For more than two hours on a sunny summer morning in early August, hundreds of young men and women, wearing elaborate headdresses, intricately beaded, ribboned and appliquéd regalia and fancy footwear ornamented with shells and bells, danced and drummed their way along Montreal’s busiest downtown thoroughfare to the Place des Festivals, where children read the United Nations Declaration on the Rights of Indigenous Peoples (UNDRIP) to a cheering throng attending the 21st annual First Peoples Festival.
This grand spectacle was the first international parade of friendship and solidarity in celebration of the passage of the U.N. declaration, which was adopted by Canada only last year. The Parade of Friendship of Our America with the People of Montreal and the First Nations included cultural groups—singers, dancers, musicians, storytellers and more—from Chile, Panama, Venezuela, Mexico, Brazil, Peru, Guatemala, Cuba, Colombia, Bolivia and the Haudenosaunee Confederacy, upon whose aboriginal territory the festival takes place each year. “We are marching to the sound of the drum, in the tradition of brotherhood, sisterhood and friendship among the peoples of Latin America and the Caribbean, the people of Montreal and the First Nations,” said André Dudemaine, Innu, the cultural director of the festival. “The parade gives voice to the ideals of peace the First Peoples Festival has always stood for.”
The parade was one of the highlights of an annual weeklong festival (August 2 through August 9 this year)—the city’s signature celebration of Indigenous Peoples’ art, history and cultures, from Turtle Island and around the world. The activity-packed week included screenings of dozens of indigenous films and videos; exhibits of paintings, sculptures, photographs, baskets and pottery; demonstrations of traditional artisan skills; workshops, lectures, forums and storytelling; and performances by dozens of musicians, singers and dancers.
The festival always combines culture, art and political activism—a combination clearly on display in the UNDRIP parade. The UNDRIP was adopted by the U.N. General Assembly in September 2007, but the U.S., Canada, Australia and New Zealand—countries with similar colonial histories and populations of Indigenous Peoples with legitimate claims to huge areas of their aboriginal lands—voted against the international document that defines and supports indigenous sovereignty and self-determination. Those four countries worried that UNDRIP would undermine their sovereignty, particularly with regard to land disputes and natural resources, but they’ve since endorsed the declaration: Australia in April 2009, New Zealand in April 2010, Canada in November 2010, and the United States in December 2010.
The many cultural groups began to gather in Phillips Square around nine a.m. on the day of the parade, and the square quickly filled up with people drawn by the drumming and the colorfully dressed groups who happily posed for photos while event organizers rushed around making last-minute arrangements.
Dr. James Cockcroft, a group coordinator of the Citizens Committee of Quebec 2001, a grassroots social-justice organization, says the celebration was the culmination of 10 years of work in building cultural alliances. His committee organized the parade along with Land InSights, the festival’s main organizer, and Base de Paix (Peace Base), a peace group. “Ten years [after forming the committee], we were right [about seeking solidarity] and this huge coalition of social movements and prominent individuals like André Dudemaine, like Naomi Klein, like Noam Chomsky, has come together at the invitation of the First Nations on this famous annual week of cultural events.”
Cockcroft says the parade was a culmination of the visions of Latin American heroes such as Cuban national hero, poet and activist José Marti and Venezuelan resistance leader Gen. Simón Bolívar, who won independence from Spanish colonial rule for what would become Bolivia, Panama, Ecuador, Peru and Venezuela. “Both men envisioned a coming together of the Americas and this parade is very important because it’s the first time this has happened in North America. So this is the historic first moment of a long coming together that the dreamers of the world have dreamed of for centuries—creating acts of human solidarity, human community, peace, love and the respect for Mother Earth.”
Before the parade began, representatives from the Assembly of First Nations (AFN), Quebec Native Women, Amnesty International and the Montreal Central Council of the Confederation of National Trade Unions gave speeches supporting Indigenous Peoples and the declaration.
First Nations have solid support from Canada’s unions. The Central Council’s Statement of Principles includes an entire section respectful of aboriginal peoples’ rights, calling for “a genuine Aboriginal presence in Quebec society, because Aboriginal people are the first occupants of the territory.” The council supports aboriginal peoples’ demands for autonomous governments and recognizes their inalienable right to self-determination. “The construction of harmonious relations of cooperation in Quebec must be based on the fundamental and indispensable principles of the United Nations Declaration on the Rights of Indigenous Peoples,” the council’s statement says.
AFN Regional Chief of Quebec and Labrador Ghislain Picard, Innu, began his speech before the parade with a tribute to Chief William Commanda, the Anishinabek spiritual leader who died on August 3 at the age of 97. “We took him to his resting place yesterday. He was key not only in the adoption of the U.N. declaration, but in all the work leading up to it throughout the last 25 years,” Picard said while dedicating the parade to Commanda.
Picard reminded the crowd about the work that still needs to be done. “There’s a time to celebrate, which is today, but tomorrow we have to take on the battle again, because obviously we have difficulty with the Canadians,” meaning the federal government. The AFN pressured the Canadian government to endorse UNDRIP and it took three years for them to change their stance on UNDRIP, Picard said. “Now we need to make sure they’re responsible for upholding the principles of the declaration.” Both Canada and the U.S. referred to the declaration as “aspirational” and “not legally binding” in their statements of support.
“We can only remain optimistic,” said Picard. “We didn’t have a U.N. declaration 25 years ago; now we have one, but the challenge is still very important for Indigenous Peoples in Canada and the U.S. and the Americas as a whole…at some point the government will have to understand that fact. At the same time, it’s up to us to educate our own people and make sure there’s enough pressure on governments to abide by the declaration.”
When the speeches ended, the dancers, drummers and crowd left the square and paraded to the festival site, which had been blessed in ceremony by First Nations citizens. A group of children under the age of 10 took turns reading the declaration while the crowds that had followed the parade to the Place des Festivals cheered and applauded.