There’s a good chance that if you have visited or live in Canada, you have heard of a land (or territory) acknowledgment at the beginning of a public, civic, sporting, or academic event. Land acknowledgments are a way of recognizing that an event is taking place on the ancestral lands of a particular Indigenous community. This term, if you decide to explore its origin, unearths a complex and dark account of North America’s colonial history. Currently, various Canadian institutions have begun to adopt land acknowledgments on a wide-spread scale as a facet of ‘reconciliation’. However, if acknowledging the land simply becomes an agenda point, it is easy to forget its intention and relevance. 

Land acknowledgments trace their roots to a report published by the “Truth and Reconciliation Commission of Canada” (TRC).  Land acknowledgments have been used by Indigenous communities as a method of organizing land stewardship and acknowledging rights to resources such as gathered foods by means of fishing and hunting as well as the acquisition of medicinal plants. Recently, land acknowledgments have devolved into lip-service at worst, and at best, a sincere recognition of being guests on someone’s traditional territory. The TRC, before it dissolved, primarily focused on preserving the history of residential schools and acknowledging the dark legacy it has left behind.  

Residential schools were government-funded institutions operated by Christian churches across Canada. In 1876, with the enactment of the ‘Indian Act’, Indigenous children were required to attend these institutions as part of their education [1]. The intention of these schools was to assimilate young Indigenous children into Euro-Canadian culture and society. The assimilation had involved the prevention of using their own language, abandoning their customs, and separation from their home communities. 

Credit: Canada. Dept. of Interior / Library and Archives Canada / PA-046123 [4]

Upon entry, staff members physically stripped Indigenous children of their identity through various ways such as the following: nuns cut the long hairstyles of Indigenous boys to become very short and had replaced their clothing with European influenced uniforms. Afterward, they were segregated by gender, they weren’t allowed to speak their traditional language without corporal punishment, and they were ordered to remain at the residential school until the school term ended.  Their names were stolen and prohibited from use; in some cases, they were assigned dehumanizing numbers instead of names. To build an account of the schools, the TRC reached out to the survivors of these disgraceful institutions many years later. Survivors described elements of sexual, physical, emotional, and spiritual abuse committed by the staff of these institutions. It is estimated that 4,400 children died under their care [2]; Charlie Wenjack, a 13-year old child, died while attempting to walk 643 kilometers to his home community [3]. The last federally-supported institution closed in 1996. The trauma of the school has reverberated through each successive generation right across North America. Therefore, the effects of these schools have coloured every aspect of Indigenous lives in Canadian society. 

The ‘Indian Act’, before key amendments made after the middle of the 20th century, undermined the economic, cultural, and political sovereignty of Indigenous communities. Alcoholism, over-representation in the Canadian criminal justice system, low graduation rates, lower life expectancy, and other factors affect our communities. Yet, despite these traumas, we have persisted and have demands that extend beyond acknowledging our ancestral lands.   

More than 100 Indigenous people march on Parliament Hill to protest the elimination of Aboriginal rights in the proposed Constitution, on 16 November 1981 [Source: The Canadian Press/Carl Bigras] [6]

The TRC formally dissolved in 2015, leaving reports and recommendations addressed to all levels of the Canadian government. Land acknowledgments, while constituting public recognition of Indigenous sovereignty, are not sufficient or adequate steps towards true reconciliation. Among the 94 calls to action, only ten have been fulfilled under the Liberal government [5]. All major Canadian political parties are touting some form of Indigenous land policy, but previous governments have failed to uphold promises they’ve made to Indigenous communities. Potable water, decent housing, authority over resources, local education, social services, health care, language preservation, and other issues remain to be fully addressed. With the Canadian election in full-swing, it’s unclear whether the remaining 84 calls to action will reach their full completion regardless of whether or not there is a new government. 

Land acknowledgments must accompany other forms of reconciliation; difficult questions must be posed and answered. To establish reciprocity between Indigenous and non-Indigenous communities, we can ask: “What can I do to better strengthen my relationship with local Indigenous communities? How can I support existing initiatives and movements? When is it time to step back and let Indigenous leaders lead the change?” Asking these questions, in addition to adopting land acknowledgments, contributes to a more equitable relationship between non-Indigenous and Indigenous communities. 

In today’s Canadian political landscape, land acknowledgments are just one gesture in how we may approach reconciliation. To retain the relevance and importance of land acknowledgments, we must remind ourselves of their origins and do our part in the on-going conversation and concrete manifestations of reconciliation. 

Additional Readings:

[1] Residential Schools in Canada

[2] Names of Children who Died in Residential Schools to be Released 

[3] The Lonely Death of Chanie Wenjack 

[4] Residential School Photo 

[5] Calls to Action Counter 

[6] 1981 Aboriginal Rights Protest Photo

Irvin Provost

About Irvin Provost

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