For thousands of years Snuneymuxw First Nation people called the land at what is now Maffeo Sutton Park home. They fished in the harbour, hunted deer and other animals in the surrounding forests and lived a peaceful if not challenging life.
When Europeans arrived, they brought with them industrialization, imperialistic ideals and strains of disease Aboriginal people had no immunity against.
Nationwide, the two cultures have not meshed well since, but on Tuesday, National Aboriginal Day in Canada, at least words were spoken by both First Nations leaders and representatives of all three levels of Canadian government in Nanaimo to pursue a better way to move forward together.
“Fifteen years ago this country made a decision to create a day every year where the Aboriginal peoples of this country can be celebrated and the role of Aboriginal people in creating this country would be recognized,” said Snuneymuxw Chief Douglas White III. “Where the necessity of giving recognition and respect to the Aboriginal people of this country, in terms of helping to create a positive and just future for all Canadians, was finally put forward.”
The first National Aboriginal Day, proclaimed by Governor General Roméo LeBlanc in 1996, was introduced to acknowledge the achievements of First Nations, Métis and Inuit people of Canada. June 21 was chosen to reflect because it is the summer solstice, the longest day of the year which for many Aboriginal people holds significance in both their culture and heritage. It was also chosen because it anchors a string of culturally significant days across the country, including Quebec’s Saint-Jean-Baptiste Day (June 24), Canadian Multiculturalism Day (June 27) and Canada Day.
In Nanaimo, the day was marked with speeches, a powwow dance, cultural dance, a salmon dinner and other entertainment at Maffeo Sutton Park.
Nanaimo NDP MLA Leonard Krog said his family, which settled on the Prairies in 1911, was met with friendliness by the Aboriginal people in the area despite the hardships Europeans bestowed upon them.
“My mother’s first footwear were moccasins made by Chief Eli [Bear’s] daughter,” said Krog. “And Chief Eli spent three years in a Battleford jail for fighting on the losing side in the second Riel rebellion. And so I’ve always been very conscious of the history of the Aboriginal people in this country and all that was taken from them. And yet, through all of that how they welcomed my family, how they welcomed the families of many who are here today to Nanaimo and how they treated us with respect.”
Krog said it is a history of suppression and a history of taking, and by marking National Aboriginal Day across the country, perhaps reconciliation can one day be accomplished.
He also read a note from NDP MP Jean Crowder, the federal Indian Affairs critic from 2006 until last month.
National Aboriginal Day is a day to celebrate the culture and contributions of First Nations, Inuit and Métis peoples of Canada,” wrote Crowder. “It’s a day for solidarity and a day for recognition.”
In 2009, Crowder put forward a motion in the House of Commons declaring June National Aboriginal History Month. It received unanimous consent in the House after two years of struggling.
There has been progress locally. Over the past five years, the City of Nanaimo has signed a water agreement with Snuneymuxw officials, as well as co-operated in managing Newcastle Island and handing over a portion of the Foundry Lands back to Snuneymuxw.
Ralph Nilson, president of Vancouver Island University, said progress is also being made at the education level.
“Our institution couldn’t have grown the way it has without the strong support of the Snuneymuxw First Nation,” said Nilson. “The partnership in education is very strong … and Snuneymuxw has welcomed us in a way that has been outstanding. We have the largest number of aboriginal students at a university here in Nanaimo, the largest number of any universities in British Columbia and that’s a result of the support we receive from the Snuneymuxw people.”
The Canadian Constitution recognizes three groups of Aboriginal peoples – First Nations, Inuit and Métis.