June 21 may have had negativity directed toward it due to Premier Christy Clark and the recent yogagate incident, but its importance can’t be understated.
Besides being the date of the now-cancelled yoga bridge event in Vancouver, June 21 is National Aboriginal Day.
The day honours First Nations’ achievement and culture and according to the Canadian government, the day was chosen, in conjunction with aboriginal groups, because it’s the summer solstice. On or around June 21 is the time many generations of indigenous peoples have celebrated their heritage, the government said.
Indigenous peoples in Canada have been subject to indecencies, most notably the destruction of culture, and even lives, with the placement of children in residential schools in the 19th and 20th centuries.
Children were stripped of cultural and language knowledge and physically and sexually abused. The numerous scars have yet to fully heal for many.
Visible evidence of this was seen when the Truth and Reconciliation Commission of Canada – established to discover the truth behind the injustices and hopefully aid in healing – recently released a related report with 94 recommendations.
In various television news reports, aboriginal people attending the announcement were seen weeping, likely from psychological wounds being re-opened and revisitation of traumatic memories.
The legacy of residential schools casts a thick pall on aboriginal people across Canada, including in the Nanaimo area.
However, the Harbour City is taking baby steps in the healing and re-establishment of First Nations’ culture. There are more than 2,000 students of aboriginal descent in the Nanaimo school district and there are also aboriginal education support staff.
The district also hosts an aboriginal language competition, known as a Spuptitul, which was adjudicated by six First Nations elders this year and featured 12 teams from the district, as well as other teams from across the Island.
Vancouver Island University offers services to aboriginal students, as well as a student centre.
High school graduation rates among First Nation students have increased across the school district as well. Back in 2009, 43.1 per cent of students graduated. Fast-forwarding to 2014, 64 per cent of aboriginal students graduated, which was higher than the provincial average of 62 per cent.
The last municipal election saw First Nations candidates voted into office. Bill Yoachim, former Snuneymuxw band councillor, is now a member of Nanaimo city council and a Regional District of Nanaimo director, and Natasha Bob, Nanoose band councillor, added another hat, being elected to sit on the Nanaimo school board as a trustee.
When it comes to aboriginal youth moving past the residential school legacy, Chris Beaton, executive director of the Nanaimo Aboriginal Centre, said there are more role models for aboriginal youth to look up to.
Children are seeing family members being successful in terms of education and working more in mainstream society, and that is giving them inspiration.
Knowledge about residential school history and being able to talk about it is helpful as well, Beaton said.
But before Nanaimoites start patting themselves on the back, there is still a ways to go. The commission report has 94 recommendations and how they are enacted remains to be seen.
Still, it appears as if Nanaimo is taking steps to move past the ugly history of residential schools, and that is a start.