An Impossible Acknowledgement

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

Acknowledging Hypocrisy

A recent article in the New Yorker helps articulate the difficulty in conceiving of what it might mean to move beyond merely acknowledging traditional, unceded territories. In his essay, “Canada’s Impossible Acknowledgement,” Stephen Marche writes that

First Nations in Canada have practiced territorial acknowledgments for generations. The Western trend toward the purification of speech is simply catching up. A major constituency of the progressive left, particularly in academia, operates on the assumption that to speak is to produce either violence or safety; they have set themselves busily to work out ever more elaborate refinements to the new etiquette. Purifying language, to the new left, is purifying ourselves. The idea behind the Canadian acknowledgment is that if we repeat the truth often enough, publicly enough, to children who are young enough, it will lead us to reconciliation.

However, he notes that such words are at odds with the colonial system within which they operate. “I might even agree [with the idea that such acknowledgements pave the way toward reconciliation],” Marche writes. “If not for Muskrat Falls.”

In the autumn after the principal started reading the acknowledgments at my children’s school, leaders of the Inuit, the Nunatsiavut, and the NunatuKavut near Muskrat Falls, in Labrador, went on hunger strikes to protest the construction of a hydroelectric dam on their traditional territories. The rising mercury levels in the water because of the dam meant that the food supply of the territory, and the cultural practices that relied on fish and seal, would be disrupted.

To me, Muskrat Falls re-created the whole of the Canadian colonial project, with all of its evils, in miniature. The Truth and Reconciliation Commission report of 2015 described Canadian colonization as a conquest with two major thrusts: the starvation of indigenous groups, and the attempt to erase indigenous languages and religious practices. In Muskrat Falls, it was happening all over again—disrupting food and culture. And after Trudeau, with his cool Haida tattoo, had been elected. After the Truth and Reconciliation report had been released. After a former regional chief for the Assembly of First Nations had been named Justice Minister. The hypocrisy of the country can be so startling exactly because we repeat our good intentions so insistently. We say, over and over, that we want desperately to atone for a crime while we’re still in the middle of committing it.

It is a damning and authentic indictment of the hollowness of such words to meaningfully work toward reconciliation. But it is in this irreconcilability that the modern paradox of Canada lives: we are not merely two solitudes, as Hugh MacLennan wrote, but myriad; and the bringing together of such diverse and singular visions of the country is surely the task of the next countless generations of Canadians. Not so that they can be subsumed in a singular national narrative, but that they might exist in parallel. As a mosaic, if you will.

Marche highlights this struggle more articulately, however:

The indigenous crisis goes to the heart, not just of the legitimacy of our law but of our desire to grow up as a country. Canada has never had a revolution, but we’re too old to be a colony anymore. It’s getting embarrassing. The potential of the Canadian multicultural future is intimately bound up in overcoming the colonial past. They are, in essence, the same project: decolonization. When Syrian refugees arrived in Calgary, shortly after Trudeau’s election, a Blackfoot elder greeted them with a smudging ceremony, the traditional sage-burning welcome. (Last year, the oath of citizenship was changed to require new Canadians to pledge to honor indigenous treaties.) The new Canada contains a terrible incongruity: every refugee is a settler. Reckoning with that contradiction will be figuring out who we are.

But how?

A question I have been asking myself for some time has circled this idea: how do we make the acknowledgement of traditional, unceded territory reckon with this contradiction? But perhaps of late I have begun to find an articulation of what the response might look like.

In her book Braiding HistoriesSusan D. Dion describes this dynamic by saying that “Canadians typically position themselves as defenders of human rights.

If they occupy a position of relative comfort, it is because they earned it through their own hard work. The long history of oppressive actions taken against Aboriginal people is a direct contradiction to that understanding. Rather than challenging the contradiction, most Canadians continue to position Aboriginal people as figures of the past, as people of a make-believe world; and possibilities for accomplishing an equitable and just relationship are jeopardized (p. 5).

