Reconciliation efforts between Canada and its First Nations citizens have stalled, repeating the cycles of overpromising and underdelivering that have marred their relationship for ages.
Photograph by Larry Towell / Magnum
Every morning, at the start of the school day in Toronto, my children hear the following inelegant little paragraph read aloud, just before the singing of “O Canada”:
I would like to acknowledge that this school is situated upon traditional territories. The territories include the Wendat, Anishinabek Nation, the Haudenosaunee Confederacy, the Mississaugas of the New Credit First Nations, and the Métis Nation. The treaty that was signed for this particular parcel of land is collectively referred to as the Toronto Purchase and applies to lands east of Brown’s Line to Woodbine Avenue and north towards Newmarket. I also recognize the enduring presence of Aboriginal peoples on this land.
I hear the same little speech, or a version of it, at gala events—literary prizes, political fund-raisers, that sort of thing—when whichever government representative happens to be there reads some kind of acknowledgment before his or her introductory remarks. But you know a phenomenon has really arrived in Canada when it involves hockey. Both the Winnipeg Jets and the Edmonton Oilers began acknowledging traditional lands in their announcements before all home games last season. Acknowledgment is beginning to emerge as a kind of accidental pledge of allegiance for Canada—a statement made before any undertaking with a national purpose.
In 2015, the Truth and Reconciliation Commission of Canada released its final report, with ninety-four calls to action, and Justin Trudeau was elected to great gusts of hope that we might finally confront the horror of our history. In the time since, the process of reconciliation between Canada and its First Nations has stalled, repeating the cycles of overpromising and underdelivering that have marred their relationship from the beginning. The much-vaunted commitment to “Nation to Nation” negotiation has been summarily abandoned. The National Inquiry into Murdered and Missing Indigenous Women and Girls—another Trudeau election promise—has been plagued by resignations, inertia, and accusations of general ineffectiveness. Nonetheless, the acknowledgment is spreading. No level of government has mandated the practice; it is spreading of its own accord.
There is no single acknowledgment. There are many acknowledgments, depending on where you are in the country. If my kids’ school happened to be east of Woodbine Avenue in Toronto, for instance, they would hear a slightly different acknowledgment, recognizing the Mississaugas of Scugog, Hiawatha, and Alderville First Nation. The acknowledgment forces individuals and institutions to ask a basic, nightmarish question: Whose land are we on?
Sometimes it’s relatively easy to figure out an answer. When Canada acquired Rupert’s Land and the North-Western Territory, in 1870, the government negotiated a series of numbered treaties covering the territories stretching from northern Ontario to the Rocky Mountains. So, if you’re a professor giving a talk in Sudbury, Ontario, say, you can go to the government Web site and look up that Sudbury was part of the Robinson Huron Treaty, and then figure out from there whom to acknowledge. A simpler method is to go to the Web site of a local university in whichever town you happened to be in. In Sudbury, Laurentian’s acknowledgment reads, “We would like to begin by acknowledging that we are in Robinson Huron Treaty territory and the land on which we gather is the traditional territory of the Atikameksheng Anishnaabeg.” Not that complicated.
In other places, particularly in the bigger cities, the acknowledgment can become exponentially more difficult. The British Crown acquired Toronto, or, rather, the 250,880 acres that include present-day Toronto, from the Mississaugas, in 1787, for two thousand gun flints, two dozen brass kettles, ten dozen mirrors, two dozen laced hats, a bale of flannel, and ninety-six gallons of rum. The British government officially purchased the land for an additional ten shillings, in 1805. But even before the Toronto Purchase, as it was called, the land was a contested site between indigenous peoples. That history is also reflected in the question of who should be named in the acknowledgment. “For the sake of current land claims and also for the sake of basic respect, you have to name them, and you have to be correct about it,” Jesse Thistle, a historian at York University in Toronto, says. “Haudenosaunee people, some of them, don’t want to recognize that the Anishnabe took control and were here historically. Some Anishnabe people will not recognize that the Haudenosaunee people were here. And both those people sometimes want to erase the Wendat.” Historical truth is always subject to the structures of power. Always. The erasure of the Wendat “is, in a way, a kind of indigenous way of doing what the British were doing, in terms of writing other people out of the narrative,” Thistle says.
