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VANCOUVER—A four-day celebration of aboriginal culture and communities in the Downtown Eastside—culminating in National Aboriginal Day on June 21—promises to be an empowering event for the Lower Mainland’s First Nations, Metis and Inuit peoples and an eye-opener for the non-native population, says a member of CUPE BC’s aboriginal working group.

CUPE 951 member Dale Whitford, co-organizer of the events at Oppenheimer Park (440 Powell Street), says the June 18-21 festival, partly sponsored by CUPE BC, will be especially poignant for aboriginal people as it is being organized entirely from within the community.

There’s been a lot of interest,” he says. “For native people who will be there, it’s important for us to know who we are and who we have been, and this event is a way to remind us of that.”

The festival theme is “healing”, which should have powerful symbolic resonance in the Downtown Eastside.

A lot of what is seen in that neighbourhood is the social difficulties,” says Whitford, “but this festival tells a far different story. It’s a story that resonates far more for aboriginal people than what’s shown in the media. It will show that the drum is important to us, that the elder is important to us, and that territory—land and resources—is important to us.”

Each day of the festival will feature a sunrise ceremony led by an elder, in recognition that the event is being held on Musqueam territory. There will be children’s activities, traditional storytelling, a pow wow, a neighbourhood smudge ceremony and a daily feast.

The cultural program on June 21st will feature traditional and contemporary performances from various artists including M’Girl, Arlette Alcock, the Indian Time Drum Group, Harmony of Nations and the Hobbema School of Rock.

 Whitford says that holding the event in the Downtown Eastside—rather than a location that’s distant from aboriginal culture—sends a strong message of support.

It’s a way for us in CUPE and for native groups to carry our message into the community—to bring it to the people in the heart of the community,” he explains. “M’Girl and Arlette were grateful to be invited, because the fact there’s a large aboriginal population where they’ll be performing was very appealing.”
More to the point, says Whitford, the way the festival was conceived guarantees that important cultural and traditional details will not be missed.

There’s a certain way that the tee pee must go up and a sunrise event be held,” he says. “Because the festival is being planned and organized by people in the native community, non-natives who attend the event will gain a greater understanding of the history of different places where they live, and a deeper awareness and sense of perspective about how native people see the world around them.

The final day of the festival will coincide with other National Aboriginal Day events held throughout the country.

It’s part of the wider recognition of the important place in the history of Canada that aboriginal people have had and continue to have,” says Whitford.

This is a chance to bring this out into the open and, if just for a day, bring alive that whole other side that people don’t see. When I go into a meeting, people are very enthusiastic about what they can do to help. They want to know: ‘How can we bring something that is very real for us out into the community that shows we are far more than an under-represented image?’”

Whitford adds that he’s grateful to CUPE BC for sponsoring events like the festival, and for standing up for aboriginal rights in general.