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June is National Indigenous History Month

In June, Canadians celebrate National Indigenous History Month, an opportunity to honour the heritage, contributions and cultures of Indigenous peoples in Canada. .

When European settlers arrived in what would become Canada in the early 16th century, the number of Indigenous people ranged from an estimated low of 350,000 to as high as 2,000,000. By Confederation, more than 350 years later, the Indigenous population had not grown, as might be expected, but had shrunk dramatically. In 1867, there were between 100,000 and 125,000 First Nations people here, along with about 10,000 Métis in Manitoba and 2,000 Inuit across the Arctic.

The reasons for their decline are tied to such factors as war, illness, and starvation, arising directly from European settlement and habits. As the Canadian Encyclopedia notes, “The Indigenous population… continued to decline until the early 20th century.” Even after that trend reversed, other problems continued, including discrimination, ignorance or misunderstanding of Indigenous cultures, and government laws and policies that often had disastrous effects.

Those challenges and hardships cannot be forgotten, and National Aboriginal History Month is an opportune time to remember them. Yet, it is also important to be aware of the achievements of Indigenous peoples, and the manner in which they have enriched the lives of all Canadians.

The Historica Canada minute below tells the story of Chanie Wenjack, an Anishinaabe boy who ran away from his residential school and subsequently died from hunger and exposure. His death sparked the first inquest into the treatment of Indigenous children in Canadian residential schools.

A second new Minute also depicts a treaty negotiation through the eyes of Cree people in Northern Ontario and tells of the story behind the 1921 signing of Treaty 9, which covers a vast tract of Cree and Ojibwa land in Ontario. A third new Minute, released in October 2016, celebrates Kenojuak Ashevak, the world-renowned artist who was at the forefront of the global popularization of Inuit art (see The Art of the North).

Those efforts barely even scratch the surface of Indigenous peoples’ history in Canada.

At the same time, it’s worth noting the wide range of peoples that the term Indigenous encompasses. As of 2010, the most recent year for which statistics are available, the term included: 617 First Nations communities and more than 50 nations, 8 Métis settlements and 53 Inuit communities. Collectively, that includes more than 60 languages. In the 2011 National Household Survey, the most recent, more than 1.8 million people declared Indigenous ancestry.

All of this goes to show that Indigenous peoples in Canada are distinct and diverse, with many different cultures, traditions and lifestyles. Their diversity gives them something in common with other Canadians, in a country that is increasingly defined by that quality. Yet, at the same time, they are increasingly proud of being distinct. And, more than ever, they are determined to stay that way.

The first of its kind in Calgary, CFN's Indigenous Education for Newcomers program at the Centre for Newcomers creates opportunities through various activities, including dialogue circles and storytelling, to bring newcomers and indigenous participants together. These activities promote discussions, in order to honour different historical and cultural perspectives; to create bridges of understanding and appreciation on both sides.

In partnership with an advisory group of representatives from immigrant-serving agencies and indigenous services, the program supports efforts aimed at ending cycles of systemic discrimination faced by indigenous people. This is facilitated by culturally appropriate educational workshops on indigenous issues, meaningful partnerships that seek to create alliances for public education and creating awareness among partners and within the broader community.

One of the recommendations made by the Truth and Reconciliation Commission of Canada is that the information kit for newcomers be revised “to reflect a more inclusive history of the diverse Indigenous peoples of Canada including information about the Treaties and the history of residential schools” (TRC, 2015, p.10). In July 2017, CFN held the official launch celebration of the Indigenous Education for Newcomers program.


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