Celebrating together – community groups join forces to mark Aboriginal Day in Hay River

Bert Buckley, left, and Ava Walsh show off their colouring projects at the Soaring Eagle Friendship Centre's Aboriginal Day celebrations June 21.

Bert Buckley, left, and Ava Walsh show off their colouring projects at the Soaring Eagle Friendship Centre’s Aboriginal Day celebrations June 21.

For the first time in years, aboriginal groups in Hay River celebrated the holiday dedicated to Canada’s indigenous peoples together in Hay River.

“I wasn’t expecting this many people, or that they would all come so fast,” said Sharon Pekok, executive director at the Soaring Eagle Friendship Centre, where most of the festivities were held June 21. “But it’s great. It’s nice for us to be able to do this this year.”

Last year, Pekok said the centre hadn’t had much of a chance to put on an event for Aboriginal Day, having re-opened the doors to the public only weeks before. This year, she was keen to bring people together to put on the best event possible for everyone in the community.

“I think it’s better to do it all together because it means we’re not stretching our volunteers so thin,” she said. “And it’s better for the people who come out too … means we get more people in one place, having fun together.”

While the unanticipated crowds did stretch the food on offer, Pekok said she would rather that than have too much left-over at the end. Over 100 people came out to eat and mingle in the first half-hour alone.

“This is all Sharon’s doing,” said Emma Harper, program director for the Town of Hay River, who was on-hand to help with kids’ activities. “I’m so glad she took the initiative, and that everyone jumped on to make it happen and do something together.”

In the past, the friendship centre, Hay River Metis Government Council, the municipality and the Hay River Reserve all had separate events for Aboriginal Day. While K’atlodeeche First Nation decided to hold its own festivities again this year, it did commit to contributing children’s games to the event at the Soaring Eagle.

“We’re having canoe races, handgames, and axe-throwing,” said April Martel, who organized the events on the reserve, prior to Aboriginal Day. “There are tons of activities for the kids, and I just hope everyone comes out to have fun together.”

Despite a slow start to the day on that side of the river, Martel said she anticipated crowds at both the Chief Lamalice Complex and the arbour, necessitating a lot of organizational effort to keep everyone fed and happy.

“I just hope everyone comes out to have fun with their families,” she said. “And to be sober and have fun as a community.”

Wally Schumann, Hay River Metis Council president, dutifully manned the single barbecue at the friendship centre, and said that while the rush of hungry people was unexpected, it was a welcome show of support for different aboriginal communities within Hay River.

“We did our own thing the last few years, but this year Sharon asked if we could all do something together,” he said while flipping burgers and serving fish.
Schumann hoped the event would be the beginning of an ongoing partnership between aboriginal groups in the area, and pointed to another opportunity that could see the University of Calgary host a youth leadership conference in the Hub later this summer.

“We need at least 10 students (to show interest),” he said. “We’re hoping to get some Metis kids, kids from the centre, and some from the reserve … they get a certificate from the university and it’s just a great experience.”

Setting aside those loftier goals, Pekok said she was pleased with the turnout last Saturday.

“It’s just been a great overall community event,” she said. “Anything with this kind of turnout has to be a success.”

-Sarah Ladik