Characterized by its languages, spirituality, rituals, institutions, food, and art, culture is a living entity that has been formed and transformed by people’s knowledge, beliefs and worldview, which are rooted in the land. For millennia they have lived in harmony with the land, building a legacy of rich traditions that continue to undergird their societies. Different peoples each have their own traditional territories, histories, and languages, and thus a diverse and rich array of cultures exists. From these cultures, a wealth of knowledge and practices has been contributed to the world.
Tragically, as stated in the Truth and Reconciliation Commission’s 2015 report, the government’s racist policies have denied Aboriginal people the right to political, economic, and social self-determination. But this reality is changing; culture has become a powerful force in reversing the impacts of colonization, including high rates of incarceration, poverty, addiction, violence, and child removal that plague contemporary communities.
Despite the efforts of the Canadian government to assimilate all First Peoples into Euro-Canadian society, Aboriginal cultures continue to thrive. More than 630 First Nations in addition to Inuit and Métis people live across Canada. Even after the Indian residential school assault on Aboriginal languages, more than 60 are spoken in the country today. Aboriginal languages are shaped by people’s relationship to the land, and for many people, their mother tongue is the easiest and most natural way to express their feelings, inner thoughts, and relation to the world. Having knowledge of a language empowers those who understand and speak the language and provides a profound avenue through which to express self-determination.
A culturally viable presence today is a testament to the resilience of the values and traditions that have defined peoples for thousands of years. They have fought to maintain and revitalize their cultures, despite the appalling efforts of the government and churches to annihilate them. Every person is connected on a deep level to their culture, regardless of whether they were born and raised on band land, immersed in their culture, or lived outside their traditional territory with no connection to their nation. By learning about and participating in their cultures, people are healing from the effects of colonization and rebuilding their physical, emotional, intellectual, and spiritual identities. This, more than anything, speaks volumes to the importance of culture.
“We can celebrate, simply because we survived,” said Grand Chief George Manuel, a member of the Neskonlith Indian Band of the Shuswap Nation in British Columbia. Alive and thriving, cultures have infused every sector of Canadian society from political activism to pop art. People are celebrating by contributing their phenomenal gifts and skills through sport, music, art, medicine, education, law and justice, politics, and spirituality.
Contemporary Examples of Culture
For all the figures listed here, there are many more deserving of recognition for their spirit.
Frank Calder and Konrad Sioui, both key players in landmark Supreme Court rulings, forced the Canadian government to change the way it treats land claims and treaties with sovereign First Nations. Mary Two-Axe Earley, a Mohawk from Quebec who had lost her Indian status when she married a non-Aboriginal person, took her case to the Royal Commission on the Status of Women in Canada and regained her status. Her work paved the way for future legislation that changed the way people were affected by marriage under the Indian Act. (See newfederation.org/Native_Leaders/Topics_Profile_list.htm)
Idle No More is one of the largest mass movements in Canadian history. Founded by four aboriginal women, INM has become a profound voice calling “on all people to join in a peaceful revolution, to honour sovereignty, and to protect the land and water.” Representing an earlier generation, Métis Louis Riel, who helped stage the Red River Uprising, is an iconic martyr and hero to many Canadians. Other more recent leaders who have been active in the movement to establish the Aboriginal right to self-government include Matthew Mukash, Joseph Gosnell, James Gladstone, Donald Marshall Sr., Max Gros-Louis, Andrew Delisle, Bertha Allen, Muriel Stanley Venne, Sandra Lovelace Nicholas, and Beverly Jacobs. Those involved in political communities include Harry Daniels, George Manuel, Phil Fontaine, Harold Cardinal, Noel Starblanket, Georges Erasmus, Roberta Jamieson, Ovide Mercredi, Rosemarie Kuptana, Ghislain Picard, Matthew Coon Come, Patrick Brazeau and Shawn Atleo. (See newfederation.org/Native_Leaders/Topics_Profile_list.htm)
Musicians from Buffy Sainte Marie to Tany Tagaq to A Tribe Called Red represent a multitude of genres, singer-songwriters and performers that also include Kashtin, Tom Jackson, Robbie Robertson, Susan Aglukark, Don Ross, Leela Gilday, Derek Miller, Kinnie Starr, Fara Palmer and Wab Kinew. Some have provided leadership in political activism, such as A Tribe Called Red’s fight against the racist naming of an Ottawa sports team. We must also mention award-winning conductor and activist John Kim Bell. There are now Aboriginal-owned and operated recording studios including Sweetgrass Records, Arbor Records, and Sunshine Records, as well as Aboriginal-owned and operated radio stations across the country. (See thecanadianencyclopedia.ca/en/article/first-peoples-music/)
Not only have cultures contributed to the formation of sports in Canada, but many Aboriginal athletes have represented Canada in competition. Sharon and Shirley Firth competed at four Winter Olympic Games in cross-country skiing, Ted Nolan played and coached hockey in the NHL, Alwyn Morris participated in the 1984 Los Angeles Summer Olympic Games and won gold and bronze medals in pairs kayaking, and Waneek Horn-Miller was co-captain of the Canadian water polo team that won gold at the 1999 Pan American Games. Some of these athletes were also active in fighting racism in sports. Over 550 athletes, coaches, and organizers have received the prestigious Tom Longboat Award, but their accomplishments are largely unrecorded. Then there are the numerous contestants in traditional sporting activities and games whose names have not been documented and therefore are not incorporated into our understanding of people’s contribution to sport in Canada. (See Aboriginal Peoples And Sport In Canada.pdf)
More and more young people are entering the field of medicine. The first graduates of the innovative Aboriginal Program received their medical degrees in 2009 from the University of Ottawa’s Faculty of Medicine. This program aims to graduate 100 physicians by 2020 in order to fill a gap in health services for people across Canada. A growing number of health professionals have come from the Health Initiatives program at the University of Alberta, and they are taking leadership roles in Aboriginal health programs and organizations across the country. The University of British Columbia’s medical school exceeded its goal of graduating 50 doctors by 2020 five years earlier than expected. About two-thirds of the graduates to date are serving in BC, mostly in rural and remote areas. Dr. Lisa Monkman, a recent graduate who now works in Manitoba, brings together western medicine and values to her practice. She states,” I think that the beauty of health practices lays with the fact that they look at the broader picture, it’s not sub-specialized or narrowly focused in anyway.”
Numerous other leaders are approaching education, law and justice, housing, and food security in new ways, bringing restoration to people’s emotional, physical, intellectual and spiritual identity. People are establishing models of self-governance through highly regarded institutions such as the Assembly of First Nations, the Congress of Aboriginal Peoples, First Nations Health Authority, and Aboriginal Court, to name a few.
People’s way of being in the world is firmly rooted, positively affecting communities and the broader Canadian society. In a revitalized wave of self-determination, people are showing the world that their values and beliefs matter. Their connection to mind, body, heart, and spirit has enabled them to share their gifts with each other and with the world around them. As part of this renewal of culture, the Native Courtworker and Counselling Association of British Columbia has developed Through An Aboriginal Lens, a program to bring healing and wholeness to youth who experience FASD and are involved with the law. Our hope is that each person who seeks help, together with their families and supporters, will find their path of reintegration into a community where they can thrive and be whole.
- Family, community, and Aboriginal language among young First Nations children living off reserve in Canada, Statistics Canada
- Aboriginal Speaker Series video
- Leadership in Aboriginal Health
- Beats Target Aboriginal Medical School Graduates