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National Aboriginal Day more significant following Truth and Reconciliation report: First Nations Chief

WATCH ABOVE: Several events took place across the country, marking National Aboriginal Day. In Edmonton, this year’s event held deeper meaning. Eric Szeto explains.

EDMONTON – The sights and sounds of National Aboriginal Day were taken in by hundreds of people in Edmonton Sunday.

“It’s a time for us to celebrate and just be together and just to know that we’re still here, we’re still very resilient, we’re still very strong,” said Bernadette Iahtail, executive director of the Creating Hope Society.

“It’s celebrating the people,” added Papaschase First Nation Chief Calvin Bruneau. “It’s acknowledging us, who we are and our people, our language, our culture.”

National Aboriginal Day was proclaimed in 1996, as a day for all Canadians to celebrate the cultures and contributions to Canada of First Nations, Metis and Inuit peoples.

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“I’m hoping that they see there is a thing to be celebrated,” Iahtail said of those in attendance at the celebrations in Churchill Square Sunday morning.

“We’re all here on the same planet and we need to work together, we need to be together, we need to understand one another. And we also need to be able to acknowledge one another and shake hands and say, ‘Thank you for being here, thank you for being part of this life.'”

READ MORE: What residential school survivors told the Truth and Reconciliation Commission

Both Iahtail and Bruneau say this year’s celebrations seem more significant following the release of the long-awaited Truth and Reconciliation report.

The summary of the Truth and Reconciliation report, released in early June, is the culmination of six emotional years of extensive study into Canada’s church-run, government-funded residential school system, which operated for more than 120 years. The report called it nothing short of a “cultural genocide.”

“The residential school experience is clearly one of the darkest most troubling chapters in our collective history,” said Justice Murray Sinclair, Canada’s first aboriginal justice and the commission’s chairman.

“In the period from Confederation until the decision to close residential schools was taken in this country in 1969, Canada clearly participated in a period of cultural genocide.”

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READ MORE: Canada’s aboriginal residential school system was ‘cultural genocide,’ report says

The report made 94 recommendations – everything from greater police independence and reducing the number of aboriginal children in foster care to restrictions on the use of conditional and mandatory minimum sentences. It also called on the federal government to establish a statutory holiday to honour survivors, their families and communities.

In Edmonton Sunday, Bruneau said he feels there’s been more acceptance for aboriginal people since the release of the report.

“There’s more of an understanding amongst non-aboriginal people and they understand what took place back then, or they’re beginning to. They’re beginning to see the size and scope of the residential schools across Canada, how it impacted the communities and continues to impact our people today,” he said.

READ MORE: Up to 6,000 children died at Canada’s residential schools, report finds

And while Iahtail says there is much work to be done, she believes there’s a bigger support system for aboriginal people in Canada.

“I truly believe that the Truth and Reconciliation really kind of set the motion to move things forward,” she said. “There’s been a big push, a big movement. I think aboriginal people are finally feeling that they’re being heard, that they’re being understood.

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“I just think that the baby steps that we’ve taken in the past, now we’re leaping forward.”

More than 130 residential schools operated across Canada and the federal government has estimated at least 150,000 First Nation, Metis and Inuit students passed through the system. The last school, located outside of Regina, closed in 1996.

With files from The Canadian Press.