After a remarkably difficult year, capped off by the discovery of the remains of 215 Indigenous children at a former residential school near Kamloops, B.C., we asked prominent Indigenous leaders and artists to open up about their troubles, triumphs and what they think about the day recognizing and celebrating the First Nations, Inuit and Métis peoples of Canada.
The questions we asked were simple: What does your Indigenous identity mean to you? Does this year’s observance hold increased significance?
Their answers have been edited and condensed.
T’áncháy Redvers is an advocate, writer, creator and multidisciplinary performer who co-founded the We Matter campaign with her brother. The national campaign and organization is dedicated to creating spaces and words of support to Indigenous young folks who may be going through tough times.
“My Indigenous, and more specifically, my Dene and Métis identity, means everything to me. It is who I am, how I walk in this world, how I see and experience this world and how I feel. Being Dene and Métis means I am a part of something bigger than myself – I belong to an entire nation of people, to community, and to a long line of ancestors who came before me. This is so special. Reclaiming Indigenous identity and being proud of Indigenous identity is the biggest resistance to colonial forces that have tried to quite literally exterminate us.
I will never stop being proud of who I am or fighting for my voice to be heard, because being Dene deserves no less. And I hope that in sharing and carving out space for myself, other Dene young people see that this space is for them as well.
National Indigenous Peoples Day is an acknowledgement of all the incredible Indigenous people who have existed since time immemorial on these lands that we call Canada. It is also an acknowledgment of the systemic colonization and cultural genocide that has and continues to take place on these lands. It is a time for non-Indigenous people to think hard about how they exist in this world in relation to the Indigenous people and communities who continue to fight for rights, justice and safety.
For me personally, National Indigenous Peoples Day takes place every single day. So long as I exist and take up space in the places I do, I am the remembrance that Indigenous people have always existed and will always continue to exist – and I will never remain silent about my history or that of my people.”
Dene National Chief Norman Yakeleya
“Being the national chief certainly has given me an insight to the struggle for respect, recognition and justice for a nation that has been subjected to long-held beliefs that came out of the doctrine of colonialism.
That means the Indigenous people in Canada were not looked upon as people and that started the whole conflict of the western view of having discovered new lands with no people living on them. So they came with the view that nobody was living in Canada and it was all new and they had the authority given by the pope and the king to do whatever they wanted.
It started from there, and ever since they’ve arrived on our shores, the Indigenous people have always wondered who are these people that can do anything they want on our lands without asking the original owners.
It’s always been a struggle for the Indigenous people to seek recognition, respect and justice. And so, the struggle continues.
What our Elders told us in the past about these residential schools, people really did not totally comprehend what they were saying.
And so today with that discovery, the churches and the federal government can no longer hide. It is waking up a nation to the injustice that the federal government and the churches of Canada did to the people.
A lot of families are waiting for their loved ones to come home or to learn what happened to them when they were attending residential schools. A lot of them never came back. And with this discovery it is waking up the Indigenous people to reaffirm that justice needs to be recognized by the governments and the churches.
We’re also recognizing that it’s been 100 years since the signing of Treaty 11 and we want to honour our oral history and traditions of the treaties that we made with Canada on a nation-to-nation basis.
Through the Indigenous days of celebration we are saying thank you to the Elders for making a strong treaty and through their oral histories, today now we keep their words. And what we’ve seen with the residential schools, we know the government has not kept theirs.
We are coming back to who we are as Indigenous and Dene people and living now according to what the Elders are telling us. And that is the great transition we are making today. We are getting ourselves stronger by staying together and speaking with one voice and we’re not going anywhere.
North Slave Métis Alliance president Bill Enge
Bill Enge is president of the North Slave Métis Alliance, which usually hosts a fish fry in Somba K’e Civic Plaza in honour of National Indigenous Peoples Day. Sadly, it will not be taking place this year due to the Covid-19 pandemic but Enge said the Alliance is, “looking forward to making our big comeback next year.”
I’m a Métis and my identity, it means a lot to me. When I get up in the morning and I look in the mirror, what I see looking back at me is a Métis person who has a rich and long history in Canada.
My ancestors not only are from the land here, but they also endured the hardships and legacy of colonialism. and it is because of my ancestors that I’m here today. And I see myself here in my homeland.
This is a part of who I am.
My blood is of this land and of this territory. My Métis roots are here on my traditional lands where I live and where I have a sense of belonging and belonging somewhere is an affirmation of who one is and that they have a place on this planet.
National Indigenous People’s Day is a day for all Canadians, Aboriginal and non- Aboriginal alike, to celebrate and recognize the contributions that the Indigenous peoples have made to the establishment, creation and ongoing evolution of this country.
The indigenous people have always been here. And we’ve always played a part in the development of Canada.
The Indigenous people were here for thousands of years before colonialism started and with colonialism, the Indigenous peoples were always a part of this experiment of Canada, this colonial development.
