First Peoples Day (Victoria Day 2017)
First Peoples Day and why I did this.
Some may recall that just before Victoria Day 2013, an on-line petition appeared, asking the government to change the name of Victoria Day to Victoria and First Peoples Day. I started this. My somewhat native construct was the end result of something I had had stuck in my head.
The thoughts were a by-product of my research for a documentary I hosted for CBC called The War Of 1812, Been There Won That. During production interviews, the most common answer as to whether Canadians or Americans had won the war, came as the abstruse: “not sure which side won, but the natives sure lost”. Native North Americans had been shafted, shifted and swindled every way from Sabbath after that war. Most of the ways are explained eloquently by Thomas King in his book,
The Inconvenient Indian, and so, after reading it, I asked if he would have lunch so I could tell him my idea. I ranted. I paused. He stared at me and blinked. “That is the craziest, most hair brained idea I have ever heard.” “And it must be done” And I thought, why not? What does Queen Victoria mean to this country? During her life, she never set foot in Canada. John A. and others founded this country, not her. Do young people really know who she was or what she represents, I wondered, as I noted the most common renaming of the holiday was ‘May two-four”.
Thomas was friends with Margaret Atwood who was an early signer of our petition. She added the thought that Natives had a closer affiliation with the Monarchy than they did with white settlers, and so we decided to go forward with the petition to ‘rename Victoria Day Victoria and First Peoples Day’. Our thought process was also that getting a new national holiday was infinitely harder than renaming an existing one. We enlisted many other notables to sign: Brian Topp, Charles Pachter, Susan Agulkark, Graham Greene, Gordon Pinsent, Elizabeth May…
…but boy, did we get it wrong.
I eagerly designed a website and earnestly expected a thousand or two Canadians to sign daily. Instead, 1500 is the sum total of signatures we have, one year later. I removed the comment section after I found it laced with angry, racist, invectives. After so many decades of subjugation, confusion, and misunderstandings, what would fair-minded Canadians possibly have against the sharing and celebration of a new National holiday? On May 20, 2013, The Toronto Sun ran a front page piece featuring a large portrait of a dour looking Queen Victoria, with the headline: “We are Not Amused” Their informal poll showed 91% of their readers were against the change. Even a Native elder from British Columbia called for a First Peoples boycott of the petition, as it clearly did not have the facts straight about how poor the relationship was between First Peoples and the Monarchy. The word ‘aboriginal’ is disliked by most First Nations people, the term First Nations does not include the Inuit. The obstacles and intricacies were seemingly, insurmountable.
If I travel to Thailand, or Ireland, or Poland, I can easily see, indigenous dancing, singing and all forms of their rich cultures. If I had a visitor from any of these countries, where would I take them to see our indigenous culture? A corner of a museum? A souvenir shop? A movie with cowboys and ‘injuns?
My motivation is a simple, and yes, perhaps naïve approach to a new day of understanding between First Peoples and those who came after them. Given you will never find riches on a well-trodden path; our relationship clearly has not worked, for either side, for hundreds of years. Use anger and blame against who and what you will; but at the end of the day, we must move on. More importantly, our children must move on.
Art delivers meaning, and perhaps what we need is a day to celebrate all things indigenous. Not just a day in name like June 21-Aboriginal Day, but June 21 as a National Holiday, our First Peoples Day. Our children can talk, sing, eat, dance, celebrate, understand, mingle, and share, with generations holding progressively less rage, misconceptions, and resentment. Maybe, just maybe, as DaVinci said: Simplicity is the ultimate sophistication.