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What is the significance of Columbus Day and Indigenous Peoples' Day?

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As one of eleven federal holidays observed in the United States of America, Columbus Day commemorates the anniversary of the arrival of Italian-born Christopher Columbus (c. 1451 – 20 May 1506) in the New World on 12 October 1492 at San Salvador Island in what is now the Bahamas. Although Columbus was not the first explorer to set foot in the Western Hemisphere, his failed attempt to chart a new sea route to Asia instead credited him with discovering the New World and opening the way for the settlement of America by Europeans. It is generally recognized that the first recorded celebration of Columbus Day in the U.S. took place on 12 October 1792 to commemorate the 300th anniversary of his landing and was organized by The Society of St. Tammany, also known as the Columbian Order. Italian-Americans were also key in the creation of an annual Columbus Day when they organized a celebration of the 'discovery' of America on 12 October 1866 which spread to other cities such as San Francisco in 1869. It was not until 1892, marking the 400th anniversary of the event, that it inspired the first official Columbus Day holiday in the U.S. During that year, President Benjamin Harrison issued a proclamation urging Americans to mark the day and the public responded enthusiastically with celebrations and commemorations across the country. Although Colorado became the first state to observe an official Columbus Day in 1905 and other states followed suit, it was not until 1937 that President Franklin Roosevelt officially recognized 12 October as a federal holiday across the U.S. Most nations of the Americas observe this holiday every October 12th, but in the U.S., it was changed by Congress in 1971 to the second Monday in October and is celebrated in some cities in Italy and Spain as well as in Latin American countries not only as Columbus or Discovery Day, but also as the Day of the Race (El Día de la Raza). In Canada, since 1957, the second Monday in October is coincidently Thanksgiving, "A Day of General Thanksgiving to Almighty God for the bountiful harvest with which Canada has been blessed."

It is known that there are approximately 600 monuments erected across the world with a connection to Christopher Columbus, his companions and their early voyages to America. Considered the first monument erected in honour of Christopher Columbus in the U.S. and in the world is an obelisk erected on the occasion of the 300th anniversary of the discovery, in 1792, in Baltimore, Maryland, by the first French Consul to Baltimore, Charles François Adrian de Paulmier, Chevalier d’Anmour, who was instrumental in securing French aid for the colonies during the Revolutionary War. However, as shown in the photograph, one of the finest memorials established in honour of the discoverer of America is located in Barcelona, Spain, at the site where Columbus was received by King Ferdinand II and Queen Isabella after he returned from America in 1493. The 'Columbus Monument' is a Corinthian style column – with a statue atop depicting Columbus – constructed for the Exposición Universal de Barcelona and was inaugurated on 1 June 1888 by Her Majesty the Queen-regent Doña Maria Cristina, in the presence of His Majesty the King of Italy Don Humberto I, U.S. President Grover Cleveland, and representation from the city of Genoa. This monument was considered a technological sensation at the time as it had the first hydraulic lift in Barcelona.

Leading up to Columbus' 500th anniversary in 1992, this holiday became controversial because many felt that the European settlement in the Americas led to the demise of the history and culture of the indigenous peoples. While there are about twenty states recognizing Columbus Day as a paid holiday for workers, there are many American groups and jurisdictions that are speaking out against and protest Columbus Day celebrations and are instead recognizing the second Monday in October as Indigenous People's Day, thereby helping clarify Columbus' role in American history and honouring the people he encountered in the New World and their descendants.

On 8 October 2021, U.S. President Joseph R. Biden Jr. became the first American president to formally recognize Indigenous Peoples’ Day, by signing a presidential proclamation declaring 11 October 2021 to be a national holiday. In his statement, Biden remarked that "since time immemorial, American Indians, Alaska Natives, and Native Hawaiians have built vibrant and diverse cultures — safeguarding land, language, spirit, knowledge, and tradition across the generations. … Today, we recognize Indigenous peoples’ resilience and strength as well as the immeasurable positive impact that they have made on every aspect of American society." It is known that about fourteen states and more than 100 localities across the U.S. honour Indigenous Peoples’ Day. On the very same day of this proclamation, President Biden also made a separate statement proclaiming 11 October 2021, as Columbus Day, noting Columbus’ accomplishments but also acknowledged the detrimental impact of his pilgrimages as well as other European explorers on Native Americans. "For Native Americans, western exploration ushered in a wave of devastation: violence perpetrated against Native communities, displacement and theft of Tribal homelands, the introduction and spread of disease, and more. On this day, we recognize this painful past and recommit ourselves to investing in Native communities, upholding our solemn and sacred commitments to Tribal sovereignty, and pursuing a brighter future centered on dignity, respect, justice, and opportunity for all people."

On this day, 12 October 2021, we commemorate the 529th anniversary of the 'discovery' of the New World by Christopher Columbus and also mark Indigenous Peoples' Day on the second Monday of October.

André M. Levesque

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