Indigenous History and Indigenous History Month

Mary Jane Logan McCallum

Winnipeg 2022[1]

Last month, a reporter from CBC Kids News emailed me with the question: What are the origins of National Indigenous History Month and National Indigenous Peoples Day?  I was somewhat embarrassed that I didn’t know.  How did these special events that celebrate my field of work come about and how or why do we at best take them for granted, and at worst, forget about them altogether?[2]

This sent me down a “research hole” to learn more. I found out, in a nutshell, that both events arose in the context of late twentieth- and early twenty-first-century Indigenous-state relations: the patriation of the Constitution and enshrining Indigenous rights, the resistance at Oka and the government’s response, the Royal Commission on Aboriginal Peoples (RCAP), and the Indian Residential Schools Settlement Agreement (IRSSA) and the federal apology for Indian Residential Schools.  I also learned that while formal recognition of Indigenous History Month and National Indigenous Peoples Day is connected to different levels of state power (municipal, provincial, federal), these events are fundamentally the result of Indigenous activism, advocacy and relationship-building. Last, I learned that these two events are critiques of ongoing anti-Indigenous racism in Canada and celebrations of contributions of Indigenous people in the past and present. However, they are also fundamentally tools of public education about the proper place of Indigenous people and history within Canada.   

National Indigenous Peoples Day and Enshrining Indigenous Rights into the Canadian Constitution 

There have always been efforts by Indigenous people around the world to mark days when we can tell the “other” side of history.  Often this is done on or near days when national histories, and especially histories of imperialism and colonization, are celebrated. For example, in the late 1980s in Sydney, Australia, people began to rename Australia Day “Invasion Day”; it has also been called “Survival Day” and “Aboriginal Sovereignty Day.”  Columbus Day in California and several other jurisdictions across the U.S. is now called Indigenous Peoples Day, first instituted at Berkeley in the 1990s.[3]  We saw this in Canada in 2021 with “Cancel Canada Day.” 

In 1982, the National Indian Brotherhood, now the Assembly of First Nations, declared June 21 “National Aboriginal Solidarity Day.” The critical context for this was a groundswell of Indigenous mobilization against the marginalization of Indigenous rights within the Canadian governance system and calls for a more formal nation-to-nation relationship between Indigenous people and the state. On November 19, 1981 peaceful rallies undertaken by the Aboriginal Rights Coalition[4] were held in 10 cities across Canada to object to the exclusion of Indigenous people from the constitutional process that preceded the patriation of Canada’s Constitution from Britain in 1982.[5] The removal of clauses outlining Aboriginal and treaty rights from the Constitution by both federal and provincial governments was a direct affront, and the national “Day of Solidarity” was a way to assert the place of founding and continuing functioning of Indigenous nations in Canada.  It was not until 1984, however, that Prime Minister Pierre Elliott Trudeau called the Conference of First Ministers on Aboriginal Constitutional Matters with the premiers and First Nations, Métis, and Inuit leaders. It was a meeting fraught with tension and hostility, as captured in the NFB film Dancing Around the Table (1987), which also powerfully depicts Indigenous peoples’ assertion of an Indigenous future in Canada in spite of their persistent erasure and silencing in the constitutional process. 

Victoria Times Colonist 20 November, 1981

In the 1990s, efforts to have National Aboriginal Day given official status were given a boost with the Royal Commission on Aboriginal Peoples (RCAP). A huge nation-wide investigation established in 1991 to study the relationship between Indigenous people, the government of Canada, and Canadian society, RCAP was sparked by game-changing Indigenous land resistance at the Mohawk territory of Kanesatake in 1990 (near Oka, QC) but was also meant to the issues raised by the constitutional process and the failure to get agreement on clarifying Indigenous rights. While most of RCAP’s 440 Recommendations remain shelved at least 20 years later,[6] the Canadian government did follow #66, being the establishment of a National Aboriginal Day. The Commission discussed designating a National Aboriginal Day in a section of their Report that covers how Indigenous history, languages and ceremonies can and should become fundamental parts of everyday life and governance in Canada. The Commission found that events like Native Awareness weeks can address common misconceptions and stereotypes of Indigenous people and provide communities opportunities to learn. It also found that such celebrations give people the occasion to pay attention to the history and achievements of Indigenous people and to contemplate the relationship between Indigenous and non-Indigenous people in Canada.  It noted that care be taken to ensure events are not merely symbolic and that they be organized under joint Indigenous and non-Indigenous direction.  It also suggested that both Parliament and the national Indigenous organizations jointly designate the day. Rather in 1996, it was then Indian Affairs minister Ron Irwin who proposed to Cabinet that the day be recognized and Governor General Romeo LeBlanc who proclaimed it so. National Aboriginal Day – now called National Indigenous Peoples Day, remains a statutory holiday only in the Yukon and Northwest Territories and First Nations reserves.

