Update — National Aboriginal Day: Celebrating Indigenous Cultures, Heritage and Achievements

(Disponible en français : Mise à jour — Journée nationale des Autochtones : Célébrer la culture, le patrimoine et les réalisations autochtones)

On June 21, hundreds of communities across Canada will hold numerous events for National Aboriginal Day to celebrate Indigenous 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 Indigenous peoples to Canada. Over the last 20 years, numerous reports and several national Indigenous organizations have acknowledged the detrimental impact of this exclusion. These Indigenous groups have sought to remedy the omission and raise awareness among Canadians about Indigenous peoples’ histories and cultures.

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

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 the history and cultures of Indigenous peoples.

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

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. Yukon followed suit when National Aboriginal Day was designated as a statutory holiday in the territory in 2017.

Indigenous peoples’ Contributions to Canada

The contributions of Indigenous peoples 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 Indigenous contributions have generally remained hidden, unknown or untaught. Few Canadians, for example, are aware of the military role that Indigenous 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 Indigenous 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 Indigenous peoples’ 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 Indigenous peoples’ governance institutions, specifically those of the Iroquois and Algonquin nations.

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

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

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

Indigenous peoples 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 Canadians including Indigenous peoples, it is therefore appropriate to designate a day each year to celebrate the contributions, cultures, and histories of Indigenous peoples.

Related Resources

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

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

Indigenous and Northern Affairs Canada, National Aboriginal Day.

Indigenous and Northern Affairs Canada, Aboriginal History in Canada.

Veterans Affairs Canada, Indigenous Veterans.

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

Author: Brittany Collier, Library of Parliament