Mi'kmaq chief brings call for better understanding on National Aboriginal Day

A Nova Scotia Mi'kmaq chief is encouraging others to learn about Indigenous heritage and culture as a way to improve relations with his community.

'It is an acknowledgement, finally, of our people'

This sacred fire will burn all day inside a teepee on the Halifax waterfront as part of National Aboriginal Day. (Paul Palmeter/CBC)

National Aboriginal Day began in Halifax at dawn Wednesday as a Nova Scotia Mi'kmaq elder lit a sacred fire on the city's waterfront with 30 people present.

"It's blessing to be able to gather round," said Danny Paul of the Membertou First Nation, acting as keeper of the sacred fire.

"What happens are the teachings are brought forward [at] the fire in story form. And that's what we hope would happen, the teachings will get carried out from this gathering, and spread out more."

The fire is one of the four sacred elements, a beacon to all Mi'kmaq, he said.

"Without one of the four sacred elements we won't have life. We offer tobacco to the fire, make a food offering to the spirit world and we smoke with the fire — the pipe."

'We want to work with you"

Tobacco was considered to be a medicine by Mi'kmaq at the time the Europeans arrived on the shores of Nova Scotia, Paul said.

Its smoke is used to carry prayers to the spirit word, he said.

Meanwhile, Membertou First Nations Chief Terry Paul challenged all Canadians to learn more about Indigenous history, culture and contributions as the country marks National Aboriginal Day.

Membertou First Nation Chief Terry Paul wants people to learn about Indigenous history, heritage and culture as one way of mending relationships with Nova Scotia Mi'kmaq. (Chief Terry Paul)

"Get the facts, recognize that we want to work with you, we want to work with the people in Nova Scotia so that we're all better off as a result of it, in that our relations are much better." 

Having a special day is important to that end, firekeeper Danny Paul said.

"It is our time because now the people are aware of who we are — our significance in the development of this country, what our contributions are. It is the summer solstice, the first day of summer. It is an acknowledgement, finally, of our people."

Celebrations of Indigenous culture

The Halifax waterfront will be the scene of a demonstration of building a birch-bark canoe, story telling, songs, dance, culinary displays and an evening concert on a large stage at the bottom of Salter Street. Other events are planned throughout the city and the province.

In Membertou, a community meal, drumming and dancing to celebrate Indigenous culture will be held tonight from 6 p.m. to 9 p.m. at the Membertou Trade & Convention Centre.

On the Halifax Common, the Mi'kmaq Native Friendship Centre will host a powwow, a dream catcher workshop and other activities from 10 a.m. to 6 p.m.

A Mi'kmaq dancer performs at Confederation Landing in Charlottetown as part of National Aboriginal Day celebrations. (CBC)

Cultural demonstrations and activities honouring the Mi'kmaq will be held all day on the Halifax waterfront.

As well, an exhibit that explores the early contact and relationships between the Mi'kmaq and French traders in the 17th century will open at 2:45 p.m. at the Museum of Natural History in Halifax.

Seeking economic improvements

Chief Terry Paul hopes for a large turnout by people of all backgrounds.

"Hopefully, that helps people to understand and perhaps educate themselves to who we are and what our history is," he said. "We're a people that [have] contributed to this country for centuries, certainly more than 150 years."

Meanwhile, talks between the Nova Scotia Mi'kmaq leaders and the provincial and federal governments continue in an effort to have their communities achieve the same level of economic well-being as other Nova Scotians.

"It's a process that's going well, the process is slow but that's OK," the Membertou chief said. "We, at least, are at the table to talk about the issues that we have."