Ever since June 21 was declared National Aboriginal Day in Canada in 1996, Yukon First Nations have taken the opportunity to gather together on this special day, celebrating their culture and history both within their own nations and with the people of the Yukon as a whole.

Since 1996, there have been many reasons for Whitehorse-area First Nations to celebrate — the signing of self government agreements, the introduction of First Nations languages into the public school system, the recognition of Elders’ contributions to the formation of Canada, and myriad individual achievements by nation members.

This year, however, talk will undoubtedly centre around the recent Olympic Games in Vancouver, which saw members of Yukon First Nations participate in many important aspects of the games, including the opening and closing ceremonies, Cultural Olympiad festivities and Yukon Day, held on Feb. 20.

These star appearances, particularly the marathon dance performance by YFN Youth Ambassadors at the opening ceremonies, thrust the history and culture of Yukon First Nations onto the international stage, announcing to the world that traditional Northern peoples were not only surviving, but thriving in the modern world.

National Aboriginal Day celebrations in Whitehorse will feature many of the artists and ambassadors who enjoyed the spotlight at the games, giving them a chance for something like a victory lap in their hometown.

Festivities begin at 11 a.m. at Shipyards Park, with words from Eric Morris, Regional Chief for the Assembly of First Nations Yukon, Yukon Premier Dennis Fentie, M.P. Larry Bagnell, and the newly elected Grand Chief for the Council of Yukon First Nations (elections for the position take place June 15).

Also speaking will be Yukon Commissioner Geraldine Van Bibber, who will present an award to Andrew and Heather Finton of Sundog Carving Studio, in recognition of their volunteer work within the Yukon First Nations community.

Sundog’s carving program had its own star turn this past year, when it led a group of 19 First Nations youth in the creation of a 182-kilogram, nine-metre-long dugout canoe carved from cedar.

The canoe, which is now on display at the Yukon Arts Centre, is perhaps the crowning achievement for the Fintons’ Sundog program, which has helped over 80 young people learn traditional carving skills since 1994.

“It has been a deep honour to work with these young artists and watch them explore their culture,” said Andrew Finton of the program’s success.

“In the beginning, it was just a job training project, but the youth and their extended families have created a cultural and spiritual community out of a carving studio.”

Heather added, “Watching the personal transformations of our creative friends has been like watching a growing number of candles spark new lights in the dark.

“We are hopeful that these culture-bearers will continue to encourage success in others for years to come.”

After formal ceremonies, there’s plenty of lighthearted fun on the menu for Aboriginal Day in Whitehorse. The First Peoples Performers, singer/songwriter Diyet, and Gwitchin fiddler Boyd Benjamin will offer recaps of their Olympic stage performances, which attendees can enjoy while munching on bannock, salmon and other delicious foods prepared in traditional First Nations style.

For the kids, and kids-at-heart, there will be face-painting, storytelling and hand games.

And, for adults, a bannock-making contest, craft fair and jigging contest.

Teachers and graduates of the Sundog carving program will also be on hand to share their experiences and give brief carving demonstrations.

For information, call 393-9221.