What, why and how to celebrate National Indigenous Peoples Day

Photograph by Marissa Magneson
Larissa Crawford

Thursday is National Indigenous Peoples Day.

Larissa Crawford is a graduating student from the International Development Studies and Communication Studies undergraduate programs. She is also the Indigenous Student Transitions Coordinator at the Centre for Aboriginal Student Services at York University and identifies as Métis-Jamaican.

Crawford sent the following article to YFile about the significance of National Indigenous Peoples Day and what we should keep in mind when marking this important day.

On Thursday, June 21, celebrations across Canada will take place in the name of National Indigenous Peoples Day. Some may attend powwows, others may feel inclined to stop in at one of the bustling Indigenous pop-up street markets or adorn their First Nations-made beaded earrings. There are many ways to celebrate National Indigenous Peoples Day, however many Canadians may not understand what this day is, why it is needed or how to appropriately celebrate.

What is National Indigenous Peoples Day?

The date of June 21 was chosen to celebrate National Indigenous Peoples Day because it corresponds to the summer solstice, the longest day of the year and a time of year that many Indigenous groups have traditionally celebrated their culture and heritage. In 1996, the Governor General of Canada proclaimed that the federal government would recognize National Aboriginal Day on this date. In 2017, Canadian Prime Minister Justin Trudeau announced the symbolic renaming to “National Indigenous Peoples Day,” coinciding with the preferred term to refer to the original inhabitants of what we now know as Canada.

Most often, a generic explanation of National Indigenous Peoples Day will define it as being a day for all Canadians to celebrate the cultures of First Nations, Inuit and Métis Peoples and their contributions to Canada. This only reflects half of its purpose, the other being to recognize Canada’s colonial history, the contemporary issues and realities of Indigenous Peoples and Indigenous futurism.

Why is it important to have a National Indigenous Peoples Day?

National Indigenous Peoples Day is June 21. Photograph by Marissa Magneson

It is important to celebrate Indigenous contributions to Canada and the rich and diverse cultures of Indigenous Peoples. What many Canadians do not realize is that there are many Indigenous nations in Canada: there is no one “Indigenous perspective” or universal belief, style of art or dance. National Indigenous Peoples Day is an opportunity to learn about and celebrate the unique Indigenous Peoples in the community and region.

To choose only to recognize certain aspects and contributions of Indigenous Peoples as  worth celebrating can do more harm than good. If colonial legacies are ignored and individuals only choose to recognize the beautiful artwork or ceremony of Indigenous Peoples then not only is the harsh historical and contemporary realities of Indigenous Peoples erased, but there is also a failure recognize the resiliency and strength it took to keep these cultures and these people alive (which only makes everything worth celebrating all that more impressive and inspiring).

National Indigenous Peoples Day offers everyone an opportunity to deepen their understanding and awareness of the unique adversities that Indigenous Peoples face and have overcome. With a flood of efforts to indigenize and improve relations with Indigenous Peoples after the release of the Truth and Reconciliation Calls to Action, culturally appropriate resources and information are readily accessible (and comprehensive) for all Canadians.

As MP Georgina Jolibois said in 2017: “We can’t change the past; however, we can be honest and educate ourselves so that history does not repeat itself… Through a sense of hope, we can develop a path forward together, as our ancestors intended.” 

Appropriate ways to celebrate National Indigenous Peoples Day

Here are some considerations to ask yourself and some steps to take before and while celebrating National Indigenous Peoples Day:

Learn some Indigenous language. Just as a responsible and courteous traveller learns some basic language skills before immersing oneself in a culture and place that is not familiar, so should Canadians with Indigenous languages. There is a nation-wide push for Indigenous language revitalization and for some to be recognized as official languages. (If this became the case, more than just Indigenous people would have to speak the language(s).) Furthermore, in the short term, you could make someone’s day by taking the time and respect to learn a few greeting and parting words. To learn more about Indigenous language revitalization and languages of Ontario, visit http://mncfn.ca/ontario-investing-in-indigenous-language-revitalization/.

Know whose land you are on. If you are non-Indigenous, you are occupying land that is being colonized. To have a greater understanding of the land’s original caregivers and history, visit Whose Land, an educational tool and interactive map. It is useful for understanding Indigenous treaties and communities across Canada. The website offers videos of appropriate land acknowledgments.

Understand what allyship to Indigenous people can look like. An outline of allyship and responsibilities by an Anishinaabe-kwe scholar can be found in the Ally Bill of Responsibilities (a PDF file that is available for download). This is important to review if one is concerned about practicing allyship appropriately.

Understand that it is not the job of Indigenous People to teach you. Métis-Irish author, Melanie Lefebrve, wrote, “If you don’t have time to educate yourself, then I can’t help you,” in “It’s Not My Job to Teach You about Indigenous People” published in The Walrus. Individuals should not expect that all Indigenous people are experts on all things Indigenous, or that they have the time and energy to teach.

Support Indigenous businesses and services. There are many Indigenous businesses and services across Toronto and the Greater Toronto Area that would benefit from non-Indigenous customers, and shopping with them can be a great way to support Indigenous people. Visit the Canadian Council for Aboriginal Businesses Membership Directory to find an array of Indigenous businesses from across Canada (search by province, name or sector).

Know the protocol. Take the time before going to powwows or a ceremony to understand the protocol, whether that be by researching or kindly asking a volunteer or worker once you’ve arrived. Read A Guide to Taking Your Family to a Powwow for the First Time (available on CBC) for some powwow protocol.

Here is a list of National Indigenous Peoples Day celebrations taking place during the week of June 21 in Toronto and the GTA:

  • Attend the Na-Me-Res Annual Powwow on Saturday, June 23 at Fort York starting at noon.
  • Visit the Indigenous Arts Festival taking place between Thursday, June 21 to Sunday, June 24 at Fort York and includes education days and public festivals.
  • Go to APTN Indigenous Day Live on Saturday, June 23 at Fort York starting at 5 p.m. and catch some of the most recognized entertainers in Indigenous music and television.
  • If you’re out in Brampton, the National Indigenous Peoples Day at Garden Square will be taking place on Thursday, June 2 from 12:30 to 1:30 p.m. and 6 to 8:30 p.m.
  • The Toronto Zoo National Indigenous Peoples Day event will take place on Thursday, June 21 and will feature Indigenous music, art, vendors, and speakers. Free admission will be provided to Indigenous peoples with the presentation of a status card, Métis card, or an Inuit Health Branch Client Identification Number (N-Number).
  • The Native Women’s Resource Centre of Toronto will be hosting an Indigenous Peoples Day Celebration on Wednesday, June 20, from 12:30 to 2 p.m.
  • The Native Canadian Centre of Toronto is having an Indigenous History Month Celebration on Wednesday, June 27, from 12 to 8 p.m. in Dundas Square in downtown Toronto. The event is free, and the celebration will be plentiful.

For more information about National Indigenous Peoples Day and Indigenous History Month, visit the Centre for Aboriginal Student Services at York University. The office is located in Room 246 York Lanes, Keele Campus.