Opinion: Before you state a land acknowledgement, mean it

In Communities1 Comment

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By Miranda Black

In 2014, Mohamed Lachemi—then Ryerson’s provost and vice-president, academic, now the university’s president—requested the Aboriginal Education Council (AEC) write a land acknowledgement to be used uniformly across the university, as part of Ryerson’s commitment to the Truth and Reconciliation Commission (TRC). The resulting acknowledgment states that everyone has been “invited into [the Dish with One Spoon treaty] in the spirit of peace, friendship and respect.”  

Hayden King, executive director of Ryerson’s Indigenous policy think-tank, the Yellowhead Institute, co-authored the school’s land acknowledgement but later stated that he regretted writing the territorial acknowledgement in an op-ed for CBC. “Who are we, really, to invite anybody into the Dish with One Spoon Treaty?” he wrote.

In the article, King discussed the pressure that the Aboriginal Education Council (AEC) felt and how that compromised their ability to write the land acknowledgement. Ryerson still uses the acknowledgement and has mandated several departments to recite the statement before presentations and special events. However, this land acknowledgment is deeply flawed.

It’s true that the Haudenosaunee, the Anishinaabe, the Huron and other Indigenous Peoples extended treaties similar to the Dish With One Spoon to European settlers in the 17th and 18th centuries, the very first being the Two Row Wampum. At the heart of these treaties is the Haudenosaunee Great Law, a set of principles that include living sustainably, sharing resources, not acting on war, acting in peace and many other virtues. It’s necessary to act accordingly in order to be a part of the treaty; this isn’t negotiable.

Colonial settlers have broken treaty agreements with Indigenous Peoples hundreds of times. From the beginning, colonists created war on these lands—which has led to the freedoms that many people experience today—while Indigenous Peoples continue to struggle for access to land, water, healthcare, equal human rights and freedoms. Aboriginal Rights are dramatically compromised by capitalism, ownership over natural resources and longstanding systemic racism.

Although Canada proposed reconciliation in 2012, the government and the Crown continue to unjustly harm Indigenous Peoples and perpetuate inequities. These actions are directly opposite ways-of-being in comparison to the Great Law. Yet, it is important to remember that these agreements were extended. Which means that as a resident on “Canadian” soil, you have the choice to live a virtuous life that aligns with the principles of the Great Law. However, it doesn’t inherently mean that you are welcomed into the Dish With One Spoon treaty. 

As Ryerson staff, faculty and students, it’s important to keep these broken agreements in mind when choosing to state a land acknowledgement. It’s also important to disclose Ryerson’s direct connection to the mistreatment and generational trauma of Indigenous Peoples.

In 1847, Egerton Ryerson published the “Report on a System of Public Elementary Education for Upper Canada” and the School Act of 1846, which led to the establishment of the residential school system and the training of its instructors at the Toronto Normal School (now Kerr Hall) that was recently built at that time. Those who attended residential schools were victims to and survivors of purely inhumane treatment. This history is recent; the last residential school in Canada closed its doors in 1996. 

As a graduate research assistant, I often ask students who use Ryerson’s land acknowledgement to be critical about their choice to do so. Ryerson’s land acknowledgement recognizes the pre-colonial presence of Indigenous Peoples and their traditional territory, but ignores the multi-generational impact of the school’s past. Without admitting the school’s hurtful history, the land acknowledgements becomes an empty platitude that undermines current Indigenous issues, and overlooks filthy acts of discrimination and oppression.

Instead, I welcome you to think of a land acknowledgement as a heartfelt declaration that acknowledges Indigenous Peoples on this land and, at the same time, recognizes your likely position as a Settler-Canadian. 

A land acknowledgement should help you connect with the venerable history of where you stand, acknowledge the inhumane treatment of this land’s Indigenous Peoples and recognize the genocide that has occurred over the last 200 years, and continues to this day, in order for you to enjoy the freedoms and liberties you experience as a resident in Canada.

A land acknowledgement must come from your heart, not just be read off a piece of paper; when you state it, mean it. Ask yourself: how does this land acknowledgement represent my connection to this place? And now that I know about the mistreatment of Indigenous Peoples, what does this land acknowledgement propel me to do? 

It is up to you to do your research before stating a land acknowledgement, as it is important to understand the words you are saying, their proper pronunciation and what they mean. After doing your research, you can write your own authentic land acknowledgement. This can be a powerful way to connect with your audience and give a meaningful voice to Indigenous issues.  As an example of how to outline your land acknowledgement, I have written a personal land acknowledgement that reads as: 

Introduce traditional territories: I would like to acknowledge that Ryerson University is built upon the traditional lands of the Mississauga, the Anishinaabe, the Haudenosaunee, the Chippewa, the Huron, and many other Indigenous Peoples. 

Be accountable to the traumatic past: In 1848, what is now Ryerson University first opened its doors as the Toronto Normal School, a training facility for residential school teachers. I would like to recognize that the history of the school directly harmed and continues to impact Indigenous Peoples across Canada. By acknowledging and teaching about the residential school system, we educate others to ensure that this history never repeats itself. It is only when we are accountable for the past that we can move forward into a future of conciliation between the University and Indigenous Peoples. 

