From U of T events to some NHL games, traditional land acknowledgements have become increasingly commonplace in Canadian public spaces. The purpose of such acknowledgements should be self-evident in the era of truth and reconciliation: for non-Indigenous settlers to recognize and honour the history of the land and the Indigenous people who have long resided on it.
U of T’s Governing Council officially adopted a Statement of Acknowledgement of Traditional Land in 2016 following consultation primarily with First Nations House, as well as with non-Indigenous members of the U of T community. The statement is intended for “specific university ceremonies,” but it is also open for use by U of T community members at all three campuses.
It reads: “I (we) wish to acknowledge this land on which the University of Toronto operates. 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.”
There is, however, an expanded version on the First Nations House website that is also used at some events. It adds that “this sacred land… Has been a site of human activity for 15,000 years” and “was the subject of the Dish with One Spoon Wampum Belt Covenant, an agreement between the Iroquois Confederacy and Confederacy of the Ojibwe and allied nations to peaceably share and care for the resources around the Great Lakes.”
This version is distinct in important ways: 15,000 years of human activity sharply contrasts with Canada’s 150th birthday in 2017, and the recognition of the Dish with One Spoon treaty implicitly reminds residents of their obligation to take care of the land. This expanded version should be used at university ceremonies and events.
Either way, the acknowledgement seeks to shift conversation and address Canada’s history prior to colonialism — for example, by using the decolonial term “Turtle Island” to describe North America — and importantly, the enduring presence of Indigenous people on this land today, not just in the past.
But the proliferation of land acknowledgements in the reconciliation era has also drawn criticism. Ryerson University’s Advisor to the Dean Indigenous Education and Anishinaabe writer Hayden King helped produce Ryerson’s land acknowledgement in 2012, but expressed regret for doing so earlier this year in an interview with CBC News. He criticizes the acknowledgement for only superficially addressing important and real historical treaties like the Dish with One Spoon in a way that obscures their significant value.
Furthermore, the fact that Indigenous community members produce the script to be read by non-Indigenous speakers at events reveals a labour imbalance. Settlers avoid putting in the work when it comes to learning about the nations that live on and the treaties that continue to govern this land.
King also criticizes how “privileged spaces” give themselves invitation and permission to be on the territory through such acknowledgements. Indeed, at a privileged institution like U of T, to say “we are grateful to have the opportunity to work on this land” self-grants a legitimacy to settler presence. This overlooks the unethical and non-consensual processes through which colonization occurs, such as in the case of the 1787 Toronto Purchase.
Perhaps acknowledgements should more explicitly describe the historical and existing power dynamics between settlers and Indigenous people on this land, as well as the obligation of settlers to redress it. However, acknowledgements are intended to be brief and are only a starting point for settlers to engage with Canada’s history. If they are used by an audience as a placeholder for in-depth learning, then the acknowledgement is counterproductive and does not serve its purpose.
That is why the university must also invest in cultural competency and literacy in the form of curriculum changes. We need an on-campus community that is more informed of settler-Indigenous relations for the conversation sparked by land acknowledgements to be sustained and fulfilled.
Acknowledgements should also be problematized with regard to the speaker. The fact that a scripted statement is mechanically recited over and over again at various events at the university means that it risks turning into an empty, formulaic, and performative gesture. It is relegated to a checkmark in the scheduling of the event, rather than a foundational moment that grounds and shapes the conversation that is had. In order to be meaningful, it has to achieve some level of active reflection and personal intention.
Hence, King suggests that beyond acknowledging the land, the speaker should also describe what they intend to do about it. It is important that the land acknowledgement be partially self-written — personalized and catered to both the speaker and the audience. We encourage the speaker to disclose their positionality and what the acknowledgement personally means to them. They should address how the land acknowledgement speaks to the event in question and also how the organizer of the event intends to better serve — in concrete terms — the Indigenous people and the land that they acknowledge.
This should apply to all events, including student-led ones, but especially for senior administrators at U of T, such as the president or provosts. They should describe how far the university has progressed with regard to reconciliation since the U of T Truth and Reconciliation Steering Committee report was released in 2017, and what the university is still committed to doing — for example, hiring Indigenous staff, creating physical campus spaces, and making curriculum changes.
As we argued in a previous editorial, “Reconciliation must mean action, not words.” The sharpening contradiction between reconciliation rhetoric and the federal government’s actions exposes Canada’s hypocrisy. Speech alone does not create change; concrete action does.
It is crucial to understand that land acknowledgements are not a part of reconciliation in and of itself. That is what Lee Maracle, a Sto:lo author who teaches oral traditions at U of T and helped create U of T’s official land acknowledgement, conveyed to the Toronto Star. “Reconciliation is economic equality, access to territory, all of those things that are in the 94 calls to action… 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.”
However, land acknowledgements can serve to reshape discourse, culture, and language in a way that can commit speakers and impressionable listeners to take action toward systemic reconciliation. This is true for youth at university, and even more so for children across schools under the Toronto District School Board, where, since September 2016, land acknowledgements have been integrated into the morning announcements.
The next time you are at an event at U of T and the speaker recites the land acknowledgement, reflect on what the words mean to you and how you intend to do better for this land and the original nations of this land. And if you are a speaker, do what’s right: go off script.
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