WE QUIETLY WORKED OUR WAY ACROSS THE ALEXANDRA BRIDGE this week in the stillness of a beautiful summer morning at 3:45 a.m. Nothing was happening. Few cars crossed the span, but that was it – everything else was just the swirling sound of the Ottawa River.
But as we drew closer to the Museum of History on the Quebec side, across from Parliament, we heard a quiet stirring of voices on the shoreline just below the museum itself. These were the folks Jane and I had come to find. It was almost impossible to detect the identities of those quietly shuffling around on the grass – sunrise was still an hour off. Most were quiet, but all knew their purpose for their meeting. This was the sunrise celebration for National Aboriginal Day and some Canadians were gathering for a quiet event that had suddenly taken on more meaning.
Indigenous Affairs Minister, Carolyn Bennett, had asked us the day previous to join her on the riverbank. Present were PM Justin Trudeau, Justice Minister, Jody Wilson-Raybould (also a BC First Nations leader), House Speaker Geoff Regan, and numerous other politicians, staff, and interested citizens – perhaps around 200 people altogether.
But the focus was on the fires slowly burning on the shore – the origins of the smoke for the ceremonial “smudging” exercises taking place throughout that hour. The whispering in the crowd stilled. People shuffled forward to hear the speakers. And everywhere I detected nothing but reverence – not for the river, the fantastic illumination of the Parliament buildings across the way, or the slowly lightening sky – but for those from indigenous communities who prayed, beat drums, sang, and collectively transcended in an instant the world of politics into the domain of the natural order. It was stirring. The PM or other political leaders merely observed as, in the seat of ultimate Canadian power, the country’s original peoples taught those present the need to work collectively in the land we all share.
I thought back to the times working at the Calgary Stampede in my youth, as proud people of the Blackfoot (Siksika) nations rode their horses in the Stampede Parade and worked their way in ceremonial dress around the Stampede grounds, among the stands and the booths. They were mysterious figures back then, to me and to others, somehow representative of Canada’s past. But I realized on that particular morning by the Ottawa River that our Indigenous People are quietly become essential to our country’s future – not through assimilation or domination, but by a gentle enlightenment and respect that have been far too long in coming.
Something was brewing in Ottawa and across the land, some kind of recognition that what we have at present is entirely unsuitable when it comes to our understanding and partnership with our First Nations, Metis, and Inuit citizens. If our future is to be truly enlightening as a nation, then we must come to understand how we erred in the past few hundred years.
One elder spoke near the end of the ceremony, noting that a bird had swept by over our heads at the same time as a fish jumped out of the water. We all laughed with him, but the truth was that none of us had really noticed. It had taken a seasoned and practiced eye, one that has endured much through the decades, to remind us of the remarkable country in which we live and the great journey we have yet to travel to full understanding. We will know we have completed that journey not just when our indigenous communities are a recognized part of our great collective experiment, but when we as citizens come to acknowledge and internally discern where we went wrong and learn to accept forgiveness.
By the Ottawa River on a remarkable morning this week, I reflected on the observation of Thomas Wharton, recounted in John Ralston Saul’s Reflection of a Siamese Twin:
“An exposed ice surface often displays a dull, undifferentiated façade. The intricate crystalline structure can be revealed, however, by pouring a warm liquid over the ice.”
A great national thaw is emerging, introducing us to remarkable indigenous cultures that have a required place in our daily lives, and which we must respect. Judging by the way official Ottawa quietly showed that honour in the sunrise celebration this week, our journey together might finally be making a solid beginning.