“So that our youth can embrace their Aboriginal heritage”: The Regina Aboriginal Professionals Association and Indigenous History Month

Indigenous History Month was brought into being by the Regina Aboriginal Professionals Association (RAPA), a non-profit organization with a mission to develop a network of people committed to fostering opportunities for Indigenous people in education, employment, and economic development initiatives in Regina. RAPA president Joely BigEagle-Pasapa led a massive email and letter-writing campaign to encourage elected members of the Regina city council, the province of Saskatchewan (and other provinces), and the federal government to adopt an entire month to reflect on Indigenous history. At the time, she credited the provincial minister of advanced education and employment, Warren McCall, with helping to advance the motion.  The City of Regina and the Province of Saskatchewan proclaimed Aboriginal History Month in June 2007 “in recognition of First Nations, Metis, and Inuit people’s contributions to Canada.”  

Regina Sun Community News 17 June 2007

In interviews with the press, BigEagle and McCall cited Black History Month as an inspiration for Indigenous History Month, along with a similar goal of promoting “understanding.”  Black History Month in Canada originated in much the same way, including grassroots efforts that led to recognition by Toronto City Council in 1979 and by the Province of Nova Scotia in 1988.  After years of pushing, the federal government proclaimed Black History Month a national event in 1995. Its history spans across the border and back nearly a century, when Black historian Carter G. Woodson (1875­–1950) initiated “Negro History Week” in 1926. In the 1970s, Negro History Week in the U.S. became Black History Week and later Month.  In Canada, Black History Month was championed by Jean Augustine, an educator and social justice champion who was the first African-Canadian Member of Parliament (1993–2006) in Canada. 

After their initial success, the RAPA executive kept up pressure on the federal government through letter writing campaigns for national recognition. After an attempt in 2007 failed to secure unanimity among New Democrat members of parliament, in 2009 MP Jean Crowder put forward a motion in the House of Commons declaring June as National Aboriginal History Month and it received unanimous consent. Crediting RAPA for their initiative and persistence, Crowder presented the motion because she saw National Aboriginal History month as “an opportunity to celebrate the rich history, culture and contributions of aboriginal people to Canada, and also to educate non-Aboriginal Canadians.” What made her motion successful in 2009?  One impetus may have been Prime Minister Stephen Harper’s 2008 apology for the Indian Residential School system, a hard-won apology prompted by calls from activists, the Indian Residential Schools Settlement Agreement, and ultimately another parliamentary motion by MP Gary Merasty that sought an apology and passed unanimously.  

Some people highlight the value of events like National Indigenous Peoples Day and Indigenous History Month for understanding and combatting racism and other injustices. Others identify them as opportunities to celebrate the achievements of Indigenous individuals whose successes deserve wider recognition. But BigEagle herself struggled to have the month recognized for the work it could do for one particular group of people – Indigenous youth living in Canada, who she believed would benefit from more awareness of their history.[7] “With a month to celebrate Aboriginal heritage,” she argued, “it will allow Aboriginal education to be a larger part of the public school curriculum.”[8] It would also help in “raising the social conscience of our communities, bringing positive energy, positive thoughts and sharing our knowledge so that our youth can embrace their Aboriginal heritage to exude confidence.”[9]  

Whatever purpose Indigenous History Month may have for people, seems to be more certainty about what “Indigenous history” is – yet it is inevitably narrowed to stories of (men’s) war service and residential schools. Media and government-sponsored reflections jumble history, culture, and biography together, and programs for Indigenous History Month events often focus on contemporary artists, writers, and other cultural producers rather than people whose responsibility it is to care about the past and about the production and dissemination of knowledge about the past.[10] Celebration, it would appear, trumps history for a Canadian public that still prefers not to look too closely at the ugly truths of its past.

