Today, June 21st, is Canada’s National Aboriginal Day. This morning, like most other days, I woke up, made my coffee, and sat down to read the news. The consensus seems to be that today is a day to celebrate Aboriginal cultures and to remember our vibrant history within Canada. In the newspapers, stories of celebration and cultural performance encourage all Canadians to learn about us, to let us share our cultures with them, and to celebrate Aboriginals as part of Canada’s strong foundation of diversity. And, like most other days, I also read stories about the ongoing struggles for Indigenous land rights, protection of Indigenous grave sites, and recognition of high rates of violence. Yet these realities – the celebration and the struggles – seem to be kept very separate, as though they cannot exist together or are irreconcilable in the minds of Canadians and the federal government.
The Aboriginal Affairs and Northern Development websitedeclares National Aboiginal Day as kickstarting 11 days of their “Celebrate Canada” festivities. This spirit of celebration and focus on cultural performance is at the heart of this day’s definition and vision, which seems to encourage a singular message: that Aboriginal people are welcomed into Canada as dancers, singers and cultural artifacts. This vision disempowers Aboriginal people’s struggles to gain sovereignty, to settle land and resource disputes, and to define ourselves not as subjects of Canada but as citizens of our own nations, on our own terms. Defining our cultural traditions as part of Canada’s history takes away their political significance as our systems of law, governance and identity. This is no coincidence, as the federal government would obviously not encourage a day to support the recognition of Indigenous nations as sovereign entities.
So what does it mean for us, as Indigenous people, to celebrate this day? Are there ways we can resignify our cultural performances on our own terms, and to remind Canadians that our songs and dances are much more than just lunchtime entertainment? What does it mean for us to be put on display, without recognition of the struggle it has taken for our survival? Where I live, here on Coast Salish territories, we might remind people that the potlatch and other local practices were banned in the Indian Act for over 80 years and only survived because of the resilience and determination of our ancestors to keep our worldviews and systems of governance alive. The dances and songs are inherently politically charged, and are part of our identity as survivors of genocidal policies. These histories cannot be separated from our cultural practices, regardless of the government’s attempts to refame them as celebrations of Canada’s multicultural history.
Many Aboriginal organizations and communities use this day as an opportunity to showcase the strength and resilience of Indigenous youth and elders, focusing on their success, agency and vibrancy. In this way, I suppose we might look at redefining National Aboriginal Day in terms that benefit us and our communities. Yet I worry that this continues to feed the government message about this day, and the role we have in Canada’s story about itself as a country without a history of colonial violence.
And so, today, I will not be celebrating Canada’s National Aboriginal Day. I will do what I do every day, putting my energy into cultivating the strength, resilience and beauty of our Indigenous communities, but for ourselves and on our own terms. I will try to cultivate understanding and education among non-Indignous and Indigenous people, in efforts to build networks of support and solidarity for the struggles facing our communities in order to create a brighter future for the next generations. And I will give thanks to my ancestors for keeping our cultural practices alive despite the government’s attempts to squash them, both through the Indian Act, and now through taking away their political significance. National Aboriginal Day is no friend of mine. Only when every day becomes a day for the recognition of Indigenous self-determination, and the simultaneous recognition of the harms of colonialism, will I be able to truly celebrate.