Today is National Aboriginal Day. It’s supposed to be a day where people recognize the contributions of First Nations, Inuit and Métis people and culture. When it was declared in 1996, Governor General Roméo LeBlanc had this to say:
“Many cities in Canada are less than a hundred years old. But aboriginal people have lived in this land for more than a hundred centuries
“From coast to coast and in the Arctic, they first explored our lakes and rivers, they first mastered our forests and prairies, and they helped those who came later to join them.”
That’s an important sentiment, and one that is still often buried. One of my hobbies is collecting various histories of Canada. It’s fascinating to see how our national narrative has evolved over the past century. In early books, Canada is a barren, uninhabited wasteland before Europeans arrive. Slowly but surely, Aboriginal people work their way into the story as the years progress. But even now, most histories take a cursory glance at pre-contact times. They acknowledge that people were here, but don’t really get much into what they did, before or after the Europeans arrived.
And I do want to point out it’s not as if there isn’t material to work with. Visiting places like Head-Smashed-In Buffalo Jump or Writing-On-Stone provincial park, you can see strong recordings of history from First Nations people. Similar examples exist across the country. The old narrative, the one of Europeans creating this country, is a pervasive one, despite evidence to the contrary. They had a role, but they didn’t do it in a vacuum, and they didn’t do it from scratch.
I’ll admit to not being well-schooled in the details of Aboriginal histories, but I’m equally unschooled in the details of other histories. I’m more interested in the broad strokes, the narratives that shape the way people think about their country and themselves. And I don’t think that, as a whole, Canadians think of themselves as being shaped by Aboriginal people, historically or today.
Last year I wrote a post called “Stereotypes” that was well-received. It was about my counter to the negative views a number of people have of Aboriginal people. In it, I wrote this:
“In my job, that of finding interesting people doing interesting things in northern BC, I have been privileged to learn about and speak with some amazing individuals. And among those amazing individuals are more than a handful of Aboriginal people.
They are using limited resources to do incredible things. Everything from re-learning and re-imagining traditional culture to creating iPhone apps that teach native languages to negotiating with multi-billion dollar companies over how best to distribute resources. Rappers, politicians, business-people, teachers, doctors, athletes. They are no better and no worse than anyone else, but they are doing it within a system that until recently was explicitly against them and still has more barriers to entry than you may believe. They are having to fight against prejudices and stereotypes. They are not alone in having the odds stacked against them, to be sure, but it has been my own experience that the rest of the country views Aboriginal people with more apprehension than they do any other ethnic group.”
Close to a year on, this holds truer than ever. On a weekly basis I interact with leaders and artists and thinkers of Aboriginal heritage who are doing amazing things. I get to talk with them and learn more about their perspectives. They are varied and flawed and human and shaping what this country is and will be. I truly wish that more people could have the conversations that I get to have. Days like today are an opportunity to do just that.
A couple of notes if you are in Prince George. There is a lot going on today– at 10 in front of city hall there’s a new piece of public art being unveiled depicting the culture of the Lheidli T’enneh. From 10 until 9 Carrier Sekani Family Services is hosting celebrations in Fort George Park. And this is the last week to see the very good exhibit “First” at the Two Rivers Gallery, collecting a variety of pieces from Aboriginal artists across the province. Thursdays are free.
Update: I made this walking tour for you to use.
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