This is a time for all Canadians to take stock of our country. Appreciate the contribution the Indigenous peoples have made to it, and celebrate it together because one day we’re going to achieve true reconciliation and be harmonized everyone together.
I think that’s the track that Canada is on and we’re still evolving and improving and getting better.
The Indigenous peoples of Canada have always known there were unmarked graves of residential school children all over Canada. I’ve known about it for a long time and The Truth and Reconciliation Commission made mention of it several years ago when they came up with their report, so it’s been there, we know that there are unmarked graves out there. I think the discovery of 215 unmarked graves of Indigenous children brought the matter to the consciousness of Canadians, and people around the world.
This really has just made it real for everybody, made it real for Canadians, that this actually happened. It’s not just some abstract story. It’s actually right in everybody’s face. And I believe that there’s going to be more discoveries of this nature. And, indeed, now that this reality, this tragedy, has come to the fore, this is a time for Canadians to reflect on that legacy and provide Canadians with a better understanding of why the Aboriginal people, the Indigenous people of Canada, find themselves at the bottom rung of every single social measurement there is in this country.
It’s time for Canadians to address the wrongs of the past and to have an understanding that Indigenous peoples need Canadians to provide the kind of help that we’ve been asking for.”
Catherine Lafferty is a published author and an Indigenous law student who grew up in Yellowknife. Her latest book, Land-Water-Sky, was recently nominated for an Indigenous Voices Award.
“National Indigenous Peoples Day is a day to celebrate the many different Indigenous cultures across, so called, Canada but it also a day to recognize that Canada still has a long way to go until it recognizes the many sovereign nations and give back the land and title that is rightfully theirs.
Given the recent findings of the unearthed children across Canada, the federal government, the provinces, the church, the British government and the RCMP need to apologize and assist First Nations communities as much as possible in the uncovering of the many more children yet to be found in the coming months.”
Garry Bailey, president of the NWT Métis Nation, called on the federal government to implement the Daniels decision, which would recognize Métis across Canada as having Indian status. He did note the GNWT has done so for the Métis in the territory, “Hats off to the GNWT,” he said. “They’ve honoured the federal government’s responsibility, so I thank them for that.”
It’s not a good feeling right now.
We’ve been fighting for a long time and the discovery of 215 graves in Kamloops definitely reminds us about outstanding issues and it’s really triggered the trauma our members faced from the colonial actions of the government.
I think it serves as a reminder, the steps we must take to honour our traditional way of life. Yeah, not much to celebrate.
I challenge the government to renew its relationship with the Métis nation, a nation of resilient people. We’ve been here and we’re here to stay. They have to recognize us, they have to finalize our claims. And we have to get this relationship going as a government-to-government relationship, instead of them governing our territory and benefiting from it.
Normally it would be a great day to so celebrate but we’ve just been feeling that things have been going too slow. In 1996 we first signed our first framework and agreed to negotiate and that was some time ago.
We’ve never tried to take on the world and say we own it.
I think a start would be recognizing the history of the Northwest Territory Métis Nation and the First Nations and respecting what’s happened to the Aboriginal people for hundreds of years.
I wish everybody the best for the day. Covid times are crazy but hopefully people can get out their guitars and fiddles and get some people singing.
Commissioner of the Northwest Territories Margaret Thom
It is an honour to have National Indigenous Peoples Day as a statutory holiday because of the contributions that Indigenous people made to the country and to the world. One day is really not enough but that is a start, I guess.
For me, being Indigenous means that I am born of the land. Indigenous people have a very strong spiritual connection to the land. And therefore, Indigenous people refer to the land as Mother Earth because she is our mother. She provides for us life with her plants, medicines, heat from the trees in the woods and water for our cooking and to quench our thirst.
This is a time to showcase our knowledge, our culture, our traditions, our ceremonies and our entertainment. It’s a day to show the world that we are here, this is us, this is what we do and we share it with everybody.
It’s also a day to recognize yourself as an Indigenous person, that you have the capabilities to do whatever you dream and pursue.
And furthermore, it allows us to honour our ancestors because they too were born of the land many, many thousands of years ago. We go back a long way in history and we need to promote and encourage that this history be in the schools and communities because we’re not going anywhere.
Given the discovery of the Indigenous children in Kamloops, we need to honour the spirit of these children because a lot of them were so, so young.
We need to honour them by celebrating our history, our culture, our tradition and our ceremonies, with them, in our hearts, and in our minds.
We do it for them. We will sing for them, we will dance for them, we will honour the great spirit for them and the creator. And I think it’s so important that we do that. It gives us a little peace and the serenity to know that we’re doing a small part to heal this horrific part of history.
In closing, I would just like to say happy, respectful, National Indigenous Peoples Day to everyone. And I share that sentiment with everyone. Non-Indigenous and Indigenous people. This is for everyone. We’re all, I like to say, one big family.”