Personal pledge: As an Indigenous student at Ryerson, I recognize that it is part of my student experience to fight against the stream and improve Indigenous well-being on campus, which in turn helps the University meet its commitments to the Truth and Reconciliation Commission. Additionally, I would like to recognize the invaluable work of other Indigenous Peoples on campus who are changing the system for future generations. 

Recognize Indigenous Peoples who now live in Toronto: Finally, I would like to acknowledge that many Indigenous Peoples from across Turtle Island live in Toronto. I would like to value their diversity of cultural world-views, their resiliency, and their ties to their communities.  

To start you in your journey toward better, more equitable land acknowledgements, I have also devised the following chart that teaches the pronunciation and meaning of important phrases and names to incorporate into your acknowledgement.

WORDPRONUNCIATIONMEANING
TkarontoTa•kar•on•toeA Mohawk (Kanien’keha) word for ‘where the trees stand in the water.’ It’s important to keep in mind that although Toronto has pledged to call the city by this name in order to represent Indigenous presence on this land, other nations have different names for this place. 
Mississauga of the Credit (originally
Michi Saagiig)
Missi•Sog•A
OR
Mishy•Saug•geek
The Mississauga were the first people on this land. In 2010, The Mississauga of the Credit ended their long battle for the modern land claim of ‘York’ (a.k.a. Toronto or Treaty 13a). The Mississauga of the Credit were paid $145 for the land, a penitence, especially as Toronto makes $11.8 billion in revenue per year. Another modern land claim, the Rouge Land Tract Claim, for east Toronto and Scarborough, has been submitted but has not yet been settled.
HaudenosauneeHo•den•o•sow•kneeTranslated to ‘People of the Longhouse,’ the Haudenosaunee is the confederacy of six nations—the Seneca, Cayuga, Onondaga, Oneida, Kanien’keha (Mohawk), and the Tuscarora. The Haudenosaunee are referred to as the people of the wampum because they were the first of many groups to use the wampum as visual representations of treaties. 
Huron-WendatHur•on Wen•daatThe Huron, also known as Wendat or Huron-Wendat, lived in what is now known as Toronto until the early 1600s, when they were forced to leave their settlements. Remnants of Wendat settlements have been found by developers throughout the Toronto area, where archeologists have found artifacts leading back prior to the 1500s. It is important to note that Huron was a name given to the Wendat by colonial settlers. Many Wendat died due to direct contact with the first European explorers. 
AnishinaabeAnne•ish•en•aww•bayFor many years these nations were often known to many as Ojibway or Ojibwe, which is a name given to them by colonial settlers. At the time of colonial conquest, the Anishinaabe were the largest group in Canada. There are many different groups of Anishinaabe in Ontario, including Odawa, Saulteaux, Anishinaabeg, Mississauga and Algonquin, who spoke several languages including Anishinaabemowin and Potawatomi. Fluent speakers of Anishinaabe languages, along with other Indigenous languages, are rare due to the colonial rule, the outlaw of traditional languages and the residential school system. When giving a land acknowledgement in Toronto, it is appropriate to relate this land to the Anishinaabe as an entire group or the Anishinaabeg.
Turtle Island
A name given to what is now known as North America. This name relates to cosmology stories of the Anishinaabe and the Haudenosaunee.
WampumWaam•pumWampums are original treaties between Indigenous groups or Indigenous Peoples and colonial settlers. They’re made out of blue and white shell beads and are visual representations agreements. The first wampum agreement with Europeans was the Two Row Wampum between the Haudenosaunee and the Dutch in the early 1600s. In 2020, the Ryerson University Library commissioned several replica wampum belts including the Dish with One Spoon wampum and the Friendship Treaty of 1752.
SettlerThere is evidence that Indigenous Peoples have been living on Turtle Island for 3,000 years. If your family chose to live on this land post-colonization by Europeans, this term can be used to identify yourself as a person who lives on this soil. However, we must also recognize that not all people chose to settle here and due to numerous reasons now live on this soil. For those reasons a person may not be comfortable identifying with this term and that is OK. 

Miranda Black is an MASc Candidate, Environmental Applied Science and Management and Onkwehonewe student whose lineage stems from the Mohawk of the Bay of Quinte. She is dedicated to expanding Indigenous-led environmental stewardship and protecting land and water resources. For her thesis research, she has been awarded the 2020-2021 Geoffrey Bruce Fellowship in Canadian Freshwater Policy and she is the events coordinator of Water Allies, a project of the New College at U of T, that strives to hold decolonial, feminist and anti-racist conversations about water protection.

Comments

  1. There is a plethora of archeological evidence that humans inhabited southern Ontario as long as 14,000 years ago. This evidence has been radio-carbon dated, verified and documented. This in response to the author’s statement in the article that; “There is evidence that Indigenous Peoples have been living on Turtle Island for 3,000 years…….”

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