National Aboriginal Day prompts reflection on what's changed, what hasn't

A lot has changed since the federal government began observing National Aboriginal Day two decades ago, but more remains to be done to improve the lives of Aboriginal people in Quebec, community leaders say.

'We have a long way to go with respect to decolonisation,' Mohawk activist Ellen Gabriel says

Sedalia Kawennotas celebrates National Aboriginal Day in Old Montreal on Tuesday. (Charles Contant/CBC)

A lot has changed since the federal government began observing National Aboriginal Day on June 21 two decades ago, but more remains to be done to improve the lives of Aboriginal people in Quebec, community leaders say.

Events today aimed to recognize and celebrate the heritage and contributions of First Nations, Inuit and Métis peoples.

Ellen Gabriel, a longtime Mohawk activist, said celebrations in Montreal and across the country are "a great signifier of good intent and good will" on behalf of Canadians.

However, progress has been slow at the provincial and federal government levels, according to Gabriel.

'A long way to go'

There a number of issues she would like to see addressed, from following through on the recommendations laid out in the Truth and Reconciliation Commission to more Aboriginal content in the provincial school curriculum.

Ellen Gabriel is a longtime Mohawk activist and artist from Kanesatake. (Laurene Jardin/CBC)

"I think education is key to fighting racism and dismantling colonialism and changing the vernacular," she said.

Systemic racism remains a problem in the province, she said, pointing in particular to the allegations of abuse facing Sûreté du Québec officers in Val-d'Or

Gabriel, who has been involved in Aboriginal activism since the 1990 Oka Crisis, said it's not out of the question another such conflict could bubble up. 

Last month, some Mohawks in Kanesatake raised concern the prospect of a housing development on disputed land in Oka could stir up another conflict like the one that shook the province 26 years ago. 

"Things on the surface look like they've changed but, in reality, not a great deal has changed," Gabriel said.

"We have a long way to go with respect to decolonisation."

Signs of hope

In the view of Nakuset, another prominent Aboriginal activist, there are signs of hope. 

"I think that now indigenous people are stepping up to the plate. They are creating their own projects, they're getting educated, they are the ones making change," she said.

"Instead of getting weaker, we've been getting stronger."

Former Montreal police chief Marc Parent and Nakuset pose for a photo after signing an agreement last June. (Radio-Canada)

The executive director of Native Women's Shelter of Montreal and co-organizer of National Aboriginal Day for Montreal, Nakuset also spearheaded a new training program for Montreal police officers. 

The program is part of a larger agreement signed with by police Chief Philippe Pichet last June.

Making connections

Timothy Armstrong, another activist and Kahnawake radio host, said the Idle No More movement, which gained traction in 2012, helped activists across Canada get connected.

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      While Idle No More events no longer draw thousands to the streets, there are now Facebook pages linking Aboriginal activists across the country, where people share information and organize events.

      "People think it has gone away. It hasn't gone away," he said.