National Indigenous Peoples Day
On June 21 the Indigenous peoples lead celebrations across the country of the Summer Solstice, an occasion which from 1996 to 2018 was officially known as National Aboriginal Day and is now National Indigenous Peoples Day. The Summer Solstice, the longest day of the year has been a time for Indigenous peoples to gather and commemorate since time immemorial.
In recent years, National Indigenous Peoples Day has also been an occasion for First Nations, Métis and Inuit people, joined by Canadians and Quebeckers of all walks of life, to engage in actions to affirm their rights in the face of the colonial arrangements and relations the federal government continues to impose.
In Quebec, the Summer Solstice celebration is “an expression of exchange and friendship amongst nations living in Quebec.” A “Solstice of the Nations” is held by the Indigenous nations with a Fire Ceremony “to encourage closer ties amongst the peoples living on Quebec territory,” so that “the coals of that fire light up the bonfire of the Great Show of Quebec’s National Celebration on the Plains of Abraham.” This refers to the National Day of Quebec celebrated on June 24.
The origins of celebrations on or around June 21-24 are ancient and varied. Among the original peoples the Summer Solstice, which according to the Julian calendar falls on June 24, was celebrated by bonfires symbolizing the life-giving power of the sun. Today, these bonfires persist as the oldest symbol of these celebrations. These celebrations also marked the change of seasons and the bounty that came with the warm weather.
The celebration of Quebec’s National Day, established by Quebec patriot Ludger Duvernay, publisher of the patriot newspaper La Minerve; and the elected members of the Patriot Party, fell on the same date as Saint-Jean-Baptiste Day but was not the same. In fact Saint-Jean-Baptiste Day had been introduced long before by the King of France and the Catholic high clergy in the colonies of the French empire in opposition to the June 21 Summer Solstice celebrated by the Indigenous peoples.
In Catholic France during medieval times, the celebration known as Saint John the Baptist Day, took its name from the sanctuaries established by the Catholic Church to fight paganism. It was brought to the colonies of the French empire in opposition to the Summer Solstice celebrated by the Indigenous Nations around the same date. The Church, through the Council of Trent (1545-1563) attempted to Christianize that custom, a celebration of light around a joyous bonfire, by replacing it with a portrayal of submission in the person of Saint John the Baptist, “the lamb of God.” In line with this, Monseigneur de Saint-Vallier, in his 1702 Catechism for the Diocese of Quebec, directed at the Canadiens, noted that the Catholic Church in the New World considered the Summer Solstice ceremony acceptable so long as the “dances and superstitions” of the Indigenous peoples were banished.
It was not until 1908 that Pope Pius X named Saint John the Baptist the patron saint of “French Canadians,” advocating the division of the Canadian people into so-called French and English Canadians, which the British empire was so determined to impose. Sixty years later, on June 24, 1968 and 1969, at a time the resurgence of Quebec’s movement for independence and people’s sovereignty was in full swing, this symbol of division and submission was swept aside and, once again, the National Day celebration saw the people joyfully dancing around a bonfire.
(Photos: Val-d’Or Native Friendship Centre, Saguenay Native Friendship Centre, Quebec City Native Friendship Centre)