Celebrating “National Indigenous Peoples Day”: A step in the right direction

The following article was written by Stephanie Hulse, Sierra Club Ontario's Environmental Outreach Intern.

Before I begin this blog, I must preface that I will be referring to all non- Indigenous Peoples living in the “land that is now known as Canada” as immigrant settlers.

Today’s statement from the federal government marks an important step in supporting reconciliation with the Indigenous Peoples of Canada. This morning Prime Minister Justin Trudeau announced that the Government of Canada will hereby change the name of “National Aboriginal Day” to “National Indigenous Peoples Day”. 

In 1996 the Canadian federal government declared June 21st “National Aboriginal Day”. According to the Government of Canada, the day was chosen “in cooperation with Indigenous organizations” and on the summer solstice because “for generations, many Indigenous Peoples and communities have celebrated their culture and heritage on or near this day.” However, while we must take this day, and every day to celebrate the Indigenous Peoples of Canada, the term “Aboriginal” is more often than not regarded as a very negative word and ought to be removed from any and all publication, unless it is used by an Indigenous person and/ or community.

Trudeau's Positive Strides: Reconciliation with Indigenous Peoples

While one could say the P.M.’s amendment is better late than never, it is especially important as Canada celebrates its 150th year in just over a week from today. Yet, how can we celebrate such a day if we do not first recognize the Indigenous Peoples of Canada, of whose land this country is built upon. We cannot go forward as a country to protect our environment and to ethically live on this land if we Canadians, as immigrant settlers do not respectfully work together with the Indigenous Peoples of Canada. However, the first step is understanding and using appropriate language, to which Prime Minister Justin Trudeau is making steps to do. Language is often used to discriminate, damaging societies, communities and individuals, and the language that the government uses often sets the precedent. While the Canadian Government and our Canadian society has a lot of work to in terms of supporting reconciliation, P.M. Trudeau has made some important and positive changes to legislation which support this goal. 

During P.M. Trudeau’s victory speech in October 2015 he stated that he wanted to develop and strengthen the nation- to- nation relationship with the Indigenous Peoples of Canada. Following this and within the first few weeks in office, he renamed the department of Aboriginal Affairs and Northern Development to Indigenous Affairs and Northern Development, and a few months later his government adopted and implemented the UN Declaration on Rights of the Indigenous Peoples.

This declaration was a milestone for Canada (a milestone which should have been reached long before 2016), and recognizes the basic human rights of the Indigenous Peoples of Canada as well as their rights to “self-determination, language, equity and land” and their free, prior informed consent to any development. In Article 32.1 it is noted that, “Indigenous peoples have the right to determine and develop priorities and strategies for the development of use of their lands or territories and other resources”. This is followed in Article 32.2 with the statement that, “States shall consult and cooperate in good faith with the Indigenous peoples concerned though their own representative institutions in order to obtain their free and informed consent prior to the approval of any project affecting their lands or territories and other resources, particularly in connection with the development, utilization or exploitation of mineral, water or other resources”.

Environmental issues and the rights of the Indigenous Peoples of Canada are very much connected. As the entire country of Canada is settled on the land of the Indigenous Peoples Article 32 provides the legislative power to the Indigenous Peoples of Canada to have free, prior informed and consent of any development, such as pipelines, highways, airports and commercial or residential buildings that is being proposed. To this we must hold our government accountable.

Correct use of terminology: "Aboriginals" vs "Indigenous Peoples"

While the P.M.’s decision to rename today’s celebratory day of the Indigenous Peoples of Canada is a positive step, we as Canadians must always remember that we are living on the land of the Indigenous Peoples and that their land rights come before our own. The Canadian history is filled with horrific treatment done to the Indigenous Peoples of Canada, and that immoral treatment remains in many instances today. So to prevent further immoral and damaging treatment, segregation, offense, and stereotyping and to work as two nations (Indigenous Peoples and immigrant settlers) we can begin by ending the use of negative terminology.

Bob Joseph, founder of Indigenous Corporate Training Inc., works internationally and with Canadian clients from all levels of government, corporations, institutions and with Indigenous Peoples. In his online book, Indigenous Peoples: A Guide to Terminology, he explains that,

“The First Peoples of this land now known as Canada formerly had unique communities with unique names- there wasn’t a need for collective nouns or complicated terminology. With European contact and ensuing colonization, the government required people to be defined and labeled for the ease of government. As it stands, there is no generally accepted definition of Indigenous Peoples in a global context. Some countries refer to Indigenous Peoples as the people who were there first at contact. Others refer to Indigenous Peoples as the nomadic peoples within their borders. In Canada, we seem to be using a definition of Indigenous Peoples that mirrors the constitutional terminology of Aboriginal Peoples as stated in Section 35 (of the Constitution) that includes Indian, Inuit, and Metis Peoples”.

 In his article Indigenous Peoples Terminology Guidelines For Usage, Joseph suggests that the “terms for Indigenous Peoples have evolved over time and are continuing to evolve.” Joseph offers a quick review of when different terms can be used as well as cautions against when they should not be used. Notably, under the term “Indigenous Peoples” Joseph cautions the use of this term, “if using interchangeably with First Nations as some may have more preference for Indigenous Peoples, for example First Nations communities in Ontario have expressed publicly and politically that they prefer Indigenous Peoples”. However, Joseph warns that if using “Aboriginal Peoples interchangeably with First Nations note that some First Nations prefer not to be called Aboriginal Peoples. If using this, it should always be Aboriginal Peoples together as opposed to Aboriginal or Aboriginals.”

He adds that you should always capitalize Indigenous, Aboriginal, First Nation, Inuit, Métis as a sign of respect the same way that English, French and Spanish etc. are capitalized, and that we need to avoid using possessive phrases like “Canada’s Indigenous Peoples” or “our Indigenous Peoples” as that has connotations of ownership” and instead use “Indigenous Peoples of Canada”. Above all, Joseph urges that immigrant settlers “always go with what people are calling themselves.”

It is important to always remember that we are all immigrant settlers here in Canada, whether you are first generation Canadian or fourth generation. So today, on June 21st, let us celebrate “National Indigenous Peoples Day”, and rejoice in the culture of the Indigenous Peoples and their communities across the country, and be thankful for the opportunity to live on this land.

*It must be added that as an immigrant settler myself, I am not an expert on this topic, but am determined to use to the most respectful terminology. If you have any questions, concerns or additional information that you would like to share with me, please feel free to reach out to me at: stephanieh [at] sierraclub.ca.

Image of Prime Minister Justin Trudeau, left, and Perry Bellegarde, national chief of the Assembly of First Nations, celebrating the newly named National Indigenous Peoples Day in Ottawa on Wednesday June 21st. (Sean Kilpatrick/Canadian Press)

Image source: http://www.cbc.ca/news/politics/trudeau-aboriginal-indigenous-day-1.4170695

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