On June 21, 2018, a National Indigenous Peoples Day event was hosted at Clearbrook Library in Thunderbird Memorial Square. Featured among the festivities was traditional dancing, jigging, weaving, face painting, and refreshments. It was a family-friendly event, and indeed many families turned up for the celebration.
The event was sponsored by 14 different companies, including the Reach Gallery Museum, Fraser Valley Regional Library, and Fraser Valley Métis Association, just to name a few. The whole square saw vendor tents, laden with goods for sale, children with painted faces, and an assortment of organizations supporting and in collaboration with Indigenous peoples. The fiddle and the drums played, the bannock cooked, and people smiled.
UFV held a precursor event for National Indigenous Peoples Day on Wednesday, June 13, 2018. Due to the rain, the main event was held in the cafeteria in B building on campus. Colleen and Gordie Howe Middle School students flooded the space to experience the cultural event alongside teachers and other UFV students. With over 100 preteens present, the small space was packed, and the spirit of curiosity was palpable.
Chris Silver is an Aboriginal support worker in the school district of Abbotsford. He is also from the Sumas First Nation, and emceed the event.
“Stories are older than time,” said Silver. “You learn stuff from all over the world, yet how much do you know about the land you stand on today?”
Present among the contributors were storytellers, elders, and dancers. Students experienced Métis jigging, traditional dancing, and heard stories in the Halq’eméylem language.
David Gutierrez is the youngest male child of Tillie Gutierrez. He is a storyteller, a calling he has felt from birth.
“The First Nations elders, when they were children, they were made to go to residential schools, were forbidden to speak their language and punished for it,” said Gutierrez. “My mother was one of those elders. Our First Nations people lost their language. When many of those elders passed away they took the language and the stories with them.”
Gutierrez was always near his mother when she would tell stories, and now travels sharing the stories that were passed down to him. He told a story of Skunk and the theft of his spring salmon to the students listening. The moral of the story was “to finish what you started.”
“When my mom was a little girl, her mother used to tell her these stories in the language … and I would listen to her telling these stories,” he said.
In addition to Gutierrez, Siyamiyateliyot Elizabeth Phillips read a story. First in English, then in Halq’eméylem. She is the last fluent Halq’eméylem speaker. This was in part due to the tragic loss of her mother during childbirth, her father sent her to be raised on Seabird Island by the Peters family, who were fluent in the dialect. She has spent more than 50 years working to preserve the language.
On June 13, 1996, the Governor General of Canada proclaimed June 21 to be National Aboriginal Day. This offered Indigenous peoples an opportunity to share their rich, diverse cultures with family, neighbours, friends, and other community members. On June 21, 2017, the prime minister, Justin Trudeau, declared the renaming of the day to National Indigenous Peoples Day, which honored the international terminology given in the United Nations Declaration on the Rights of Indigenous Peoples.
“Every year, we join together on this day to recognize the fundamental contributions that First Nations, Inuit, and the Métis Nation have made to the identity and culture of all Canadians. The history, art, traditions, and cultures of Indigenous Peoples have shaped our past, and continue to shape who we are today,” said Trudeau in his statement.
Despite the overcast weather on both days, the spirit of the day and the passion behind the event refused to dim. Celebrations ensued that were enough to drive the clouds away. If only that’s the way meteorology worked.