June 21 is National Indigenous Peoples Day, formerly National Aboriginal Day. This is a day of cultural significance for First Nations, Inuit and Métis. The City of Toronto has proclaimed National Indigenous Peoples Day since 1998.

Every year, the City of Toronto marks this day with a sunrise ceremony, where all are invited to come together to offer thoughts and prayers to the Creator and give thanks for all of creation and Mino Baamodziwin (The Good Life). The ceremony is held around a Sacred Fire and consists of many ceremonial elements that hold cultural significance for Indigenous Peoples, such as strawberries, water and the use of sage for cleansing.

Shell and Feather

At the sunrise ceremony, people will be asked to form a circle. There will be smudging of sage for those who wish to cleanse their spirit in the smoke of this sacred medicine. There will be a pipe ceremony where the pipe will be loaded with tobacco, another sacred medicine.

Following the pipe ceremony, there will be singing with a hand drum and people will have the opportunity to share a few words within the circle and eat strawberries.

Strawberries and Water

Often referred to as the heart berry because of its shape, the strawberry is an important food and medicine in Indigenous cultures. It helps us understand the connection between mind, body, spirit and emotions. The heart berry also reminds us of reconciliation and teaches us how to maintain heartfelt relationships.

Water gives all traditional medicines their potency and it is also itself a medicine. Respect for water, and honouring the spirit of water before using it, are the fundamental principles underlying all traditional water teachings.

Tobacco, Sweet Grass, Sage and Cedar

There are four major medicine plants – tobacco, sweet grass, sage and cedar – that Indigenous people use frequently in ceremonies. The aromas from these plants help participants place themselves in a different state of mind. It may inspire memories, awaken the soul and give a sense of direction.

Sacred tobacco, used to make smoke, is believed to allow Indigenous people to communicate with the Spirit World. Tobacco is used first as an offering in every ceremony.

Sweet grass is the sacred hair of Mother Earth. Its sweet aroma reminds people of the gentleness, love and kindness she has for the people. This is why Indigenous people pick it and braid it in three strands representing love, kindness and honesty. Sweet grass is used for smudging and purification of the spirit.

Sage is more medicinal and stronger than sweet grass and is used more often in ceremonies. It also has physical healing properties when used to make tea. Sage helps release what is troubling the mind and remove negative energy.

Cedar, like sage and sweet grass, is used to purify the home. It also has many restorative medicinal uses. When cedar is mixed with tobacco and put in the fire, it crackles. This sound calls the attention of the Spirits to the offering that is being made

The City of Toronto has been raising Indigenous flags since before amalgamation, and in 2017 installed five Indigenous flags permanently on Nathan Phillips Square.

Watch the 2021 virtual Sunrise Ceremony event.

People standing in a circle around three fires in Nathan Phillips Square
National Indigenous Peoples Sunrise Ceremony (June 21, 2022)