Ottawa Citizen – Patrick Mascoe

Prime Minister Justin Trudeau and Perry Bellegarde, national chief of the Assembly of First Nations, celebrate National Indigenous Peoples Day in Ottawa in 2017. Why is our capital on someone else’s land?  

As I write tzenhis, I would like to acknowledge that I am doing so while sitting at my desk on the unceded, unsurrendered traditional territory of the Algonquin people. Why am I telling you this? I’m not sure. But I’m also not sure why I am hearing a similar message every morning on the announcements at the school where I work. Furthermore, I don’t know why the same statement is being read prior to my staff meetings and teacher’s federation meetings.

I do know however, that this has now become our national pledge of allegiance (simply insert Indigenous name) and if we say these magical words enough, everything will be all right.  These very words will have the power to erase white guilt and restore Indigenous pride.

How does repeating a phrase ad nauseam contribute to reconciliation? When I attend teacher federation meetings, teachers continue to talk or get up and go for coffee or tea while the territorial acknowledgement is being read. After two weeks, I received not one question from my students about our new daily pledge. Yet, when I asked, no student could tell me the meaning of the word, “unceded.”  How can insincere, empty rhetoric lead to reconciliation?

According to Algonquin-Anishinaabe-kwe author Lynn Gehl, it can’t. In her opinion, the protocol of acknowledging her traditional territory is both meaningless and patronizing. So if the territorial acknowledgement is not for the benefit of the Algonquin people, then who is it supposed to benefit? It would seem that this is really all about appeasing non-Indigenous guilt.

Let me use an analogy that everyone should be able to understand. Your home gets broken into and a man walks off with your television. You discover years later that every time he turned on your television set he acknowledged that it wasn’t his TV, but thanked you for its use. Would you be OK with that? I think I would be pissed.

Territorial acknowledgements have existed for hundreds of years as part of many Indigenous cultures. I wonder how many schools have brought in an elder to speak about this topic.  Probably very few. I have never been taught anything about territorial acknowledgements; they just started happening. Someone needs to explain to me how token gestures and insincerity bring about reconciliation.

In 2008, the Truth and Reconciliation Commission was established with the purpose of documenting the history and impact of abuse directed at First Nations Peoples. Note that the word “truth” comes before the word “reconciliation.” I am in no way a crusader or advocate for the First Nations. I don’t believe that I personally owe anyone an apology, nor have I ever taken anyone’s land. I do know, however, that saying sorry and not meaning it can only make matters worse.

Prime Minister Justin Trudeau and his government refused to support Israel’s claim that Jerusalem is the rightful capital of the Jewish nation because the city sits on disputed land.  Wait. Doesn’t the Prime Minister’s Office sit on disputed land? Actually there is no dispute, according to Trudeau: In a 2016 speech to the Assembly of First Nations Chiefs, he stated the land belonged to the Algonquin people. So why, then, is Ottawa our capital? How can our capital sit on someone else’s land?

Herein lies the problem our First Nations people face: political hypocrisy, unfulfilled promises, and meaningless rhetoric. Action rather than disingenuous words is the only way to achieve true reconciliation. So please – enough with the territorial acknowledgements. Stop talking before I become so desensitized that I no longer care about the plight of my fellow citizens.

Patrick Mascoe is an Ottawa area teacher who holds a Master’s Degree from the University of Ottawa in Society, Culture, and Literacies.