Bringing together Val-d’Or preschoolers to march alongside busloads of Algonquin Elders and in between, about 1,500 people took to the streets for this year’s 12th annual Gabriel-Commanda Walk against Racism.

“We also had an increase in the number of schools that participated this year and the communities of Pikogan, Lac Simon and Kitizagik sent busses of students to participate,” explained Édith Cloutier, Executive Director of the Val-d’Or Native Friendship Centre and event organizer.

Between all of the primary and secondary schools in the city as well as the Université du Québec en Abitibi-Témiscamingue (UQAT) and Cégep de l’Abitibi-Témiscamingue, Cloutier said that not only was this year’s march participation phenomenal but that there was an incredible week of festivities for everyone to partake in.

With art and craft shows for the very young to conference-style events for academics and the community, the topic of racism and discrimination was broached at every level while Aboriginal culture was also showcased to underline the beauty of diversity throughout the city.

“We are now seeing so many new partners joining in for the week of festivities and activities to sensitize people against racism. I go to all of the events to encourage this and to show solidarity with them,” said Cloutier.

As part of the festivities, UQAT hosted a screening of Aboriginal playwright-turned-director Yves Sioui Durand’s new groundbreaking film, Mesnak about the downside of reservation life and then hosted a round-table discussion.

This year’s focus was on incorporating diversity into the business world and strengthening business relations between the varioius nations within Abitibi-Témiscamingue. To promote their business theme, this year’s spokespeople were Salomée McKenzie, Chief of the Lac Simon Anishnabe Nation Council, and Marcel Jolicoeur, Chairman of the Val-d’Or Chamber of Commerce and Development Director at Genivar.

“Our theme was about the richness in the manpower that can be found in the people of this region. There is actually a shortage of manpower in many sectors up here and 60% of the Aboriginal population is actually under 30 years of age. There are so many of them available to occupy these jobs so why are we not seeing more of them working for these business,” said Cloutier.

In keeping with this, Cloutier invited Marc Gagnon, Vice President of the Cirque du Soleil, for a one-day conference in Val d’Or about diversity in the workplace as the Cirque employs people from over 40 different nationalities within their 5000 employee workforce and it is seen as a source of enrichment for the company.

“We were very happy to see over 100 people show up for this conference. The event was then followed by a round-table discussion on the topic of racism and discrimination and that also had an excellent turnout,” said Cloutier.

The week’s activities were capped off by the march, which Cloutier said was bigger, louder, warmer and stronger than ever… and that the unseasonably warm 10 degree Celsius weather didn’t hurt anything.

The marchers made their way down Val-d’Or’s main strip and then the event culminated with entertainment. This year’s performances included traditional hoop dancers and drummers from Lac Simon as well as two rap/hip-hop duos performing works about fighting racism and discrimination.

There was also a signing of what Cloutier described as a “Friendship Declaration”, that Chiefs from the Algonquin communities, a representative for Pierre Corbeil, the Minister responsible for the Abitibi-Témiscamingue region, reps from the Mayor’s office and many other officials signed on behalf of the people in a show of solidarity against racism.

“After 12 years of doing this we can now see that this movement is really growing and that it is not just one of the Friendship Centre’s activities anymore, it has grown far beyond that. It is now a mobilization of a whole community and has become practically a tradition,” said Cloutier.