June 22, 2005

Is Aboriginal Day just for aboriginals? (from June 22 issue of the Yukon News)

On Tuesday, André Roothman did what he does every weekday. He went to work, spoke with clients, checked his e-mail.

Just blocks from his downtown Whitehorse law office, about 125 people began gathering under a huge red-and-white tent at Rotary Peace Park, during a cool and wet first day of summer, to celebrate National Aboriginal Day.

Roothman wanted to be there, but because of work, couldn’t go.

“It is aboriginal day … for aboriginals,” he said Monday, before the celebration. “They’re going to have their festivities, but if any (non-First Nations) person wants to attend, he or she would most likely have to take a day vacation, and very few people are going to do it. I have court-related matters — but if it was a public holiday, I would have the opportunity to take my family with me.”

Roothman’s comments open what’s becoming a yearly debate in the Yukon: is Canada’s National Aboriginal Day just a day for aboriginal people?

If the answer is no, why is the day not a statutory holiday, to give people — aboriginal and non-aboriginal alike — the opportunity to participate in the festivities?

Roothman, 48, grew up near Cape Town, South Africa, and came to Canada three years ago. He arrived in the Yukon from Vancouver about a year ago, and said he was immediately confronted with similarities to South Africa.

“Coming from a country where we had this past of separating certain cultural groups, one becomes fairly sensitive to it,” he said.

A litigation lawyer with a degree from the University of South Africa, Roothman identifies himself as Afrikaans, a Dutch group that settled in South Africa, had its language and culture influenced by indigenous African populations and then was persecuted by British colonialists.

But despite the residual cultural rift lingering in the Yukon, Roothman also discovered the day to appreciate aboriginal peoples isn’t a holiday.

That needs to change, he said.

“(In South Africa), one of the days they have is a national day of reconciliation to let people come together and say, ‘Some things have happened in the past, it should not happen again,’” he said.

“It’s only if people reflect on the past that they learn from it. If a nation lives under the illusion that everything it’s done is fit and proper, that isn’t good.”

In 1982, the National Indian Brotherhood, which is now the Assembly of First Nations, began calling for the creation of a day near the summer solstice to recognize Canada’s aboriginal people.

The timing wasn’t accidental: aboriginal people in the country traditionally have held cultural celebrations near the beginning of summer.

In 1990, Quebec’s legislature officially recognized the day; in 1995, the Royal Commission on Aboriginal Peoples recommended the creation of a national day for first peoples; and, in 1996, Governor General Roméo LeBlanc declared National Aboriginal Day as June 21st.

But today in the Yukon, Aboriginal Day is still more observed than it is understood and embraced, said Council of Yukon First Nations grand chief Eric Morris.

As he huddled under the tent at Rotary Peace Park on Tuesday, Morris was diplomatic about the debate.

“We need to look at giving recognition to this day,” he said. “It would be a great recognition to first peoples of Canada. It would be very honourable.”

The annual parade of First Nation elders and Aboriginal Day participants down Main Street from the Elijah Smith Building to the park encountered motorists unaware of the yearly ceremony, he explained.

It wasn’t a sign of disrespect, noted Morris, simply one of ignorance.

Making the day a statutory holiday could help change that, he said.

On the wall of the tent behind Morris, a poster boasted: “National Aboriginal Day is a chance for all Canadians to celebrate the rich diversity of Canada’s First Nations, Inuit and Metis.”

But inside the tent, the morning crowd was predominantly aboriginal, except for a smaller group of non-indigenous people, including a few curious visitors from Colorado and Germany, and a few schoolchildren.

Festivities continued on through the day and in to the evening.

Demographics at Tuesday’s celebrations shouldn’t be used to jump to any conclusions, said Jack Cable, the Yukon commissioner.

He addressed the opening of the ceremony — which was also the biannual Gathering of Traditions Potlatch Society’s potlatch — commenting that the rain had “greened” Yukon trees this spring.

“The relationship between First Nations and non-First Nations people has also been greening,” he said.

Part of the low attendance simply came down to weather, Cable said in an interview afterwards.

He isn’t completely in the camp hoping National Aboriginal Day becomes a statutory holiday here, but would like to see the idea debated.

“It’s something to talk about; it would be a vehicle. I think we can get people out without declaring a holiday, but I’d like to see some discussion.”

While Aboriginal Day isn’t a statutory holiday in the Yukon, it has been one in the Northwest Territories since 2001, making the NWT the only jurisdiction in Canada to do so.

And though Yukon government employees don’t get the day off, people who work for the Yukon’s 14 First Nation administrations — and CYFN — do.

When National Aboriginal Day was created in 1996, there was strong support for the day itself, but not for making it a stat holiday, said Margo Geduld, spokeswoman with Indian and Northern Affairs in Ottawa.

The federal government doesn’t have constitutional authority to declare national statutory holidays, she added.

Provinces and territories are free to set stat holidays, as well as designate names to civic holidays, like Yukon’s Discovery Day in August.

A good idea, ideologically and culturally, does not necessarily make for a good business idea, said Rick Karp, president of the Whitehorse Chamber of Commerce.

“It’s a difficult position. The tourist season is so short up here. But that doesn’t mean it shouldn’t happen. It just means it’s something that we should look into.”

The chamber has never been approached about the idea, he said.

Potential snags with making Aboriginal Day a stat holiday here are staffing and labour costs during what is an extremely busy time of year for most businesses, he said.

Tourists could be caught unaware by closed shops and services on a statutory holiday they hadn’t anticipated, or didn’t know about, he added.

Despite the various problems, Roothman is convinced the stat holiday idea is necessary to heal cultural wounds between the Yukon’s dominant populations.

“The Yukon can lead, there’s nothing preventing the territory from doing it,” he said.

“If the Yukon would start with something like that, it would be a very good example for the rest of Canada to follow.”

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