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National Aboriginal Day celebrated in Petawawa

By Ryan Paulsen, The Daily Observer


Sunday was National Aboriginal Day in Canada, and across the country, communities large and small came together to celebrate First Nations culture and heritage.

In Petawawa, the day was marked with a gathering at Centennial Park, featuring singing, dancing, drumming, crafts, face painting, voyageur canoe rides and more.

During his portion of the opening address, elder Willy "Grandfather" Bruce spoke the words of an Alqonquin prayer in Ojibway, noting afterwards that even the ability to speak his native language in public represents a great stride forward from recent decades.

"I'm always proud to say those words in my mother's language," he says, "because it wasn't that long ago that those words were only spoken in whispers."

Bruce acknowledged the hardships of growing up "Indian" in a time when Canada's program of cultural genocide was still going strong, but still managed to maintain a sense of optimism and a feeling of joy throughout his address.

"We need to be so happy that we make up for all those years when there was no National Aboriginal Day, when there wasn't much left of what could be called aboriginal pride."

Far from being delusional that the problems facing Canada's indigenous population are over, or anywhere close, Bruce maintains, however, that the times we live in are promising ones.

"There are people who are still carrying too much of the pain and suffering" to share those optimistic feelings, he says. "That's their journey."

"I have to think, though, that when my mother looks down on a gathering like this, she's happy. She could never have imagined something like this."

Angela Duchene, Anishinabe Cultural Centre coordinator, agrees that the simple fact that a celebration such as Sunday's can happen is reason for celebration.

"I think we're happy just to be able to gather," she says. "We could never gather in the past. It was always in basements or in secluded places, because the culture was frowned upon, with residential schools and what have you. So to be able to do this today, and for everybody to gather from all walks of life, I think is fantastic."

The sense of inclusion is an important component to National Aboriginal Day celebrations, she says.

While great strides have been made, relations between natives and non-natives is sometimes still less than friendly. Others from non-indigenous backgrounds can sometimes feel trepidatious about attending events celebrating aboriginal culture.

For oshkabewis Sharp Dopler, however, as long as everybody comes with a little grace, these celebrations can be real opportunities for learning and progress.

"All of this was given to us not to hide away," she says, gesturing widely, "but to share. It's only when we can all stand together that we can save Mother Earth. If people come with respect and openness in their hearts, then there's not a problem. If people don't come with respect, we know how to take care of problems in a good way: with humour and kindness and compassion. Often people don't mean to be disrespectful."

Duchene agrees, and encourages everyone to take part in cross-cultural activities whenever possible.

"It's for everybody," she says. "National Aboriginal Day is really for everybody who wants to come down a learn a little bit about our culture, because the unknown is what's scary. It's a day to celebrate and we welcome all."

Twitter: @PRyanPaulsen

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