National Aboriginal Day: Celebrating Aboriginal Cultures, Heritage and Achievements

Brittany Collier
Legal and Social Affairs

On June 21, hundreds of communities across Canada will hold numerous events for National Aboriginal Day to celebrate Aboriginal cultures and contributions to Canada. These events will include workshops, traditional games, pow-wows, cultural celebrations, concerts and wreath-laying ceremonies.

Until recently, accounts of Canadian history have excluded the roles and contributions of Aboriginal peoples to Canada. Over the last 20 years, numerous reports and several national Aboriginal organizations have acknowledged the detrimental impact of this exclusion. These Aboriginal groups have sought to remedy the omission and raise awareness among Canadians about Aboriginal histories and cultures.

More recently, the Truth and Reconciliation Commission has made several recommendations to incorporate Aboriginal histories and perspectives into the Canadian educational system. The objective is to create a shared understanding and achieve reconciliation between Aboriginal and non-Aboriginal Canadians.

National Aboriginal Day has become a day for all Canadians to recognize and celebrate the unique heritage of First Nations, Métis and Inuit peoples, recognized by the Constitution as Aboriginal peoples.

The Origins of National Aboriginal Day

National Aboriginal Day was officially recognized in 1996, but the idea had its origins more than a decade earlier. In 1982, the National Indian Brotherhood (now the Assembly of First Nations) called for the creation of a National Aboriginal Solidarity Day. The purpose was to address Canadians’ lack of awareness of Aboriginal history and cultures.

In 1996, the Report of the Royal Commission on Aboriginal Peoples recommended that federal and provincial governments, in collaboration with Aboriginal organizations, implement public education aimed at helping Canadians better understand Aboriginal contributions, history and current circumstances. As part of this initiative, the Commission recommended that Parliament and national Aboriginal organizations create a First Peoples Day to highlight and recognize Aboriginal contributions and achievements.

Shortly after the release of the Commission’s report, June 21 was officially designated as National Aboriginal Day through a proclamation by then Governor General Roméo LeBlanc.

The summer solstice was selected because of its important symbolism within Aboriginal peoples and communities, many of whom continue to participate in cultural celebrations on or near the longest day of the year.

At the provincial/territorial level, in 1990, Québec became the first province to recognize June 21 as a day to celebrate Aboriginal achievements and cultures.

In 2001, the Legislative Assembly of the Northwest Territories passed the National Aboriginal Day Act, making the territory the first in Canada to designate National Aboriginal Day as a statutory holiday.

Aboriginal Contributions to Canada

Aboriginal contributions to Canadian society are diverse. They include the areas of politics, music, art, literature, military service, education, sports and culture, among others. Historically, examples of these contributions included canoes, snowshoes and foods, such as corn and wild rice.

Apart from these better known examples, however, many Aboriginal contributions have generally remained hidden, unknown or untaught. Few Canadians, for example, are aware of the military role that Aboriginal peoples played in conflicts such as the War of 1812, the First World War and the Second World War.

In both world wars, a total of about 7,000 status Indians voluntarily enlisted in the Canadian military. The number of Aboriginal people who enlisted was likely much higher, as Métis and Inuit soldiers were not officially recorded at the time. Many received medals and awards for heroism and bravery.

The influence of Aboriginal political cultures on the Canadian notion of democracy is also significant. The idea of a central government with a separation of powers was a combination of political ideas from Europe and Aboriginal governance institutions, specifically those of the Iroquois and Algonquin nations.

Aboriginal peoples have also been influential in changing the constitutional landscape of Canada. For example, Aboriginal peoples have fought to ensure that their rights are protected within the constitution.

Legal cases initiated by Aboriginal Canadians contributed to the creation of the modern treaty process and recognition of aspects of Aboriginal self-government.

Aboriginal contributions are visible in many sports Canadians enjoy, including lacrosse and snowshoeing. Lacrosse was originally played by Aboriginal people on the east coast of North America. Europeans modified the Aboriginal version of the game and it became the form of lacrosse that is now Canada’s national summer sport.

Aboriginal Canadians have also been active in sport through participation in the Olympic Games and the development of their own competitive sporting events, such as the North American Indigenous Games.

As the 1996 proclamation stated: “The Aboriginal peoples of Canada have made and continue to make valuable contributions to Canadian society.” For many Aboriginal and non-Aboriginal Canadians, it is therefore appropriate to designate a day each year to celebrate their contributions, cultures, and histories.

Related Resources

Canadians interested in further information about National Aboriginal Day and Aboriginal contributions to Canada should consult the following Related Resources.

Information about events in your area can be found by consulting Aboriginal Affairs and Northern Development Canada’s National Aboriginal Day Events website.

Aboriginal Affairs and Northern Development Canada, National Aboriginal Day.

Aboriginal Affairs and Northern Development Canada, Aboriginal History in Canada.

Veterans Affairs Canada, Aboriginal-Canadian Veterans.

Further information about specific contributions of Aboriginal Canadians can be found on the Indspire Awards and the Order of Canada websites.