It seems like every page flip on my calendar reveals another “day” calling attention to one thing or another. Some of them, like National Pickle Day (Nov. 14, if you’re checking), are silly marketing gimmicks. There are also serious “days” that are effective attention-getters for raising awareness for a disease, such as World Alzheimer’s Day. Others, such as International Women’s Day and our newly minted Canadian Pride Month, provide critical moments to focus on removing barriers of inequity.
That brings us to today’s “day” – National Aboriginal Day.
Eagle Staff Carrier Bernard Nelson stands amid
dancers at the Na-Me-Res Traditional Outdoor
Pow Wow was held at Fort York as part of
National Aboriginal Day last year.
Charles Pascal calls for National Aboriginal Day to be a national holiday.
(RICHARD LAUTENS / TORONTO STAR)
The federal government created it in 1996, in consultation with First Nations, Inuit and Métis leaders, in order to celebrate the cultures and “contributions” these indigenous peoples “offer to Canada.” This notion might have been a remarkable gesture 20 years ago, but in today’s context it seems minimalist.
June 21 was chosen because of Indigenous views about the spiritual significance of the year’s longest day. Interestingly or unfortunately, the federal government views this day as a cog in itsCelebrate Canada program that also includes St. Jean Baptiste Day (La Fête Nationale in Quebec), Canadian Multiculturalism Day and Canada Day. Should National Aboriginal Day really be lumped in with other “days” that celebrate those who came “after”? Does this notion that today is just another Canadian “day” act as a reminder of the colonialism that has defined our collective history?
Last year’s Truth and Reconciliation Commission (TRC) report provides 94 Calls to Action that exhort Canadians to deal truthfully with a past marred by the horrendous consequences of removing Aboriginal children from their families in order to assimilate them into the Canadian “way of life.” The TRC report notes that dealing honestly with our own version of “cultural genocide” is necessary if we are to move forward more gracefully together, finally rid of this historical blight on our national DNA.
Imagine being able to discuss human rights with other nations we are expected to mentor, for example, with more authentic moral purpose. As the TRC chair, Sen. Murray Sinclair observes, reconciliation will take generations to heal. To underline the importance of this process, “action” number 80 in the TRC report calls for a statutory holiday, “a National Day for Truth and Reconciliation to honour survivors, their families and communities to ensure that public commemoration of the history and legacy of residential schools remains a vital component of the reconciliation process.”
So today, wonderful indigenous cultural and spiritual events will abound across Canada. That’s good for those who can take time to honour and enjoy these rich cultures.
But going forward, it is time to implement the TRC’s call to ensure that an annual statutory holiday will provide all of us with a collective “accountability day” to examine a report card noting progress on the other 93 Calls to Action. As the report notes, “Reconciliation is not an Aboriginal problem, it is a Canadian one. Virtually all aspects of Canadian society may need to be reconsidered.”
June 21 has been a statutory holiday in the Northwest Territories since 2001 and Yukon is moving to make it official there as well. That’s not surprising, given the high percentage of indigenous peoples who live in those areas (52 per cent and 23 per cent, respectively). It’s all to the good, but nothing less than a national statutory holiday will do.
There will be many non-Indigenous people who think this is all silly, that we already have enough official holidays. They might wish to reflect on the legitimacy of this newly proposed national public holiday during a few upcoming statutory days off. At the end of this week, Quebecers will celebrate their Fête Nationale; a week later, Canada Day provides an opportunity to celebrate 149 years for the rest us whose ancestors also came from away.
It simply doesn’t pass the test of reason that we have two public holidays that honour those who historically represent white colonizers without one to honour the colonized through telling the truth about our shared past in order to commit to genuine reconciliation.
Charles E. Pascal is a professor at OISE/University of Toronto and a former Ontario deputy minister of education.