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Dancers take part in the Na-Me-Res Pow Wow as part of the annual Indigenous Arts Festival at Fort York, Toronto, June 17, 2023.Eduardo Lima/The Globe and Mail

Every year on June 21, people gather across the country to celebrate National Indigenous Peoples Day, with ceremonies, music, dancing, and food. The day honours the culture and contributions of First Nations, Inuit and Métis people.

Indigenous communities host events showcasing traditional practices and stories passed down from one generation to the next, and the day is a chance for people to see what it’s like in Indigenous communities, said Kailen Gingell, the cultural director at the Kwanlin Dün Cultural Centre in Whitehorse. While other memorial days centred on Indigenous people, such as Red Dress Day and Orange Shirt Day, focus on the losses the community has experienced, Indigenous Peoples Day focuses on joy and “what makes everything great,” he said.

The day was first recognized in 1990, eight years after the Assembly of First Nations initially recommended it become “National Aboriginal Solidarity Day.” The date, June 21, also commemorates the summer solstice.

For Trina Mather-Simard, the artistic and executive director of the Summer Solstice Indigenous Festival near Ottawa, the day is “about all of our communities – First Nations, Métis and Inuit having that chance to come together and just really celebrate our history, our past, our future and our future generations.”

Indigenous Peoples Day events

In recent years, more Canadians are celebrating Indigenous Peoples Day, Ms. Mather-Simard said, and she recommends people get out to an event and connect with Indigenous people, noting there are local celebrations all over the country.

The Summer Solstice Indigenous Festival takes place in Ottawa throughout the month of June, National Indigenous History Month. On June 21 there will be performances, food, crafts, a show involving 200 drones and a story narrated by elder and language keeper Barbara Nolan, who will tell the creation story in both Anishinaabemowin and English.

In Whitehorse, the Kwanlin Dün Cultural Centre hosts an annual Indigenous Peoples Day celebration. Mr. Gingell said the event celebrates different Indigenous cultures “all over the Yukon and throughout Canada,” and usually attracts between 5,000 and 6,000 visitors. It includes storytelling, elders, stew and bannock at lunchtime, and musical performances throughout the day. The headlining performer is Jeremy Dutcher, a vocalist and composer based in Toronto and a Wolastoqiyik (Maliseet) member of Tobique First Nation in New Brunswick.

Mr. Gingell is most looking forward to welcoming people to the Yukon, noting that many people from across Canada and the rest of the world are moving to the territory. “This day is really a chance to welcome the greater community into our centre, to learn about our culture and celebrate it as well.”

In Kelowna, Métis Community Services Society organizes Métis Rendezvous. The annual event for Indigenous Peoples Day includes a medicine table, elders, Métis games such as sash tug-o-war, and entertainment including fiddling, drumming, singing and jigging, a type of dance that combines First Nations dancing, Scottish and French-Canadian step-dancing, and reel, jig and quadrille steps, according to the Manitoba Métis Federation.

There will also be a smudging tent, said Neil Zlipko, the chair of the Métis Rendezvous committee and a cultural support worker. He explained smudging as putting elements in an abalone shell and cleansing yourself with the smoke. “As it goes up into the air it takes the bad energy away from you, and when you return the ashes to Mother Earth you are returning other parts to Mother Earth.”

For people who aren’t able to make it out, many events will be televised, Mr. Zlipko noted.

People can also celebrate by listening to Indigenous music, reading Indigenous books, watching Indigenous movies or reading the Truth and Reconciliation Calls to Action and making a plan to incorporate them into their lives.

  • It is a sunny Saturday in Toronto, June 17, and dancers have come to Toronto's Fort York for the Na-Me-Res Pow Wow.Eduardo Lima/The Globe and Mail

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Is Indigenous Peoples Day a statutory holiday?

In most of Canada, Indigenous Peoples Day is not a statutory holiday. The exceptions are the Yukon, and the Northwest Territories, where it has been designated as such since 2017 and 2001 respectively.

Ms. Mather-Simard said June 21 should be a statutory holiday in the rest of the country. “I think a lot of people are moving on that path toward reconciliation,” she said, noting that she hopes celebrating Indigenous Peoples Day will inspire everyone to take action and “learn a little bit more about their Indigenous neighbours.” She suggests people discover whose traditional territory they are on using tools like Native Land Digital and find ways to connect with that culture, like learning some phrases in a local Indigenous language.

For Mr. Zlipko, Indigenous Peoples Day is an opportunity for Métis people to demonstrate the renewed sense of pride that’s been felt and shown by the community in recent years. “The Métis people were just a suppressed Nation, due to how everything went – Louis Riel was hanged and we had to go basically underground. Finally, we are coming back and showing everybody we are proud to be Métis and what our culture is.”

Indigenous Peoples Day is a reminder for people to “take time to reflect on their own relationships with Indigenous communities, or their own relationships with the land. On June 21, it’s your day to really explore that relationship,” says Mr. Gingell. Indigenous people are not just “something from the past. This is still going on, we are still here.”

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