Update – National Aboriginal Day: Celebrating the Cultures, Heritage and Achievements of Indigenous Peoples

June 21, 2016 marks the 20th anniversary of National Aboriginal Day. On this day each year, hundreds of communities across Canada will hold numerous events to celebrate Indigenous cultures and contributions to Canada.

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 Aboriginal 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 Indigenous peoples’ histories and perspectives 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 Indigenous peoples’ 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 Indigenous peoples’ 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 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 within Indigenous peoples and communities, many of whom continue to participate in cultural celebrations on or near the longest day of the year.

In 1990, Québec became the first province or territory 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. The Government of Yukon is currently exploring the possibility of making National Aboriginal Day a statutory holiday in the Yukon.

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 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 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.

Timeline of Key Events over the last 20 years in First Nations, Inuit, and Métis Policy

In recognition of the 20th anniversary of National Aboriginal Day, the following timeline provides a list of key events in First Nations, Inuit and Métis policy and governance over the last two decades.

 Date  Event
 1996 The Royal Commission on Aboriginal Peoples released its final report.

  • This five volume report examined the relationship between Indigenous and non‑Indigenous peoples in Canada including 440 recommendations on a range of topics such as treaties, education, health, housing, and child welfare.
 1996  June 21 was officially designated as National Aboriginal Day through a proclamation by then Governor General Roméo LeBlanc.
 1997 In its decision in Delgamuukw v. British Columbia the Supreme Court of Canada outlined the content of Aboriginal title in Canada including: the scope of its protection under section 35(1) of the Constitution Act, 1982 as well as how Aboriginal title may be proved or infringed.
 1998 Based on the report of the Royal Commission on Aboriginal Peoples, the Government of Canada released Gathering Strength – Canada’s Aboriginal Action Plan.

  • The Action Plan had several goals including: to renew the partnership between Canada and Indigenous Peoples, strengthen Aboriginal governance, and design a new fiscal relationship.
 1999  In its decision in R. v. Marshall, the Supreme Court of Canada affirmed the “right of the Mi’kmaq people to continue to provide for their own sustenance by taking the products of their hunting, fishing and other gathering activities” to earn a “moderate livelihood.”
 2003 In its decision in R. v. Powley, the Supreme Court of Canada affirmed that the Métis have an Aboriginal right to hunt for food under section 35 of the Constitution Act, 1982. The decision also established a legal test to determine the Aboriginal rights of Métis groups.
 2004 The Supreme Court of Canada releases its decision in Haida Nation v. British Columbia (Minister of Forests) and Taku River Tlingit First Nation v. British Columbia (Project Assessment Director).

These decisions established that the Crown has a legal duty to consult affected First Nations communities “when the Crown has knowledge, real or constructive, of the potential existence of the Aboriginal right and contemplates conduct that might adversely affect it.”[1]

 2007 The United Nations Declaration on the Rights of Indigenous Peoples was adopted by the United Nations General Assembly.Canada was one of four countries to vote against the Declaration.
 2008 The Truth and Reconciliation Commission was established and, among other matters, was mandated to document the history and legacy of residential schools in Canada.
 2008 On behalf of the Government of Canada, then Prime Minister of Canada, the Right Honourable Stephen Harper, made a Statement of Apology to former students of Indian Residential Schools.
 2008 The Canadian Human Rights Act was amended to allow registered First Nations individuals, First Nations band members, or individuals living or working on reserve to make complaints of discrimination to the Canadian Human Rights Commission regarding actions or decisions arising from or pursuant to the Indian Act.
 2010 In August in Inukjuak, Quebec, then Minister of Indian Affairs and Northern Development, the Honourable John Duncan, apologizes on behalf of the Government of Canada for the relocation of Inuit to the High Arctic.
 2010 Canada formally endorsed the United Nations Declaration on the Rights of Indigenous Peoples.
 2010 The Gender Equity in Indian Registration Act was passed.According to Indigenous and Northern Affairs Canada, the Act “will ensure that eligible grand-children of women who lost status as a result of marrying non-Indian men will become entitled to registration (Indian status).”
 2014 In its decision in Tsilhqot’in Nation v. British Columbia, the Supreme Court of Canada ruled that Aboriginal title existed in British Columbia on lands historically occupied by the Tsilhqot’in people.
 2015 The Government of Canada announced the launch of a national inquiry into missing and murdered Indigenous women and girls.
 2015 The Truth and Reconciliation Commission released its final report which included 94 recommendations.
 2016 The Canadian Human Rights Tribunal found that “First Nations children and families living on reserve and in the Yukon are discriminated against in the provision of child and family services” by Indigenous and Northern Affairs Canada.
 2016 In Daniels v. Canada the Supreme Court of Canada ruled that Métis and non-status Indians are “Indians” under section 91(24) of the Constitution Act, 1867.
 2016 The Minister of Indigenous and Northern Affairs, the Honourable Carolyn Bennett, announced that Canada is “now a full supporter, without qualification, of the United Nations Declaration on the Rights of Indigenous Peoples.”

[1] Haida Nation v. British Columbia (Minister of Forests), [2004] 3 SCR 511.

Related Resources

Canadians interested in further information about National Aboriginal Day and the contributions of Indigenous peoples 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, Aboriginal-Canadian 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