Edward Johnson could still hear the steady rhythm of songs beating throughout his homelands in celebration of National Indigenous Peoples Day.
He recalled smells of barbeque salmon cooking over a fire, while members from his community of Huu-ay-aht First Nations paddled into Pachena Bay in dugout canoes.
With new social distancing measures in place due to the ongoing COVID-19 pandemic, celebrations within Huu-ay-aht will take place virtually this year.
“The pandemic has interrupted a lot of things we had planned,” said Johnson, the Huu-ay-aht First Nations councillor. “It’s a way of connecting with our citizens even though we can’t connect with them physically.”
An online program will be distributed through the Huu-ay-aht First Nations’ social media channels and on their website, he said. Various videos will be packaged to take community members on a journey. Videos will demonstrate how to harvest cedar bark and devil’s club, methods for canning fish, and will include performances of seal hunting and paddle songs.
While it may look a little different from years past, being able to hear the songs and see the dances “is huge” for the community, said Johnson. “Our culture has a strength and it has a beauty.”
The Port Alberni Friendship Center partnered with the city and the regional district for a large celebration at the Harbour Quay. Organizers anticipated that the event would draw one to two thousand people, said Executive Director Cyndi Stevens. With heavy hearts, they were forced to cancel in response to COVID-19.
“It’s really quite a shame,” said Stevens. “We’ve been hosting [events for] National Indigenous Peoples Day since the beginning.”
June 21 will mark its 24th year being celebrated in Canada.
There were conversations about moving the event online, but it just “doesn’t feel the same,” said Stevens. “I just don’t know how we would do it.”
Communities like Tla-o-qui-aht are grieving the loss of its members – including Chantel Moore, who was fatally shot by police on June 4 in Edmundston, N.B.
Focused on their efforts to keep members safe from COVID-19, National Indigenous Peoples Day is “just not on our radar,” said Tla-o-qui-aht tribal administrator Saya Masso.
“We have a messaging that we just want to get through this epidemic and that when we gather to celebrate in the fall, every one of our members is still there,” he said.
As Nuu-chah-nulth people, “we’re all really close,” said Johnson. “We all want to be there for one another and gather – not being able to do that has been difficult.”
But the community of Huu-ay-aht is adapting to the pandemic “knowing that it’s going to come to an end,” said Johnson. “When that day comes, it’s going to be a huge celebration.”