Jackson Rollingthunder Tahuka is a dancer. He mimics the mating ritual for male prairie chickens, courting his audiences.
"I'm trying to get them to love me. I'm trying to get them to want to know me, want me to be around, want to see more of me," Mr. Tahuka said. The Indigenous performer wants people to ask questions about the moves, the regalia, the meaning, the history.
And that is why he will perform in Fort McMurray on Wednesday, as part of the city's National Aboriginal Day festivities. Melissa Herman, the event's organizer, wants reconciliation to emerge as the theme – and that means focusing on getting non-Indigenous community members to participate in the day's activities. Targeting non-Indigenous people on National Aboriginal Day is counterintuitive, she said, but marking cultural moments in isolation is unlikely to result in a better relationship.
"Indigenous people can celebrate our culture every day and I'm sure most of us do," Ms. Herman said. "We can't have reconciliation without everybody."
Ms. Herman said last year's massive wildfire is helping to change the relationship between Indigenous and non-Indigenous residents around Fort McMurray, and she wants to build on that momentum. Hundreds of people in Fort McMurray fled to Indigenous communities outside the city in May, 2016, in order to escape the blaze. The fire forced contact between people who may not otherwise interact. Since then, Ms. Herman said, non-Indigenous evacuees have told her how grateful they are for the warm welcome they received. This year's National Aboriginal Day, she said, would give such evacuees a chance to directly say thank you to their hosts, rather than using her as an intermediary. Participating could be, for some, part of the fire recovery process.
Ms. Herman, a member of the Chipewyan Prairie First Nation, recognizes why some of her Indigenous counterparts may be reluctant to plan a cultural celebration around outsiders. But by hosting National Aboriginal Day in Fort McMurray's Snye Point Park, a prominent city spot, rather than in a smaller community centre or neighbouring reserve, Ms. Herman hopes to further shift the way non-Indigenous people view First Nations, Métis and Inuit people.
"If we have it in town, we're exposing our culture to a whole new world of people who aren't going to do to the rural communities," she said. "We're coming to them."
June is National Aboriginal History Month in Canada and Wednesday marks the 21st annual National Aboriginal Day. The Truth and Reconciliation Commission of Canada, which examined decades of abuse at residential schools and the fallout, along with the the national inquiry into missing and murdered Indigenous women and girls, has emphasized the fractured relationship between Indigenous and non-Indigenous groups in the country. Ms. Herman hopes participants at National Aboriginal Day in Fort McMurray will learn and talk about issues like residential schools and violence against Indigenous women. Indeed, five red dresses symbolizing Canada's missing and murdered Indigenous women and girls will hang on the venue's outskirts, she said. Visitors can also join the Moose Hide Campaign, an awareness program tied to violence against Indigenous women and girls.
There are 48 First Nations in Alberta and the province recognizes eight Métis settlements. Roughly 220,000 Indigenous people live in Alberta, according to the government.
Cora Voyageur, a sociology professor at the University of Calgary who is from Fort Chipewyan, north of Fort McMurray, cautions that while Ms. Herman's goal of inclusiveness is noble, it is not easy. Visitors may applaud Mr. Tahuka's chicken dance, for example, but that does not mean they learned from the performance.
"We're not just entertainment. There's a history, a culture, a humanity there that is overlooked," she said. "Unless people truly want to know, they are just going to treat it like a buffet – take what they want."