Lee Maracle, who teaches Indigenous studies at U of T, says the acknowledgements have nothing to do with reconciliation.
Even among those who crafted the statements, views differ about what they mean and how they’re used.
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Every day more than 250,000 kids in Toronto public schools hear an acknowledgement that their school is on land that was once the traditional territory of Indigenous peoples.
“The territories include the Wendat, Anishinabek Nation, the Haudenosaunee Confederacy, the Mississaugas of the New Credit First Nations, and the Métis Nation,” says a voice each morning over the PA in schools from Brown’s Line to Woodbine Ave.
By now, kids probably know the words by rote, much like the patriotic anthem that precedes them.
And like “O Canada,” the acknowledgements, which are becoming more widespread in Ontario’s institutions, can be stirring.
Some see them as recognition and respect, an acknowledgement that Indigenous people live here as they have for thousands of years, and an important step toward reconciliation
Others see them as meaningless, an Indigenous tradition co-opted by outsiders and with statements that don’t go far enough to make amends.
And still others use them just to say hi.
“They’re there,” says Lee Maracle of her Indigenous ancestors. “The land is there. It’s alive and it’s around you,” says the U of T Indigenous studies teacher. “The spiritual world is all around you everywhere all the time so you might as well say hello.
“They might get pissed at you if you don’t,” she says with a chuckle.
Whatever the interpretation, there is no disputing that the acknowledgements, which are a tradition among Indigenous communities in Canada, are becoming more popular in non-Indigenous circles.
Schools, universities and synagogues are among the institutions using them. TIFF started saying the acknowledgements before screenings at last year’s festival. And they’ve made their way into this year’s Grey Cup, as well as Jets and Oilers hockey games.
Premier Kathleen Wynne has been using the acknowledgements at events since 2011 when she was minister of the aboriginal affairs department (now called Indigenous Relations & Reconciliation).
No one seems quite certain why they’re being heard more and more.
Awareness of the devastating effects of colonialism in the wider populace has been growing, due in part to the Idle No More movement, which began in 2012, the Truth and Reconciliation Commission on residential schools and the calls for action on the missing and murdered Indigenous women and girls, which eventually grew into a national inquiry.
The acknowledgements are viewed by many as a step toward reconciliation, although Maracle says firmly that they have nothing to do with it.
“Reconciliation is economic equality, access to territory, all of those things that are in the 94 calls to action,” she says of the TRC’s report. “No more taking our kids. Like stop right now. Take care of the missing and murdered women. Stop killing us. None of those things have ended.
“So this little acknowledgement to the land isn’t going to do anything for those things,” says Maracle.
Maracle, who teaches oral traditions, was one of the elders who helped craft U of T’s acknowledgement, which was formally adopted in 2016.
The university created one after a number of non-Indigenous students, staff and faculty at the university started asking U of T’s First Nation House for advice on what to say and how to say it.
“What we try to home in on when we talk about a land statement is to understand the history of the land you’re on,” says Jonathan Hamilton-Diabo, who is U of T’s director of Indigenous initiatives and a Mohawk from Kahnawake. The acknowledgement is used at convocations and for official ceremonies like the opening of buildings, he says, but it can be used at any time.
Protesters hold a teepee to be built on Parliament Hill as part of a Canada Day protest on June 29.
U of T’s statement acknowledges the land the university operates on and goes on to say, “For thousands of years it has been the traditional land of the Huron-Wendat, the Seneca, and most recently, the Mississaugas of the Credit River. Today, this meeting place is still the home to many Indigenous people from across Turtle Island and we are grateful to have the opportunity to work on this land.”
Hamilton-Diabo says that people who hear those words often say they’ve never thought about Toronto in this manner, “about the land and the history and the people that were here before and that are here now,” he says. “It just changes the thinking a bit.”
As part of Sto:lo Nation from B.C., Maracle says she first began acknowledging the land in 1968.
“This is a felt thing. It’s what you see when you look out at the land here,” she says of Toronto. “And what I see is thousands and thousands of years of eco-history, environmental history, unfolding when I’m here.
“And so I acknowledge the land. And I acknowledge the ancestors. I acknowledge Davenport, which is 15,000 years old,” she says of the Indigenous passageway through Toronto, which roughly followed what is now Davenport Rd.
Experts consulted by the Star say there is no right or wrong way to do an acknowledgement, or protocol for when it should be used.
But the TIFF statement raised a few eyebrows this year for its “provocative” language, referring to the Toronto area, the traditional territory of the Mississaugas of the New Credit, the Haudenosaunee and the Huron-Wendat, as “their land.”
And Maracle would prefer they be free-form, and not read as a statement, but she is fine with the TDSB’s daily recitation.
“Some of those children may fall in love with their country, the land,” she says.
The TDSB has two different statements, which they refer to online to as treaty acknowledgements.
One is for the Toronto Purchase, a land deal in which the British bought most of modern-day Toronto, including Toronto (Turtle) Islands. (Although the statement mentions Métis Nation, experts say Toronto was not their territorial land.)
The statement doesn’t mention that in return the Mississaugas received a bit of money and some goods. In 1986, the Mississaugas of New Credit launched a claim on the basis that the compensation wasn’t fair. The federal government settled in 2010 for $145 million, which came to about $20,000 a person.
The school board has a different acknowledgement for schools east of Woodbine Ave., which it says are part of the Williams Treaties.
At Ryerson, the acknowledgement created by the university’s Aboriginal Education Council is different again.
The statement acknowledges that Toronto is in the “’Dish With One Spoon Territory,” which refers to a “treaty between the Anishinaabe, Mississaugas and Haudenosaunee that bound them to share the territory and protect the land.” (There are other versions used in the university as well.)
Hayden King helped write the statement, but is ambivalent about their use.
King is Ryerson’s adviser to the dean on Indigenous education and director of the Centre for Indigenous Governance.
On one hand, he says they “remind non-Indigenous people that they’re on Indigenous land. We’re demanding that you recognize our autonomy, our self-determination and our jurisdiction over this place.”
But he thinks they are mostly symbolic and he is skeptical about their wider use.
If they are used, for instance by a president of a university, he’d like them to have more substance.
“I would like them to say “we acknowledge that this is the traditional territories of the Mississaugas and the Haudenosaunee, and as such we’re committed at the university to work towards co-managing our land with these groups, to targeting these students for scholarships and recruitment, to working with researchers to do research to benefit these communities. To focus
on language revitalization,” King says.
“I do not want the conversation to stop at, you know, miigwech,” he says of the Ojibwa word for thank you. “I want it to continue.”