Politics Social Policy

Statutory National Aboriginal Day ‘Scaffolding’ for Reconciliation in Yukon

Making National Aboriginal Day a statutory holiday in the Yukon would advance reconciliation between Indigenous and non-Indigenous peoples, experts and politicians agree.

On December 9, the Yukon Legislative Assembly unanimously approved a motion to undergo a study into making the June 21 commemoration a paid holiday. The national holiday is a celebration of Indigenous culture and contributions in Canada.

“Public holidays are tools that institutions use in order to reinforce the stuff we recognize as being good and worthwhile,” said David Neufeld, a public historian based in the Yukon.

That’s especially true, Neufeld said, given that annual holidays aren’t only situated in the past, but are ongoing means of commemoration.

Considering many Canadian holidays are centred on Christianity and the monarchy, Neufeld said Yukon’s move to make National Aboriginal Day a paid day-off would make the nation more inclusive. He sees National Aboriginal Day as advancing reconciliation because it isn’t about Indigenous people celebrating their existence, but Canadians acknowledging their presence and contributions.

“If [holidays] are from ‘on high’, that leaves very little room for other futures,” he said. “So why do we need to have a National Aboriginal Day? Well, because colonial society made Aboriginal people disappear. What kind of future was that?”

Rodney Nelson, chair of Carleton University’s Aboriginal Education Council, agrees.

“We’re always celebrating this colonial history, but there’s been a long history before colonial settlement and a lot after, so why don’t we acknowledge that?” he said.

MLA Kevin Barr brought the motion to the legislature late last year for similar reasons. The NDP member noted that if Yukoners can take time off for Discovery Day, the August holiday commemorating the discovery of gold in the territory, surely they could take time to acknowledge the Indigenous peoples whose land they are on.

“Only being able to know where you come from are you able to understand where you need to move forward.”

Neufeld said Discovery Day is strongly rooted in pioneer, settler colonial history. While it has become somewhat more inclusive, he said it continues to claim that “the world began when Skookum Jim and Carmack found a nugget.”

Barr said this as an ongoing issue in the Yukon.

“It has not been that long that I’ve listened to the elders say, ‘The history of the Yukon did not start when the gold rush started.’”

Making Aboriginal Day a statutory holiday, Barr said, would further an opportunity to refocus our historical gaze through the sharing of Indigenous culture and, more importantly, understanding the real history of colonization. Despite growing awareness, he said there are still many Yukoners who don’t fully understand the losses experienced by Indigenous peoples resulting from things like residential schools.

“Only being able to know where you come from are you able to understand where you need to move forward,” Barr said.

The legislature’s motion was “fully supported” by the Council of Yukon First Nations. In a statement to Northern Public Affairs, Chief Ruth Massie said along with its capacity for sharing, celebrating and carrying forward customs and teachings, a designated National Aboriginal Day has “the potential to act as a unifying force between Indigenous and non-Indigenous Canadians.”

Currently, the Northwest Territories is the only province or territory to celebrate National Aboriginal Day as a statutory holiday. Premier Bob McLeod said the number of people who participate in the rich June 21 celebrations has increased each year since the holiday’s inception in 2001.

“[It] helps us establish and maintain mutually respectful relationship between Aboriginal and non-Aboriginal peoples,” he said.

Given the territory’s landmark advancements in self-governance and joint consultation, Nelson said the Yukon has a lot to celebrate on June 21, as well.

The greatest apprehensions about the statutory holiday proposal have come from the business community, given the cost of wages associated with any statutory holiday. But Nelson counters that the huge awareness brought by this statutory holiday would overshadow its cost.

“It’s scaffolding, I always call it: It’s one piece at a time building a bridge,” Nelson said. “It might be a smaller piece, but it’s an important piece that supports a much larger form of reconciliation.”◉

Photo credit: Rod Brazier (CC)

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