This idea of Aboriginal people as “figures of the past, as people of a make-believe world” is reflected, in a way, in Marche’s criticism of the language in most territorial acknowledgements:

I hate how they’re written—the passive constructions, the useless adverbs, the Latinate jargon, and, in the case of the acknowledgment at my children’s school, that last sentence, about the continued presence of indigenous peoples on the land, comes as pure afterthought. They are written, it seems to me, so that we may express a sentiment without, as far as possible, feeling it, a natural result of being written by academic committees and government lawyers. They sound like microwave warranties, not the desire for atonement.

Indeed, Dion writes about the cultivation of a “discourse that affirms the humanity and agency of Aboriginal people and recognizes our work as active social agents resisting ongoing conditions of justice” (p. 13), and “a new debate reclaiming memory, experience and imagination” (p. 18).

I mentioned in my prior post that I have recently entered into my work with Simon Fraser University’s PDP Program, and been inspired by the personal reckonings that our first few introductory speakers had offered in their own territorial acknowledgements. Even more affirming, however, have been the personal reflections and stories various members of the Faculty Associate and Coordinator teams have shared in acknowledgments beginning each day of our our orientation time together this August.

Marche suggests the idea that “The acknowledgment needs to be simpler, less legalistic, less hypocritical.

It must be more than just a guilty excuse. It must capture the sense of the basic contradiction at the heart of the new Canada—every refugee is a settler—and that responsibility begins the moment you enter history.

I acknowledge that the Wendat, Anishinabek Nation, the Haudenosaunee Confederacy, and the Mississaugas of the New Credit First Nations lived here before us and keep living here now, as we live here and keep living here.

Maybe every Canadian needs to write her own acknowledgment. Maybe we all need a personal rendering of the atonement we impossibly dream of attaining.

In planning our first few weeks with our new cohort of student teachers, my teaching partner and I will be inviting our cohort to consider their individual acknowledgements, as well as Susan D. Dion’s reflective questions (p. 22):

  • What does [this acknowledgement] mean to me?
  • What does it mean to my understanding of what it is to be Canadian?

Dion introduces Roger Simon’s notion of education as a means of “disruptive daydreaming”:

Education and disruptive daydreaming share a common project: the production of hopeful images. That is, the production of ‘images of that which is not yet’ that provoke people to consider, and inform them in considering, what would have to be done for things to be otherwise (p. 9).

In this is an echo of the transformative learning described by both Freire and Bateson, wherein one is driven to transform by transgressing the very boundaries of their individual and societal perspectives of the most foundational elements of understanding. Such a transformation in thought comes about by allowing new and contradictory metaphysics and epistemologies to challenge and rest alongside dominant narratives. And perhaps to return to the original thought that perhaps mere words, spoken customarily, can do little to create such tectonic shifts in consciousness.

But perhaps they also can create fissures in individual realities if they are encountered with a mind that they are intended as personal reckonings with what it means to be Canadian. With what it means to be not only a member of the human race, but a part of the natural world and the mysteries of the cosmos.


Richard Wagamese writes that “‘All my relations,'” means all.

When a speaker makes this statement it’s meant as recognition of the principles of harmony, unity and equality. It’s a way of saying that you recognize your place in the universe and that you recognize the place of others and of other things in the realm of the real and the living. In that it is a powerful evocation of truth.

Because when you say those words you mean everything that you are kin to. Not just those people who look like you, talk like you, act like you, sing, dance, celebrate, worship or pray like you. Everyone. You also mean everything that relies on air, water, sunlight and the power of the Earth and the universe itself for sustenance and perpetuation. It’s recognition of the fact that we are all one body moving through time and space together.

To say these words is to offer a doorway to that understanding to those who hear you. It’s to proclaim in one sentence that this experience of living is a process of coming together and that it was always meant to be.

When you offer that doorway, you offer the most sublime truth. You offer the essential teaching.

Conceived of and approached in this manner, perhaps, words can have a transformative power.

Featured image courtesy of the TALONS