In hundreds of schools across Canada, the morning announcements start the same way, with a land acknowledgement stating that the building is located in the traditional territory of First Nations, Métis and Inuit peoples (FNMI). You may have heard something similar at a civic event or fundraiser—for many non-Indigenous Canadians, it’s one of the first introductions to the idea of reconciliation.
I know my own kids hear one each morning. They are spoken by students not much older than they are, who may or may not understand what they’re saying, let alone how to correctly pronounce the names of the Indigenous people who first inhabited the land their school is on or who the Indigenous and/or FNMI peoples are that share their home with them today.
When approached humbly, in authentic consultation with Indigenous people as equals, land acknowledgements can help pave the way to honouring those with whom we share this land. That means that land acknowledgements can’t just be a token gesture. To bring equality to all Canadians, we need to find ways to match those words with action.
What exactly is a land acknowledgement? Essentially, land acknowledgements are an act of conciliation by an educator, host, keynote speaker or programmer who introduces the territorial or traditional lands. While these announcements aren’t politically mandated, they started about two years ago in response to the 94 “calls to action” by the Truth and Reconciliation Commission of Canada (TRC). However, Indigenous peoples have been introducing themselves through their connection to the land with one another for centuries because, depending on the occasion, multiple nations are often present. It’s how we continue to recognize our own rich diverse nations within our own communities, singularly or in gatherings of large groups, in governance, in ceremony and in celebration.
It’s important to note, though, that not all Indigenous peoples can place themselves in this way—they may not know their direct lineage as a result of colonization and genocide. Be cognizant that one Indigenous person is just that: one person with one experience. Someone may identify with being Ojibwa, Inuit or Métis, while another may prefer Aboriginal, Native, Anishinaabe, Haudenosaunee or a specific nation within or outside of these alignments.
What are some of the concerns? I’ve had many debates over land acknowledgements with Indigenous and non-Indigenous friends, family members, mentors, peers and community members. Will hearing the statement every day at school help kids absorb that information or will it simply become background noise? Do younger students even understand them? Is the curriculum in public schools demonstrating inclusion and a genuine representation of Indigenous culture?
Sometimes it can feel as though land acknowledgements are more about performance and less about accuracy, existing simply as a box to check off in the spirit of reconciliation. And consistency can be an issue. “I’ve seen them done in different academic settings, few and far between in terms of equal application,” says Marjolaine LaPointe, Algonquin, Deer Clan, Ardoch First Nations, an Anishinaabemowin language teacher for the Kawartha Pine Ridge District School Board in Ontario. “I often worry that land acknowledgements are kind of like when you’re having a family dinner and you want Grandma to say grace and then you stick her in the corner,” she says. “No one is listening to her stories as an integral part of what’s happening.”
LaPointe is also concerned about the expectations that are sometimes placed on Indigenous people. “I worry that land acknowledgement openings by traditional people and elders are becoming expected volunteer roles from some of our most esteemed members without respectful consultation, honorarium or contract,” she says. “I worry that teachers are asking Indigenous students to teach their entire class because they’ve been singled out. It’s up to us to create safe spaces for our most marginalized kids. Asking them to speak on behalf of all Indigenous peoples—and not recognizing that they represent many different nations—is a growing problem.”
What happens next, and how can we do better? No matter where they are, Canadians live on Indigenous territory. It should be a priority to learn more about the places we call home and the neighbourhoods we live in. We can create real change by pushing ourselves to engage in uncomfortable conversations, which includes individuals doing their own work when it comes to confronting their own biases.
So how can public schools be used to help build a deeper understanding of land acknowledgements? “They’re a good place to start, but there is a lot more work that needs to be done,” says Rachel Mishenene, executive staff for First Nations, Métis and Inuit Education at the Elementary Teachers’ Federation of Ontario. “As an Indigenous person, I feel good when I hear land acknowledgements, but I am also cognizant that it comes with a responsibility to demonstrate the inclusion of Indigenous perspectives through action. A land acknowledgement without action is just a statement.”
Mishenene, who is Ojibwa from Eabametoong First Nation, uses a mind, body and spirit approach—her own interpretation of Indigenous world views—when talking to Canadian settlers about land acknowledgements. She explains how they might understand them from an Indigenous perspective and way of thinking.
Mind: “Think about your learning experience, specifically in learning about Canada and its relationship with Indigenous peoples. How are Indigenous people represented in books, media and films? Are they positive or negative, and from whose perspective? What do I need to do if I want to partake in reconciliation?”
Body: “Where are you physically situated? Where is your home and your child’s school? Do you know the Indigenous group whose traditional lands you are situated on? A good place to start would be to research your community the same way you might research the culture, customs and languages of the places you travel.”
Spirit: “Our identities are revealed through our connection to our culture and communities. Our interaction with our customs, traditions, languages and beliefs feeds our spirit. Ask yourself ‘How is your cultural identity celebrated, represented and honoured in your community?’ How can Indigenous cultural identities and traditions be positively reflected?”
Mishenene encourages others to get to know the Indigenous people in their communities who are making substantial contributions. Parents can have Indigenous film nights at their child’s school or contact local representatives from Indigenous organizations and faculties to inquire about learning opportunities. Parents can talk to school trustees about the FNMI curriculum in their child’s school and Indigenous learning spaces and workshops. She encourages Canadians to access culturally relevant and authentic resources.
I worry a lot about how we can repair the fractured relationship between Indigenous peoples and Canadians. But what remains most important to me is that we learn from one another and lead by example for our kids, even when it’s messy. Showing them how to repair relationships is a foundational teaching in emotional intelligence. We should apply the same respect and thought process to teaching our kids how to manage their future responsibilities as a collective because those responsibilities are immense. They will join us and eventually pick up where we leave off in our efforts for social justice and equality. We have a responsibility to push conversations forward so that our children can see us work together and guide one another as equals.
For Canadians who wish to be allies, it’s important to be present in the spaces of discord and stand in solidarity with Indigenous peoples. Learn more about and attend events for Missing and Murdered Indigenous Women and Girls (MMIWG). Attend a youth-led march in your area. Take a stand against current injustices and oppression when it comes to our children being unjustifiably taken into foster care and our kids being killed.
There are ways to break down systemic and institutional barriers, and it begins with those with privilege, using their access as a stepping stone to do their own learning and share those resources with others. Schools can better support Indigenous peoples by inviting qualified members into spaces at a leadership level. For teachers, there is no reason to not be doing right by Indigenous and non-Indigenous students. It’s either a lack of knowing where to go or an act of discrimination and bias in not wanting to make changes. Non-Indigenous parents should ask themselves if their Indigenous colleagues are being discriminated against in the workplace.
The TRC gave Canadians—Indigenous, non-Indigenous, settler and settler descendants—an important mission. It’s not supposed to be easy to work together as people of many different nations, races and beliefs to change the colonial foundations of this country. Land acknowledgements are just one small step we can take to honour that healing—they’re not meant to erase oppression. It’s going to take many steps, walking together, but it’s important to remember that every step counts.