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Short ceremonies do little justice to a long history

Every summer, at the equinox, we celebrate National Aboriginal Day in Canada. It's the one day of the year when the collective Canadian conscience is meant to focus on the indians in their midst.

Every summer, at the equinox, we celebrate National Aboriginal Day in Canada.

It’s the one day of the year when the collective Canadian conscience is meant to focus on the indians in their midst. It’s the one day when we’re supposed to get a free lunch or some grand gesture of our importance. According to the thinking that started it in 1996, Canadians generally want to celebrate the role of native people in their history.

Fittingly enough it’s held on the longest day of the year. The sun shines longer on that day and it allows us all more time to celebrate. It coincides with the annual Sun Dances that took place on that day too. So we gather on Parliament Hill, in parks, on reserves, in community centres and make a big splash of our continuing presence in the Canadian mosaic.

Except that nobody but us notices. National Aboriginal Day is for the aboriginals much like Ukrainian Christmas is for Ukrainian Canadians. As long as you’re one of them, the festivities are special. Sure, politicians make their appearance and mouth pithy words of community and good political will but they generally disappear long before the fry bread’s done. Even the national native leadership is loath to venture into daylight.

The social activists, the granola eaters, the tree huggers and the indigenously enlightened are out in full throng of course, and there’s even maybe a school or two that have native projects like face painting or teepee raising on that great grand day. But mostly, it’s just us jumping around. We have singers, drummers, dancers, throat singers, and bona fide musical acts and the Aboriginal Peoples Television Network produces an annual special that most people only see in reruns come February.

It’s all meant to raise our profile and remind mainstream Canadians that there’s still an indian in the Canadian cupboard. But it’s one day out of 365. More accurately, it lasts around three hours of local time. Three hours out a whole year to raise the image and idea of Canada’s native people. Gee. What an honour.

The whole business reminds me of Treaty Day at the reserve. That day is earmarked as special too and it’s just for us. The RCMP is there in full regalia, all scarlet and proud, the treaty registrar, the chief, of course, and all the indians. We line up while flags wave and drums are beaten and to most Canadians who only get to read about it, it seems a huge celebratory event. The indians are getting their free money.

The trouble is that it’s still only five bucks. That’s what Canada doesn’t know. Every year the actual free money that native people see, or Treaty Indians anyway, is a crisp new five dollar bill. We’re supposed to get ammunition too, some agricultural implements and a new fish net. But in reality it’s a handshake and a grin from the chief and then it’s off to the Northern Store for a jug of milk to celebrate the quick end of those five dollars. Talk about your big day in Indian country.

It seems to me that a day earmarked as special ought to include the stories that stem from our reality in Canada. All the dancing around is nice, all the photo ops and the sound bites are invigorating but when the teepees come down and the smell of bannock lingers over an empty field, nothing really changes. The idea of indians isn’t any more entrenched in the Canadian conscience than it was before.

We should arrange tours to remote reserves where upwards of 18 people share a two bedroom house. There could be traditional Water Tours where people sample the acrid brown sludge that passes for drinking water on some reserves. Everyone could fill out housing forms and pick a number and wait. Or, we could all write our own version of Canadian history that excludes us. That’d be fun.

Don’t get me wrong. National Aboriginal Day is a good idea. Somewhere, someone other than us might actually glean some pertinent information about our lives. Somewhere in the singing and dancing, drumming and big throaty speeches, there’s the story of native people and their role in the development of the country. Somewhere in all the tourism there’s an inkling of reality. At least I hope so.

Maybe we should just focus on every day being aboriginal day. For our part we should tell our organizations to communicate with Canadians. We should tell our leaders to make us more present in the nation’s conscience, not only when there’s a grouse or a victory. If there were information flowing for public consumption everyday, things would change and I for one would enjoy being an everyday indian.

Richard Wagamese is Ojibway and the author of Keeper’n Me. He won the Canadian Author’s Award for Dream Wheels and his new novel, Ragged Company, arrives in August from Doubleday. He can be reached at