As people gathered to mark and celebrate National Indigenous Peoples Day this past June 21, you may have noticed a land acknowledgement given in recognition of the original caretakers of the land on which these gatherings were taking place. In fact, you may have noticed how ubiquitous these land acknowledgements are at almost every event in which two or more are gathered. There are many examples of land acknowledgements done well and even more of those done poorly. This past month, Pride Toronto received scathing feedback regarding its own land acknowledgement that didn’t really acknowledge anything or any Indigenous group.
Fact is there is no consensus on the value of land acknowledgements, and the practice itself is controversial. Some feel these acknowledgements provide overdue recognition of the original inhabitants and caretakers of what is now Canada, the treaties and agreements (where they exist) that govern relationships and our obligations in meeting them. Where no such agreements exist, these acknowledgements can remind us of the acts of colonialism by clearly stating the land where we work and live isn’t ours. Others feel that land acknowledgements can become rote performance pieces that everyone says but no really understands. Further still, there are those that feel acknowledgments are meaningless without tangible action behind them. In other words, there is no value in acknowledging stolen land if there is no intent to return or negotiate for the land in question.
At the Indigenous Reconciliation Group, we do not start our events with land acknowledgements. Many non-Indigenous participants find this surprising and often ask why. Our belief is that land acknowledgments don’t make much sense without research, context and understanding. On whose traditional territory are you standing, and how to pronounce it correctly (factcheck on native-land.ca)? Do you know the difference between ceded and unceded land? Do you know what agreements are in place for you to be here? As a non-Indigenous person, I like to take things a step further by asking myself what is my relationship to the land I’m standing on and how do I benefit from being there while the original caretakers may not? So we cover this topic mid-way through the day, with context and meaning, and ask people to the research to be able to introduce themselves in relation to the land.
If this seems like a lot of work, yes it can require some effort and so it should! As allies, the systems in which we have be raised have trained us to look for the easiest solutions with the least amount of discomfort as possible. As allies, we are used to outsourcing that effort. I see this as a part of my day-to-day work. Some participants will ask, “Why don’t you have an elder talk to us about residential schools? I want to hear from a ‘real’ survivor,” OR “I would learn more hearing from a someone who went to residential school.” The reality is that everything worth knowing is requires a little effort. Be wary of easy solutions to complicated problems. You will have to do some research to find the answers to the questions above. Outsourcing the emotional and physical labour to an Indigenous person to tell you what to do or what happened is not only lazy but also exploitative. It’s important to remember that Indigenous people do not exist for the benefit of our learning. Allies can ask Indigenous people and communities to share their stories with us but only if we exist in relationship. And, as in any relationship, those Indigenous people/communities have every right to say, “No thanks, not today, perhaps another time.”
Which brings us back to Pride Toronto. When called out online with regard to their poor land acknowledgement, the organization responded by saying, “This acknowledgement was [written] by an indigenous person.” Having an Indigenous person write a land acknowledgement doesn’t preclude an organization from doing their own work. Doing the work of ally-ship includes taking responsibility and learning more to do better. Pride Toronto could have checked with the City of Toronto as its website provides a reference for why it does a land acknowledgement and gives examples. Or the Guide to Land Acknowledgements by the Canadian Association of University Teachers, another great resource. There are many resources to determine who are original caretakers of the land on which your work. Pride Toronto eventually saw the folly in its response and issued an apology a few days later but by that time, the damage had been done.
Allies, we need to do better. Do your work. Don’t put it on the shoulders of Indigenous people to do it for you.
CBC Toronto. (2019, June) Pride Toronto apologizes for land acknowledgment that failed to recognize Indigenous people. Retrieved from https://www.cbc.ca/news/canada/toronto/pride-toronto-apologizes-for-land-acknowledgement-that-failed-to-recognize-indigenous-peoples-1.5188127
@CBCOttawa (2019, June 21) The #Sens say they’ll acknowledge they play on the ancestral, unceded territory of the Algonquin Anishinaabe people at every home game from now on. #NIPDCanada. https://mobile.twitter.com/CBCOttawa/status/1142041168089366529
City of Toronto. (1998-2019) Land Acknowledgement. https://www.toronto.ca/city-government/accessibility-human-rights/indigenous-affairs-office/land-acknowledgement/
Guide to Acknowledging First Peoples and Traditional Territory, by the Canadian Association of University Teachers. https://www.caut.ca/content/guide-acknowledging-first-peoples-traditional-territory