Canadians celebrated the cultures and contributions of First Nations, Inuit, and Métis Indigenous people on Tuesday as part of National Indigenous Peoples Day.
The day is celebrated each year on June 21, which is the same day as the Summer solstice and the longest day of the year.
To honour the Indigenous community, the Town of Bradford West Gwillimbury held a ceremony at the Leisure Centre Tuesday morning led by Mayor Rob Keffer, Bond Head resident and First Nation Storyteller White Eagle (Doug Gray), and Bond Head United Church Minister Patti Rodgers.
“The Town of Bradford West Gwillimbury acknowledges the rich culture, heritage and achievements of the First Nations, Inuit, and Métis people in Canada,” said Keffer. “The Town of BWG recognizes the inherent rights of Indigenous Peoples as the original inhabitants of the land where we stand. Through this acknowledgment, we underline that the fundamental strength of our community lies in our unique racial, ethno-cultural, and Indigenous diversity.”
National Indigenous Peoples Day was declared in 1996 by then Governor General of Canada Roméo LeBlanc as the result of consultations and statements of support from various Indigenous groups.
“The Town of BWG council and the people of this town are committed to creating an inclusive society, and we both seek and welcome opportunities to strengthen ties with our Indigenous communities,” said Keffer. “We support the aims of truth and reconciliation, to shine light on the tragic legacy of the treatment of Indigenous people in Canada including in residential schools, and to commemorate the survivors, their families, and their communities.”
White Eagle led those in attendance through a smudging ceremony while also telling stories of what he and his family have been through as Indigenous people in Canada.
“We’re honoured today to have several elders and a council that has done a good job and they’ve stayed the course,” he said. “Here we are today to celebrate the longest day of the year. The wonderful thing is as I look around here, I see the children of tomorrow gathering. What we’re doing today is we are celebrating. When we walk a mile in our moccasins, we learn all about the teachings of Canada’s first people.”
To help people understand the trials and tribulations of Indigenous people in Canada, White Eagle told a story about when his father was a prisoner of war, and his mother was left to raise their family on her own.
“My mother had to raise her children on her own as a Native woman,” he said. “At nighttime she would have us push the furniture against the door and stick knives in the door because men would come and try and rape our mother.”
He also spoke of a situation that took place when he was a young man travelling in northern Ontario to Red Lake.
“My first week in Red Lake they found the body of a young Native woman down by the water,” he said. “The miners had shoved a bottle up inside of her, and they never even chose to find out who did that because she was only a Native woman.”
Rodgers, who has worked with Indigenous people throughout Ontario and Manitoba, emphasized why the ancestors of settlers must listen before they work to reconcile the harm done to Indigenous people.
“I was hesitant to accept the mayor’s invitation (to speak) because I believe for people like me, whose ancestors came to this land in ships, today is a day to listen,” she explained. “To listen to the voices of people whose traditional territory I stand upon. I speak as someone who has travelled across the traditional territories of Canada and listened to survivors, voices far wise than mine. I speak as a white woman.
"Five generations ago my ancestors came to Canada. They did not know the horrible price paid for the land. That knowledge has fallen to me, it is a horrible truth. Seven generations of human beings, the first people of Canada were and continue to be cheated, robbed, beaten, incarcerated, starved, infected, poison, murdered, abused, stolen, misrepresented, unrepresented, ignored, and almost, but not quite, annihilated for land. For the land I call home and the life I call mine.”
Knowing the guilt that comes with the knowledge of what has been done to Canada’s first people for over a century, Rodgers made a point to explain the trap that white knighting can be when looking to make a difference.
“I once packed up some running shoes and a bunch of hymn books and I mailed them to a community that I heard was riddled with poverty, inadequate housing, education, and healthcare,” she said. “It felt good to be doing something and I patted myself on the back for my good work, until I learned the hymn books were useless because that community worships in Cree and not English and there was no place to warehouse the running shoes.
“I hadn’t taken the time to even ask the people of that community what they needed, and I realized my true motivation was to do something that made me feel better. What they needed was my attention, not my charity. I learned to pay attention when I worked with the Aboriginals Ministries unit at the United Church travelling across Canada and meeting with leaders in communities.
"I find great hope in the work of the Truth and Reconciliation Commission, it has brought public attention to the truths of colonialism and residential schools and their multi-generational impact on Indigenous people and Canada as a whole. It did this work by listening, its recommendations offer real practical solutions that begin with building relationships with each other.
“My ancestors were not bad people; they were ordinary people caught up in an evil system. Gandhi once wrote, ‘you assist an evil system most effectively by obeying its orders and decrees. An evil system does not deserve such allegiance.’ Breaking allegiance with an evil system begins with me. May this day strengthen our relationship.”
As the ceremony came to an end, White Eagle asked everyone to put their hands over their hearts to remember all of those who have “touched our hearts.”
“How we got here is unimportant, all we need to know is that we are loved beyond all measure,” he said. “Each one of us are here to celebrate life, to celebrate Canada’s first people, and also to honour those who have gone before us like shooting stars.
"We’ve all experienced someone who has passed through our life like a shooting star, but they’ve touched our life in such a way that we will never be the same. As you leave today, you’ll leave with the truth in your heart, and you’ll begin to walk that truth. Take with you what we have heard.”