On Land Acknowledgments: from Script to Reconcili-action

By: Alexi Marchel

In the lead-up to Canada’s second National Day of Truth and Reconciliation on September 30th, I have found myself returning again and again to this statement from Murray Sinclair, Chair of the Truth and Reconciliation Commission: 

“Education is what got us into this mess [...] but education is the key to reconciliation.”

He said this back in 2015. This was the year the Commission wrapped up its work and created a historical record by publishing its final report detailing the experiences and legacies of Canada’s residential school system. Approximately 150,000 First Nations, Métis, and Inuit children were forced to attend church-run, government-funded ‘schools’ between the 1870s and 1997. The term 'schools' used to describe this policy, however, is a misnomer - these were sites of indoctrination and widespread abuse.

Since the release of its report, land acknowledgments have become an increasingly common practice in non-Indigenous spaces. In the simplest terms, land acknowledgments are about showing respect to Indigenous peoples. They are formal statements expressing gratitude for Indigenous stewardship of the land and are meant to identify the land as Indigenous land - where Indigenous peoples of that area hold specific enduring rights. Land acknowledgments are meant to insert awareness of this history into our daily lives.

As a settler, every time I hear a land acknowledgment delivered by other non-Indigenous people, as well as every time I give one myself, I come back to the following question: “How do land acknowledgments contribute to cleaning the mess up of Canada’s colonial history - as well as the colonial legacies that are shaping the present?”

Historically speaking land acknowledgments are not new. They are an Indigenous practice that pre-dates contact with Europeans. From an Indigenous perspective, Western University explains, land acknowledgements are about commemorating Indigenous kinship to the land. They “are situated within complex local political, spiritual, and diplomatic relationships that centre Indigenous peoples’ treaty relationship, rights to land, place, and education both historically and culturally.” 

Today land acknowledgments are viewed by some as a contested practice. There has been a lot of public discussion on the extent to which land acknowledgments are public gestures of respect or problematic acts of “moral exhibitionism." For some, they have become too formulaic: “Oftentimes, when non-Indigenous organizers make a territory acknowledgment, it is done hastily (weacknowledgethatwearegatheredonuncededcoastsalishterritory), and then discarded (now on with the show!).” 

While land acknowledgments are not enough to create positive and lasting social change, this doesn’t mean they don't hold value. They serve an important function as part of a larger series of commitments and practices that governments, businesses, groups, and individuals can take on to be allies to Indigenous communities. 

At The Humphrey Group, we believe that for land acknowledgments to be meaningful acts of reconcili-action, the work of writing these must be rooted in a process of self-reflection.

Here are 4 points to guide you in writing a land acknowledgment: 

  1. Reflect on your process. Ask yourself: why are you doing a land acknowledgment? What is your end goal? This might require a mindset shift. Land acknowledgments are not about assigning blame or cultivating guilt. They are a commitment to doing better and are a critical part of thinking about how settlers can be better allies to Indigenous communities. Once you go through this process your land acknowledgment will speak directly from your heart, and not from a formulaic script.

  2. Ground it in history and the present. Do research on the impacts of colonialism and genocide - from the history of Indigenous peoples being uprooted from their lands, to the residential school policy, to the Indian Act, to the crisis of missing and murdered Indigenous women and girls in Canada, to other ongoing examples of systemic racism and injustices facing Indigenous communities. And also reflect on and embed in your land acknowledgment a recognition of Indigenous communities as sites of power and resurgence.

  3. Learn where you are. Name the Indigenous territory/territories on which you are meeting or an event is taking place. Make sure to use the proper past, present, and future tenses. Too often land acknowledgments exist in the past tense alone. Speaking solely in the past tense removes our current responsibility to the land and to Indigenous peoples.

  4.  Attach your land acknowledgment to an action. Land acknowledgements are not the end point of working towards reconciliation. Reconciliation is an ongoing process, and land acknowledgments should inspire people into meaningful action. At The Humphrey Group, we attach our land acknowledgment to an act of repair. With every land acknowledgement delivered during our learning experiences, we make a donation to the Indian Residential School Survivor Society. 

Land acknowledgements are a first step in the long journey towards reconciliation. They are not a performance of self-congratulation. They are a needed process of uncomfortably confronting the harsh truths of Canada.

Land acknowledgments should be personal and reflective acts demonstrating an ongoing commitment to being in solidarity with Indigenous peoples - acknowledging the land, your relationship to it, and your responsibility to it. 

Finally, it is all of our responsibility to work toward meaningful reconciliation. At work and in our personal lives, this is something we should all be advancing this September 30th and beyond.