But writing marginalized peoples into the narrative is not always the correct instinct, either. Thistle, who is himself Métis-Cree, believes that the Métis should not be included in the list of traditional land acknowledgments in Toronto; he has brought his concerns to the authorities at the Toronto District School Board as well. There were Métis in Toronto—they constituted a “historical presence”—but it was not a homeland, and to claim otherwise, for Thistle, “disempowers the Haudenosaunee or the Anishnabe, who do have a rightful claim.”
Even the phrasing of the “acknowledgment of traditional lands” raises immense difficulties of basic meaning. What does “traditional” mean in this case? Does it simply mean “not legal”? Does it mean “sort of but not really”? Whose tradition are we referring to? There are six hundred and eighteen First Nations recognized by the government of Canada. They speak more than sixty different languages, and practice different religions. “Traditional land” is, in many cases, a colonial concept. The English traded for land, but to many First Nations the waterways were what mattered. “There are some scholars who say that the traditional homeland of the Métis was the travelling they did,” Thistle says, “so that totally goes against our modern conception of a rooted, bounded territory that comes out of nation-state-building.” The political consequences of a differing lens are unimaginably vast. There has never been a purchase of the Great Lakes, just parcels of land beside them. “Are all those waterways suddenly 1491?” Thistle asks.
If Toronto’s acknowledgment captures the complexity of history, Ottawa’s reveals its underlying brutality. “We would like to begin by acknowledging that the land on which we gather is the traditional and unceded territory of the Algonquin nation,” it reads. The country’s capital is built on land settled without any negotiation or treaty or compensation, not even ten shillings and some frilly hats. The country’s capital is on straight-up filched land.
First Nations in Canada have practiced territorial acknowledgments for generations. The Western trend toward the purification of speech is simply catching up. A major constituency of the progressive left, particularly in academia, operates on the assumption that to speak is to produce either violence or safety; they have set themselves busily to work out ever more elaborate refinements to the new etiquette. Purifying language, to the new left, is purifying ourselves. The idea behind the Canadian acknowledgment is that if we repeat the truth often enough, publicly enough, to children who are young enough, it will lead us to reconciliation. I might even agree, if not for Muskrat Falls.
In the autumn after the principal started reading the acknowledgments at my children’s school, leaders of the Inuit, the Nunatsiavut, and the NunatuKavut near Muskrat Falls, in Labrador, went on hunger strikes to protest the construction of a hydroelectric dam on their traditional territories. The rising mercury levels in the water because of the dam meant that the food supply of the territory, and the cultural practices that relied on fish and seal, would be disrupted.
To me, Muskrat Falls re-created the whole of the Canadian colonial project, with all of its evils, in miniature. The Truth and Reconciliation Commission report of 2015 described Canadian colonization as a conquest with two major thrusts: the starvation of indigenous groups, and the attempt to erase indigenous languages and religious practices. In Muskrat Falls, it was happening all over again—disrupting food and culture. And after Trudeau, with his cool Haida tattoo, had been elected. After the Truth and Reconciliation report had been released. After a former regional chief for the Assembly of First Nations had been named Justice Minister. The hypocrisy of the country can be so startling exactly because we repeat our good intentions so insistently. We say, over and over, that we want desperately to atone for a crime while we’re still in the middle of committing it.
In Canada, hypocrisy is a uniquely potent force. Saying sorry and not meaning it is what we are best at. The great mid-century novelist Margaret Laurence once wrote, “In some families, ‘please’ is described as the magic word. In our house, however, it was ‘sorry.’ ” No one will ever have trouble convincing English Canadians that they need to improve their manners. Speech is easy. Speech is free, unlike, say, paying for the education of First Nation schoolchildren, who still receive thirty per cent less funding than children in non-indigenous Canada.
