The Northland's Expo Center in Edmonton is overflowing this week with Indigenous elders attending the first National Gathering of Elders.

Some 5,000 elders of First Nations, Métis and Inuit descent registered for the three-day event for a sharing of culture, traditions, history and creating new friendships.

Assembly of First Nations National Chief Perry Bellegarde, who attended the opening ceremonies Monday, said the historic gathering was happening at a time when knowledge from elders is greatly needed.

"I think more than ever, now when you look at what's happening around the world in terms of climate change — look at all the fires, look at all the winds, look at all the big storms. More than ever now, the world needs Indigenous peoples and elders' knowledge," said Bellegarde.

 'I'm so free from the past now and I'm so happy to be here to encourage others that there is hope.'
- Sarah Rogers

"More than ever now we as leaders need their guidance, their strength, their ceremonies, their prayers on how to move ahead on issues like missing and murdered Indigenous women and girls, the 94 Calls to Action on the Truth and Reconciliation Commission, How do we implement the United Nations Declaration on the Rights of Indigenous Peoples? How do we implement treaties? We really need the elders to come together and share their knowledge with us."

"It's good that we bring in the elders to help one another with prayers and ceremonies," said Charlie Paddy, 87, who travelled from Thunderchild First Nation in Saskatchewan.

"It's good to see a lot of people that are here with the different nations plus the teachings that they have. We should all come together and support one another."

Paddy plans to relay what he learns, from listening to other elders at the gathering, back to his community members.

The important role of elders

Sarah Rogers is Inuvialuk and came to the gathering from Inuvik. The residential school survivor, who has experienced healing from abuse, says attending the gathering is an exciting time to celebrate being Indigenous and overcoming the past.

"I feel like I'm going to be encouraged here because I went through lots of trauma at residential school, but I'm so free from the past now and I'm so happy to be here to encourage others that there is hope," said Rogers.

Charlie Paddy

'It's good that we bring in the elders to help one another with prayers and ceremonies,' says Charlie Paddy, 87, who travelled from Thunderchild First Nation in Saskatchewan to attend the Edmonton gathering. (Brandi Morin)

Elders make up the pillars of Indigenous society and culture and are unique to Indigenous culture, said Métis elder Tom Ghostkeeper.

"Indigenous nations in Canada are the only people that have elders," said Ghostkeeper.

"The rest of Canadian people don't have an elder — they have a different concept. We've kept that concept alive."

Elders play a big role in helping to revive ancient languages, traditions and culture of Turtle Island, he added.

"With language you have culture and then everything falls into place. The elders have kept the language alive. There's more and more young people that are very interested in their Indigenous language and they're thirsting for Indigenous spirituality, Indigenous culture, Indigenous language and they're highly respectable of their elders … so we are passing that [language] on."

Over the national gathering's three days, there will be various activities and breakout sessions, including discussions on reconciliation, climate change, revitalization of culture and language, and missing and murdered Indigenous women and girls.

The gathering is spearheaded by a National Gathering of Elders Advisory Council, along with a core group of organizers from Treaty 6, Treaty 7 and Treaty 8 First Nations, the Métis Nation of Alberta, Métis Settlements General Council, Inuit Edmonton and the Assembly of First Nations.