Acknowledging Indigenous Land

By Bruna Nota

“When approached humbly, in authentic consultation with Indigenous people as equals, land acknowledgements can help pave the way to honouring those with whom we share this land. That means that land acknowledgements can’t just be a token gesture. To bring equality to all Canadians, we need to find ways to match those words with action.”
(The above land acknowledgement is posted on the website of Today’s Parent magazine.)

Public acknowledgement that we live on land belonging to Indigenous Peoples has become increasingly used by all kinds of organizations and individuals. Some people think that these statements are at risk of becoming rote and meaningless. I do agree with that concern. It seems, though, to me that the statement by Today’s Parent points to a constructive direction. To truly honour our Indigenous hosts we need to rediscover the heartfelt sentiments that lend these acknowledgements their real value and the power to effect change: concrete actions.

Actions can be of an individual nature. We can read Indigenous scholarly works or fiction and attend lectures and ceremonies. Increasing familiarity with public documents on the subject would give us historical and contextual knowledge. These documents would include the 1991 Royal Commission on Aboriginal Peoples (RCAP), the 2007 United Nations Declaration on the Rights of Indigenous Peoples (UNDRIP), the 2015 Truth and Reconciliation Commission (TRC) report, and the 2019 Inquiry on Missing and Murdered Indigenous Women and Girls (MMIWG). For some of us, deeper commitments may lead to financially contributing to language camps, learning an Indigenous language, or to the more radical, complex action of transferring the cottage or family land to an Indigenous People’s Trust.

Institutional action is needed as well. Will the universities, the symphony orchestras, the public schools, and the municipalities commit to changing the way they operate? They can help overcome the obstacles now preventing indigenous people from participating fully in those institutions.

Nation-to Nation relationships

To develop better Nation-to-Nation relationships we need to influence legislation and action at both the federal and provincial level. For example, Private Member Bill C-262 “An Act to ensure that the laws of Canada are in harmony with the United Nations Declaration on the Rights of Indigenous Peoples” came very close to being enacted in the 2019 spring session of Parliament. It passed third reading in the House of Commons and two readings in the Senate but failed in the third reading because of the obstinacy of a handful of Conservative senators. Would it have passed had more citizens supported it? It will have to be re-introduced in the next Parliament and its success will depend on how effectively we citizens let our parliamentarians know the importance we attach to its passing.

Action involves a humbling, frustrating but limitlessly enriching learning process. It may involve personal changes, such as learning about the Indigenous Peoples’ tradition of diplomacy to manage scarce resources and relationships among groups.

This can be transformative. It would mean emphasizing a relational rather than a transactional approach to all aspects of our lives—relations based on give and take, on creating webs of responsibility with other humans and the whole natural world. Millennia of Indigenous diplomacy validate this approach. Humanity needs to take responsibility for our actions toward planet Earth. Each of us is in intimate relationship with all that surrounds us: soil, air, water, plants, animals. We are responsible for and to all of them.

It was in the spirit of this long tradition of diplomacy, of relational rather than transactional exchange, that the Indigenous Peoples negotiated their first treaties with the newcomers. Unfortunately, the colonists saw land as a resource, a real estate transaction with minimal outlay. Our ruinous relationships with Indigenous Peoples today are rooted in this fundamental discrepancy.

Chief Laforme expresses that discrepancy in the title of his poem: ‘It’s Not Mine to Sell Nor is it Yours to Buy,’ talking about the present-day land settlements demanded by the Government.

From the Indigenous perspective the treaties were about sharing, friendship, and mutual help. The Two Row Wampum, one of the earliest treaties negotiated between Indigen­ous People and Europeans, illustrates the mutual help and respect expected between the two Peoples—the newcomers and the Indigenous. As Tom Keefer has explained in Briarpatch magazine,

“The belt consists of two rows of purple wampum beads on a white background. Three rows of white beads symbolizing peace, friendship, and respect separate the two purple rows. The two purple rows symbolize two paths or two vessels travelling down the same river. One row symbolizes the Hauden­osaunee people with their law and customs, while the other row symbolizes European laws and customs. As nations move together side-by-side on the River of Life, they are to avoid overlapping or interfering with one another.”

The ‘Doctrine of Discovery’

The newcomers, on the other hand, based their treaty claims on a series of statements by the pope in the 1400s that came to be known as the Doctrine of Discovery. This doctrine gave the right to Christian explorers to claim sovereignty on lands and peoples that were ‘non-Christian’.

In reality, no treaty would have been concluded had it explicitly used words expressing the power granted the colonizers by the Doctrine of Discovery, such as ‘extinguish,’ ‘cede’, ‘surrender’, ‘relinquish’ when dealing with Indigenous land titles. Never­theless, these words, or some euphemistic equivalent, are still the ones used in the Canadian courts today. They are still part of Canada’s interpretation of section 91(24) of the Constitution Act 1867, and section 35(1) of the Constitution Act 1982. Such interpretation is incompatible with Canada’s commitment to implement the requirements of UNDRIP. It includes explicitly, the renunciation of the Doctrine of Discovery in its preamble at paragraph 4:

“… all doctrines, policies and practices based on advocating superiority of peoples or individuals on the basis of national origin or racial, religious, ethnic or cultural differences are racist, scientifically false, legally invalid, morally condemnable and socially unjust …”

Are mainstream Canadians ready to accept that our professed desire for reconciliation is anchored in a willingness to make reparation? It is not enough to acknowledge we live on Indigenous territories. We need to change our ways. Stop looking at treaties as static transactional documents. Start really looking at them as records of a relationship that matures and changes with changing circumstances, in the spirit of mutual responsibility. If we read them as living documents, we interpret them in the spirit in which they were negotiated, not with legalistic words that were never uttered or understood during negotiations.

If Canadians start committing to concrete actions, land acknowledgements may become instrumental in creating significant shifts in our relations with Indigenous People.

Canadian citizens need to tell our governments that we want justice. Then land acknowledgements will lead Canada to heed Arthur Manuel’s call to Prime Minister Justin Trudeau in this concluding paragraph of his book The Reconciliation Manifesto: Recovering the Land, Rebuilding the Economy, published shortly after his death:

“So Mr. Prime Minister, you must know that Canada’s cruel legacy cannot be settled by fiddling with programs and services or by hugs and tears. We need fundamental changes to fix Canada because it is Canada that is broken. Either that, or we pass on this sad legacy to our children. Mine, I know, have run out of patience. They are ready to fight it out and this is the last thing I want for them—or for your children for that matter. So let us avoid that. Relieve your children from the international embarrassment and the moral disgrace of riding on our backs and relieve my children from the crushing burden of carrying them. It we do this right, some day they may even be able to walk freely together in friendship.”

Bruna Nota is a peace and justice activist.

Peace Magazine Oct-Dec 2019

Peace Magazine Oct-Dec 2019, page 13. Some rights reserved.

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