The field in which we Indigenous historians live is a tough terrain, and many of us have had to repeatedly make the case even for its existence. A brief survey of universities in western Canada shows that few courses in Indigenous history are taught by history departments,[11] while discussions of racism, genocide, and land theft are still put in “scare quotes” and illicit hateful responses. Despite all evidence to the contrary, there are some who declare falsely but confidently that our history is already widely covered in our schools and familiar to all Canadians. This view became particularly audible when the University of Winnipeg introduced its plan to create a single mandatory Indigenous undergraduate course credit.[12]  

Meanwhile, New Zealand has pushed the call for more and better education to the next level – without an Indigenous History Month (although it does have Waitangi Day to commemorate the 1840 signing of the nation’s founding treaty).  In 2019, after widescale consultation, the government announced that all schools would be required to instill in students a comprehensive understanding of New Zealand history in a way that would repair an inadequate and Eurocentric curriculum. The new curriculum, called Aotearoa New Zealand’s Histories/Te Takanga o Te Wā, was developed in conjunction with academics, teachers, historians, and others. In this overhaul, Māori history is taught as the foundational and continual history of Aotearoa New Zealand. The new grades 1–10 New Zealand history curriculum, to be introduced in 2023, is structured around three linked elements – understand, know, and do. Students are taught to “understand” big ideas of Aotearoa New Zealand’s Māori and colonial history; to “know” national, iwi (tribal) and whakapapa or family historical contexts; and to “do” the work of identifying sources and thinking critically about the past.[13]

When Aotearoa New Zealand’s Histories/Te Takanga o Te Wā was announced, Victoria University history professor Charlotte Macdonald stated it was a sign of a mature society to “put our own history to the centre of our schooling…. It’s kind of like sleepwalking if we don’t know our histories whether it’s as individuals, as communities, families, communities or as a national society, then we are walking blind, both in the present and into the future.” New Zealand educators declared that it would help close “woeful” knowledge gaps on the country’s past and “had the potential to transform education and society.”[14] This is the kind of transformation of historical understanding and contemporary relationships at the heart of Joely BigEagle and RAPA’s advocacy for national recognition of an Indigenous history month – a transformation so many others have called for, and for which RCAP and more recently the TRC have provided frameworks. More than a decade after we first marked National Indigenous History Month, Canada is still sleepwalking, slow to awaken to a more complete and accurate historical narrative. It is past time we put history at the centre of Indigenous History Month, and Indigenous history at the centre of Canadian history education.

[1] With special and enthusiastic thanks to Jill McConkey for the edit and input.

[2] See CBC Kids News “National Indigenous History Month: When did it start and what is it?” 30 May, 2022 on Youtube:

[3] Aliyah Chavez, “Map: Making Indigenous Peoples Day official across the country,” Indian Country Today 11 October, 2019,

[4] This group included the Native Council of Canada, the Inuit Committee on National Issues, the Native Women’s Association of Canada, the Dene Nation, the Council for Yukon Indians, the Nishg’a Tribal Council, and the National Association of Friendship Centres.

[5] The November 19 event was separate from, but part of the same political context as the “Constitutional Express,” a cross-Canada chartered train journey organized by the Union of British Columbia Indian Chiefs in 1980 to bring First Nations from BC to Ottawa to protest that the revised constitution would terminate Indigenous and treaty rights, make submissions to hearings held by the Special Joint Committee… the First Ministers Conference  and to join the National Indian Brotherhood in an all-chiefs conference in Ottawa.  Other efforts included the presentation of briefs, the formation of the Aboriginal Rights Coalition, 

[6] Katherine A.H. Graham and David Newhouse, eds. Sharing the Land, Sharing a Future: The Legacy of the Royal Commission on Aboriginal Peoples (Winnipeg: University of Manitoba Press, 2021).

[7] Kerry Benjoe, “FN University marks beginning of history month,” Regina Leader Post 2 June, 2011, p. 5.

[8] Isha Thompson, “Celebrate all month long,” Windspeaker 27:4 (2009).

[9] Sask. Proclaims Aboriginal History Month” Shellbrook Chronicle 15 June, 2007, p. 18.

[10] See for example “35 books to read for National Indigenous History Month,”, 1 June, 2021.  Not a single book is authored by an Indigenous historian.  

[11] Indigenization Committee, Department of History, University of Winnipeg, “Like Paddling Upstream: Indigenous History and Curriculum Structures in Canadian University History Departments.” Working paper, 2022.  See also “Like Paddling Upstream,” CHA Indigenous History Group Brown Bag Series 3 Feb, 2022 recorded on Facebook:

[12] See for example Josh Dehaas, “Why Indigenous Studies shouldn’t be mandatory,” Macleans 23 February, 2012. See also Chelsea Vowel, “Debunking the myth that Canadian schools teach enough about Indigenous people,” CBC Indigenous Opinion, 23 December, 2015.

[13] For more on the New Zealand History Curriculum, see:

[14] “Aotearoa New Zealand history curriculum ‘sign of a mature society,'” Radio New Zealand, 18 March 2022,


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