Beyond a Formal Acknowledgement of Unceded Traditional Territory

Logo used with permission from the Kwikwetlem First Nation.
Logo used with permission from the Kwikwetlem First Nation.

I share these thoughts as a settler of living on the unceded territories of the Squamish and the Musqueam peoples in Port Moody, British Columbia. 

This year, a number of teachers at Gleneagle, and around the Coquitlam District, began to demonstrate a more public acknowledgement of the traditional territories where we live and teach and learn. I say “more public” as many of us have been a part of acknowledgements at public gatherings and meetings for years now, though as part of the daily school space such messages were only mentioned in passing, or implied in individual classrooms and lessons. However, perhaps spurred on by the publication of the Final Report of the Truth and Reconciliation Commission, as well as with the pushing of a group of inspired newer staff members beginning to shape and influence the school’s professional (and curricular) development, it became natural that the school’s teachers began to publicly explore our own engagements and efforts toward reconciliation, and toward learning from First Nations, Metis, and Inuit Peoples. Toward listening, and what that listening might lead to.

So there began to be seen around the school the poster included above, created by Scott Findley with the permission of the Kwikwetlem First Nation, and more of our community events began with the formal acknowledgement of the unceded territories where the school resides. But even these acknowledgements – while respectfully and genuinely intended – were not yet fully or authentically incorporated into a coherent vision of the school’s mission. It was, perhaps as can best be expected, a first step toward truly engaging in a process of reconciliation.

Toward the end of the year, I was fortunate to begin dipping a toe in my new role as a Faculty Associate at SFU, and attended a couple of orientation days and evenings on campus, each of which were introduced with thoughtful, inquiring, personal acknowledgements of the traditional, unceded ancestral territories, both from the perspective of a student from a local First Nation, as well as a settler faculty member. Each provoked and extended the acknowledgement to explore and explain the meaning of such announcements, and asked us to consider our own places as educators and residents of lands that have been known and occupied since time immemorial.

Set against the backdrop of the upcoming 150th celebration of Canadian Confederation, the opportunity to acknowledge and shine light on the land’s original inhabitants seemed only more pressing. In a year spent celebrating the history of Canada, it felt perhaps even more necessary for settler-Canadians to acknowledge that every moment of that history has taken place on land that was secured by consistently nefarious means. Whether through disingenuous treaties that have never been fully honoured, to the ongoing displacement of peoples in every corner of the country, to cultural genocide and its host of violent horrors, the pageantry of Canada’s 150 year celebrations has been built upon a foundation of the country’s original inhabitants’ blood and suffering, and the theft of their homeland.

But what is this acknowledgement intended to bring about? What larger context might we fit this act within, as citizens and educators, as well as within public institutions within Canada? How ought we work toward reconciliation and create greater justice within and beyond our borders? Of even more fundamental concern, what do our borders even mean, within such a context?

Eve Tuck wrote in the Mainlander a few years back about Vancouver City Council’s motion to formally acknowledge the unceded traditional territories where the city resides, and wondered what might come next.

[…] the Vancouver motion calls for council and city staff to “develop appropriate protocols for the City of Vancouver to use in conducting City business that respect the traditions of welcome, blessing, and acknowledgement of the territory.” What the motion does not call for are decolonizing protocols that shift power and privilege from settlers to Indigenous peoples, nor does it acknowledge colonization as an ongoing process that actively dispossesses Indigenous peoples of their way of life through land theft. This clearly shows that Vancouver city council, and other political parties, do not intend to dismantle the system and structures that benefit settlers. Instead, the goal is to protect City business and the perpetuation of the settler colonial project, free of feelings of guilt or responsibility–thanks to this tokenistic gesture.

Tuck describes such gestures as colonizer’s “moves toward innocence,” which serve to absolve the settlers (in their own consciousnesses) of their role in ongoing colonialism, and serve to halt the potential for any tangible progress. Indeed, in encountering the contours of Canadian history with my high school students, a common theme in coming to grips with Canada’s colonial, genocidal history is that we believe ourselves to be kind, apologetic, peacekeeping stereotypes that absolve us of any past sins (when they are even brought up in conversation, which is seldom), and that this makes any meaningful correction or restitution for these crimes all but impossible.

Khesilem notes in a 2015 comment on Tuck’s post that

the proclamation of unceded territory was in my opinion a gesture by white politicians doing what they were told would be a good gesture to do and were genuine in their attempt to do what they thought was right. I think the most useful critiques of these gestures address the usefulness or non-usefulness of these gestures and what tangible actions could be done instead (if there are any to be done instead). From that standpoint I’d say this gesture that completely falls into the definition of colonial politics of recognition at best give the potential for awareness. But beyond that it’s empty in providing any form of restitution or repatriation for the dispossession the City of Vancouver continuously supports by its very existence.

This critique is obviously valid with regards to the schools which undertake this same gesture of recognition: while they may be undertaken by well-intentioned educators, public schools remain an arm of the very governments which represent settler-colonialism on traditional territories. But beneath the heights of the government officials that preside over an unjust system, individual teachers (myself included) would like to position ourselves as part of progress, and authentic moves toward justice.

Asked to MC a few colleagues’ retirement reception this spring, I added to the remarks prepared for schools and teachers by Coquitlam’s Aboriginal Education department:

It is customary at the beginning of community gatherings and celebrations to acknowledge the traditional territory upon which the gathering takes place, perhaps even more so in this year as we celebrate the 150th anniversary of Canadian Confederation, and especially as we gather to commemorate the careers of public school teachers.

Embedded within the sacred trust of what it means to be an educator is to consider the truth that our daily practices and habits create the contexts and lessons of citizenship for the next generation. And so it is important that, as we acknowledge the traditional territory, we do so with an awareness of our shared history on this land, and what the opportunity for reconciliation that greets us as we look ahead at our next 150 years means. What it means to learn as treaty citizens on land that has been inhabited since time immemorial, and what it might mean to future generations who will live and learn here.

As to what it might mean to live and learn as treaty citizens on that land, and what it might mean, I am not sure. In looking ahead as an educator of pre-service teachers, I wonder how a system of colonialism might be bent toward justice by the individuals who work within it. Perhaps in time true restitution will mean an ultimate dismantling of the structures which perpetuate settler-colonialism and the dispossession of peoples from their traditional lands, and despite benefiting from that system I heartily endorse such an aim in the service of greater freedom and equality for all people; In the meantime, however, I am still seeking a means of helping progress along beyond a formal acknowledgement.