It’s a chilly, damp and foggy Tuesday morning at Cape Spear, and there’s no sun in sight.
Still, a group of about 30 has gathered for a sunrise ceremony to mark the beginning of National Aboriginal Day.
Standing in a big circle around a drum, each person awaits their turn to smudge.
Women’s and men’s drum groups take turns playing and singing, and a young woman recites a poem to commemorate the Beothuk, who once inhabited the island.
Then, as an Inuit man and woman sing “Amazing Grace” in Inuktitut, their mother tongue, the sun breaks through the fog bank that is blanketing the sea. But only for a matter of minutes, before it disappears into the grey cloud cover.
“It was pretty intense,” Jenna Barnable of St. John’s remarks after the ceremony. “It gave me a chill but then it warmed me up. It was special. It would sure be nice to see more people out there,” she says.
In organizing a full day of events, the St. John’s Native Friendship Centre (SJNFC) is carrying out its goal of celebrating the customs and traditions of Newfoundland and Labrador’s indigenous groups: the Innu, Inuit, Métis, Mi’kmaq and late Beothuks.
“We chose Cape Spear this year because it’s the most easternly door in all of Canada. We are the first ones to see the sun,” says Robin Purcell, a director at the centre.
“We try to represent all the aboriginal cultures that are here in Newfoundland and Labrador, through prayer, through drum and dance, through song.”
As the ceremony comes to a close organizers and attendees return to the centre on Water Street to begin preparations for a traditional breakfast and an afternoon of family activities.
Up in Labrador, Canada’s first Labrador Innu MP and newly appointed Intergovernmental Affairs Minister Peter Penashue is en route from his home in Sheshatshiu to Nain to take part in the Inuit community’s National Aboriginal Day celebrations.
“It certainly is a day for reflection, for celebration, for consideration of where you are in your own time,” Penashue explains on the phone Monday evening. “I’m speaking as an Innu person, not as a government person, because I’ve certainly had my best years working for the Innu people.”
Today Penashue will join a group at the former community of Zoar, where the remains of 22 Inuit will be reburied in a special ceremony. In 1927 the remains were excavated from a Zoar cemetery and taken to a museum in Chicago. Now, more than 80 years later, they have been repatriated.
Johannes Lampe, minister of Culture, Recreation and Tourism for the Nunatsiavut Government for the Inuit of Labrador, explains the ceremony’s significance.
“We have brought them back home but we still have to put them into their final resting place, and so we are taking some of their descendants to the ceremony,” he says.
In Nain, the reburial ceremony may overshadow Tuesday’s events on National Aboriginal Day, but for good reason.
“We are Labrador Inuit and these remains that were removed from the cemetery, they are our ancestors, and so we feel that we have to do this,” Lampe explains. “This will be a really big day for us.”
To many across the land, including the indigenous groups within Newfoundland and Labrador, National Aboriginal Day represents a time to reflect on the past, celebrate the present and enrich the youth.
Russell Diabo, one of Canada’s most prominent indigenous rights activists, shares a more critical perspective on the day, however.
A member of the Mohawk Nation at Kahnawake, Quebec, Diabo has worked for more than 20 years with the Algonquin of Superior Lake, is a three-time adviser to the Assembly of First Nations, and is presently in the roles of adviser with the Algonquin Nation Secretariat and founding member of indigenous rights group Defenders of The Land.
Though June 21 was designated National Aboriginal Day by the federal government in 1996, explains Diabo, indigenous groups in Canada had been celebrating Summer Solstice with ceremonies to mark the longest day of the year and the entry into the “summer season, the time of ceremonies.”
But the Canadian government, he says, “has tried to turn it into something else ... to support their policies and initiatives, the perceptions they want the public to have of Aboriginal Peoples. But that’s not what the true meaning of the day is.”
Canada recently ended its holdout in supporting the United Nations Declaration on the Rights of Indigenous Peoples when, last November, it became the last country in the world to endorse it, giving the appearance that its policies and actions with respect to indigenous peoples might change.
“They’ve given qualified endorsement. What they said is that they’re recognizing it within the context of Canada’s constitution,” Diabo explains, “which means it goes back to the federal government’s interpretation of Canada’s constitution, of Section 35, which are defined in their land claims and self-government policies, which are one-sided unfair policies that they’re forcing groups to negotiate under.
“They didn’t consult on those policies, they just arbitrarily set up the terms that they were prepared to negotiate (under). If you look at the articles of the UN Declaration and the Canadian policies there’s a big gap between the international standard, which is now recognized as a human right, versus what Canada is doing domestically. And the question is, if they’re going to endorse it how are they going to address those gaps, like education?”
Diabo cites a number of examples he says show how Canada’s policies continue to oppress and marginalize indigenous groups across the land, but perspectives like his, and knowledge of Canada’s colonial history, seem to be all but absent from most discourse around National Aboriginal Day.
“There’s 365 days in a year and we should take at least one day to celebrate what we have and what we’ve accomplished, and not focus on stuff that’s negative, (which) we can spend the other 364 days worrying about,” says Penashue.
“It doesn’t matter who appointed that day as being the Aboriginal Day, it just feels right to celebrate yourself and your community and your success and your families and your traditions and your people of the past.”