Toronto Web site.

To learn more about Aboriginal services at York, visit the Aboriginal Services Web site, check out the Aboriginal Student Community Newsletter, IndigeNEWS, or contact Pitawanakwat at ext. 22607 or

The following is a brief history of the origins of National Aboriginal Day:

National Indian Brotherhood (now the Assembly of First Nations) calls for the creation of June 21 as National Aboriginal Solidarity Day.

The Royal Commission on Aboriginal Peoples recommends the designation of a National First Peoples Day.

The Sacred Assembly, a national conference of Aboriginal and non-Aboriginal people chaired by Elijah Harper, calls for a national holiday to celebrate the contributions of Aboriginal Peoples.

June 13 – Former governor general Roméo LeBlanc declares June 21 as National Aboriginal Day after consultations with various Aboriginal groups.

June 21 – National Aboriginal Day is first celebrated with events from coast to coast to coast.

Canadians from all walks of life participated in the many events that took place from coast to coast to coast highlighting the 10th anniversary of National Aboriginal Day.