A hush came over the crowd of young students as Elder Shirley Williams of the Ojibway and Odawa First Nations began a prayer and smudge ceremony to commemorate the sixth annual Aboriginal Awareness Day at Durham College.
Students from local elementary schools, high schools and DC and UOIT students attended, where they were educated about the environment, Indigenous culture, and spiritual connection.
To kick off the day, Kim Wheatley performed a song tribute to the importance of water and respecting nature’s resources.
Wheatley is an Anishinaabe (Ojibway) of Shawanaga First Nation reserve. She frequently volunteers her time by speaking, singing, and performing drum rituals around Durham Region and the GTA.
Elder Gerard Sagassige, an Ojibway and member of the Curve Lake First Nation and Serpent River First Nation, was the emcee, and says these events help bring education and understanding of the Indigenous community young Canadians.
“[The event] promotes the Indigenous way of being because it’s a shared experience with First peoples, non-status and Métis,” he says. “And I think when you’re able to promote awareness to Durham Region, it creates the understanding for further education in children.”
While younger children were focused on the performances, some of the high school students showed disinterest. They snickered and whispered to their peers during the event.
Aboriginal Awareness Day, put on by the Aboriginal Student Centre at Durham College, welcomed students from across the region of all ages, including students from DC.
The events included a women’s singing group, traditional Inuit throat singing, a Métis fiddler, a drum circle performance, and various vendors from across Ontario.
Darryl Day is an Indigenous child support worker from the Northwest Territories. He says local events bring together the Indigenous community with concentrated, smaller crowds and this helps bring perspective to outsiders.
“It’s always good to get all perspectives from each of the three major communities – First Nations, Inuit and Métis,” he says “It gives students an idea of who we are as Indigenous people. Having elders, art, and our music allows us to share our stories and our culture.”
National Aboriginal Day in Canada takes place annually on June 21, to celebrate First Nations, Inuit and Métis peoples across the country.
This past June, Prime Minister Trudeau renamed the day to National Indigenous Peoples Day to coincide with terminology used in the United Nation’s Declaration of Rights.
Durham College hosts its own local day of celebration every year to bring together Indigenous communities and students for a day of education, entertainment and acceptance, due to National Aboriginal Day falling outside of the regularly scheduled semester.
The Aboriginal Student Centre strives to support students through activities and teachings with the assistance of Elders from all Indigenous backgrounds, according to its mission statement.
Focusing on connecting students with their spirit and culture, the Aboriginal Student Centre puts on events across the school year to incorporate Indigenous presence on campus. Smudging ceremonies and prayer sessions take place multiple times a semester, and all students are welcome to join.