National Aboriginal Day is itself an example of how the very peoples it is supposed to honour are so often misrepresented.
I do not consider myself an aboriginal person; my First Nation heritage is Mississauga from the Anishinabek Nation, and Kanienkehaka from the Haudenosaunee Confederacy. It is not my custom to jig, like the Metis, and the closest I usually get to a traditional Inuit diet is when I order my steak really rare in restaurants.
It might be administratively simpler for federal and provincial governments to lump very different peoples – 40 distinct collective First Nations like the Anishinabek and Iroquois, as well as Metis and Inuit – into one entity. But political expediency is seldom synonymous with respectful relationships.
The Indian and Northern Affairs website says National Aboriginal Day was first proclaimed by the Governor General in 1996 – but omits the fact that in 1982 the National Indian Brotherhood – predecessor to the Assembly of First Nations – had designated the longest day of each year as National First Nations Solidarity Day.
Calling all Indigenous Peoples in Canada “aboriginal” is symptomatic of the colonial attitude that European people know what’s best for us, as when they decided to outlaw our dances and spiritual symbols and send us all packing off to residential schools. They cut our hair and punished us for speaking our languages, and did many worse things than that, for which the courts are just now holding them accountable.
As some of you read this I can almost hear your eyes rolling, your indignant huffing and puffing, and perhaps the sound of pages flipping to the sports section. You might get tired of hearing the truth about our historic relationship, but we will never stop reminding you. That is one of our purposes in planning celebrations or activities each year on the first day of summer.
We want you to be amazed by the footwork of our dancers, dazzled by the array of regalia and tap your feet to the rhythym of the drum – the heartbeat of Mother Earth. And we want you to be patient if we slow your lane of traffic to hand out pamphlets informing you of our legitimate grievances. But most of all we want you to never forget that Canada will only realize its future potential by keeping faith with the promises forged between our ancestors in treaties -- that we would unite against our mutual enemies and share the wealth of this great land, as long as the grass grows.
There is a story that the women of Sitting Bull’s great encampment in 1876 at the Little Bighorn River searched out General George Armstrong Custer’s body after the great battle and pierced his eardrums with a sewing awl . “He didn’t listen to us in this life," they said. "Maybe he will in the next."
On National Aboriginal Day all we ask is for Canadians to truly listen to what we have to say.
Maurice Switzer is a citizen of the Mississaugas of Alderville First Nation. He serves as director of communications for the Union of Ontario Indians and editor of the Anishinabek News.