I wonder if English Canada has the strength to face the truth in the 2015 Truth and Reconciliation Commission Report: that the evil inflicted on the indigenous populations of this country was not done by our worst people but by our best. The colonists believed that hope for the indigenous population meant stripping them of their language and culture and imbuing them with a spirit of thrift—they were trying to prepare them for the future, for progress. And the only future and the only progress that they could imagine was the one presented to them as an inevitable fact by Britain and America. The essence of the colonial mentality is the belief that history is happening in some other place. While history rolls over us, we stutter constant apologies.
The indigenous crisis goes to the heart, not just of the legitimacy of our law but of our desire to grow up as a country. Canada has never had a revolution, but we’re too old to be a colony anymore. It’s getting embarrassing. The potential of the Canadian multicultural future is intimately bound up in overcoming the colonial past. They are, in essence, the same project: decolonization. When Syrian refugees arrived in Calgary, shortly after Trudeau’s election, a Blackfoot elder greeted them with a smudging ceremony, the traditional sage-burning welcome. (Last year, the oath of citizenship was changed to require new Canadians to pledge to honor indigenous treaties.) The new Canada contains a terrible incongruity: every refugee is a settler. Reckoning with that contradiction will be figuring out who we are.
“I think it’s taken seven generations, ten generations, to get into this mess that we’re in now,” Thistle tells me, “and I think it’s going to take that long of trying to do the right thing.” There is at least some reason for hope, even if we can’t see what that hope might turn into. Maybe the embarrassments of the acknowledgment are not just embarrassments. Maybe they are also portals, invitations to new understandings of the connection between land and people and history, and the politics that can give those connections meaning. Canada as it could be, Canada that is not a colony, Canada that is itself, won’t resemble other countries. One thing is becoming clear about the future: we will never be ourselves until indigenous people can be themselves.
At least the acknowledgment has shifted the question of the indigenous crisis, from “What is wrong with them?” to “What is wrong with us?” This isn’t nothing. In the United States, the Pledge of Allegiance points all Americans to a mutual expression of loyalty. Instead of unity of purpose, instead of a shared future, the acknowledgment of traditional lands points Canadians to a fractured origin. But there is a terrible beauty in the acknowledgment, too, a beauty and a terror that transcends Canada, that transcends politics, even.
At bottom of the acknowledgment, unintentionally, are essential human questions of ethics and the ephemerality of all history and what it means to live on the earth. Whenever I hear the acknowledgment read out loud, it provokes strongly conflicted feelings in me. It reveals to me the sinking burden of my own ignorance—who are the Wendat? It reveals the gap between intention and action in my country—seeing a lieutenant governor read the acknowledgment out loud is a living allegory of Canada’s striving absurdity. But, the more often I hear acknowledgments, the more I hate how they’re written—the passive constructions, the useless adverbs, the Latinate jargon, and, in the case of the acknowledgment at my children’s school, that last sentence, about the continued presence of indigenous peoples on the land, comes as pure afterthought. They are written, it seems to me, so that we may express a sentiment without, as far as possible, feeling it, a natural result of being written by academic committees and government lawyers. They sound like microwave warranties, not the desire for atonement.
The Pledge of Allegiance went through more than half a century of revision before it attained its current aura of near-perfect platitude. The acknowledgment needs to be simpler, less legalistic, less hypocritical. It must be more than just a guilty excuse. It must capture the sense of the basic contradiction at the heart of the new Canada—every refugee is a settler—and that responsibility begins the moment you enter history.
I acknowledge that the Wendat, Anishinabek Nation, the Haudenosaunee Confederacy, and the Mississaugas of the New Credit First Nations lived here before us and keep living here now, as we live here and keep living here.
Maybe every Canadian needs to write her own acknowledgment. Maybe we all need a personal rendering of the atonement we impossibly dream of attaining.