It was late morning as the throngs of First Nations participants clamoured together just beside Montreal City Hall to don their traditional garb and prepare for a ceremonious march through Place Jacques-Cartier in honour of National Aboriginal Day.
The event, organized by Terres en vues, the same organization that puts on Montreal’s First Peoples Festival, brought together First Nations youth from across Canada and traditional singers and dancers from nearby Mohawk territory, Kahnawake.
According to Terres en vues executive director André Dudemaine, National Aboriginal Day is celebrated on June 21, the summer solstice, because mid-day is the point at which “the sky and the earth meet” – and this, he explained, was a very important moment for First Nations people.
Dudemaine was excited to present something new to the festival – large-scale masks that were made and being presented as puppetry by First Nations youth.
“They have created these beautiful masks and these are new spirits that are here with us now. They are a result of these youth coming together here in Montreal with Montrealers in the 21st century and this new regalia will be part of the Aboriginal community in Montreal and be part of our ceremonies,” said Dudemaine.
Nunavik’s Gabriel Uqaituk marched around his own mask through the square for the ceremony.
“These masks symbolize different things, but mainly ourselves. As a personal creation it had to look Native, but it was less about being Native and more about just expressing and being,” said Uqaituk.
Swaneige, a youth from the Northwest Territories, had her mask mounted so all could see.
“We made these masks during a three-week atelier, starting with clay and then papier-mâché. I chose a fish but in creating it I drew inspiration from graffiti artists in Montreal,” she explained.
Chad Diabo, one of the Buffalo Hat Singers, a traditional drum group that was invited to play at the event, was happy to be part of the event in Montreal and share his Native pride.
“It is really nice that Canadians have a day to celebrate National Aboriginal Day, but for us it is Aboriginal Day every day of the week. But, if Canadians can notice and celebrate us one day of the year, this can really serve as a foundation for building bridges and I will take that happily,” said Diabo.
At noon the Elders, performers, mask carriers and other participants left the meeting point just north of the square and marched through the crowds to the beat of the drums. They rendezvoused at a stage set up for the event at the southern exit of the square, where the singing, dancing and then lighting of the ceremonial fires took place.
According to Atonnion, a Mohawk Elder from Kahnawake who was in full traditional regalia for the dancing and singing at the ceremony, being able to participate in the festivities was a major display of pride.
“We were just so proud and happy to be able to do our traditional dancing and singing here,” he said.
The same went for Singing Wind Deer who had her nine-month-old son in tow.
“Being here today means that I am proud to be who I am and I have brought my baby to show him just what his culture looks like. This is something that I want him to show his own children, so that he carries on the tradition down the generations,” she said.
Joey Blacksmith, a Cree living in Montreal, had brought his family to Old Montreal to take in the celebration.
“I just got back from spending three weeks up north for work, but being at this sure does make us miss home. My kids are really happy to be here though,” he said.
After presenting a variety of songs and dances as well as the traditional lighting of the sacred fire, the event culminated with traditional Friendship Dance, which invited audience participation.
People from all walks of life took part; Sikhs danced with Aboriginal women, provincial and municipal politicians with traditional dancers, and tourists with drummers. It was a remarkable blending of everyone present at this glorious event, as the sun beat down heavily on the first day of summer.