Prior to public events of all sort — city council meetings, school classes, concerts, sporting events, church services, conferences, etc. — it is now widely accepted practice to acknowledge the fact participants are on the traditional territory of various Indigenous peoples, and that the rest of us are merely guests on their land.
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Arising from the work of the Truth and Reconciliation Commission, this routine is meant to promote greater understanding between Indigenous peoples and the rest of Canada. It’s not working. Instead of conciliating, these statements are creating confusion and conflict. They’re also rife with historical inaccuracies.
These statements are creating confusion and conflict. They’re also rife with historical inaccuracies
The current popularity of these statements ought to be taken as a sign many non-natives honestly care about native issues. Paying homage to Indigenous stewardship of the land in this symbolic way seems like a nice, polite and very Canadian thing to do. The Winnipeg Jets, for example, open every home game with an acknowledgement that they’re playing on “Treaty 1 land.” But what are the practical implications of such symbolism?
Last month during the Jets’ exciting run through the Stanley Cup playoffs, native grandmother Gerry Shingoose caused a fracas at one of Winnipeg’s famous “Whiteout” street parties by taking the Jets’ pre-game invocation literally. Standing on a sidewalk inside the designated party area, Shingoose was asked to move to the street since city regulations required the sidewalks to be kept clear at all times. She refused. “I can stand anywhere … you guys are on Treaty 1 territory,” she defiantly told security personnel as she filmed herself with a cellphone. “No, it’s not,” exasperated staff responded. “This is Indigenous land,” she repeated determinedly. “This is Treaty 1 territory.”
The numbered treaties of the Canadian west were contractual arrangements between the Canadian government and various Indigenous tribes. In exchange for explicit compensation, natives on the Prairies did, in the words of Treaty 1, “cede, release, surrender and yield up to Her Majesty the Queen and successors forever all the lands” described by the document, with a remainder set aside for reserves. This was a mutually-agreed-upon deal no different from buying a house today; land was exchanged for certain considerations, all sales final.
Shingoose was eventually dragged off by police, her claims to traditional ownership of Winnipeg’s sidewalks notwithstanding. But the notion that she could stand wherever she wants because it’s all “treaty land” is certainly not without argument, considering the prominence this exact claim is given prior to every Jets home game, as well as before countless other public meetings and events across Canada. Repeat something often enough, and people start believing it’s true.
The Shingoose affair really points to the yawning difference in understanding about the meaning of our newly ubiquitous land-acknowledgement statements. Non-natives tend to see them as purely symbolic demonstrations of concern. Natives, however, interpret them as evidence they still retain some sort of residual moral or legal right to territory their ancestors long ago sold to the rest of Canada.
Such a massive gap in perception between cultures will eventually lead to a reckoning, warns Frances Widdowson, an academic at Mount Royal University in Calgary and an outspoken critic of land-acknowledgement statements on campus and elsewhere. “What happens 10 years down the road when some Indigenous people suggest it’s time we start paying rent on this land, given that we’ve admitted over and over again that it isn’t really ours?” she asks. It’s a good question.
This article continues at [National Post] Peter Shawn Taylor: Indigenous land salutes a nice idea that will backfire badly