When territorial acknowledgments were first included in events organized by settler communities, they were powerful statements of the ongoing presence of Indigenous people and of Indigenous history, surprising and maybe even unwelcome, in settler spaces. They were intended to provoke questions and recentre Indigenous ways of being and thinking.
Why is this important?
Indigenous Peoples have been clear that all Indigenous economic, social, cultural, political and civil rights derive from their connection to and use of lands, waters and territories. This means that unlike settler Canadian understandings of land rights as being merely connected to individual freedoms and economic production or assets, Indigenous understandings of land rights relate territory to self-determination, identity, spirituality and religion, language, culture and collective responsibilities.
Once this difference of perspective is recognized it is easy to see why displacement, forced relocation, the Indian Residential Schools, the reserve system, and so many other policies of the Canadian government have devastated Indigenous communities and yet settler Canadians do not always see how they have contributed to the genocide perpetrated against Indigenous Peoples.
As part of organizing and activism, an evolving practice of acknowledgment can contribute to addressing settler colonialism and build better relationships with Indigenous Peoples creating a more just society.
Create a practice of acknowledgement
Acknowledging territory is the process of deliberately naming that this is Indigenous land and water and specific Indigenous Peoples have inherent rights in the territory. It provides an opportunity for all of us to reflect on our relationship with the land and our contributions to the ongoing process of colonization that deeply roots activist work.
Ask yourselves, “Why”
Why acknowledge territory in the first place? As this practice generally happens in only urban settings, it is worth asking, “who are we thinking of?” Is there inclusion of urban Indigenous populations? Or are rural and remote First Nations, Métis, and Inuit communities the only understanding held? Have we reached out to and included our Indigenous neighbours and community members to build meaningful reciprocal relationships?
Take the time to think about why it is important for you or your group to acknowledge the land and waters and what your relationship is with the territory you are on (are you Indigenous, are you settlers, have you come here as a refugee?). Explain why you believe it is important to acknowledge the land. This is a powerful moment that could be used to elevate Indigenous society, governance, and jurisdiction and reaffirm that territory was never given over to the Canadian State. If we think of territorial acknowledgments as sites of potential disruption, they can be transformative acts that could be used to recentre Indigenous ways of being.
Name the Indigenous territories you are currently on
It is important to recognize that territorial acknowledgments are not always clear, particularly when there are competing Indigenous claims to a specific area. This is due to the history of colonization. In some locations, settlers prioritizing one single nation can contribute to silencing local Indigenous communities who are addressing historical grievances (mostly caused by the imposition of colonial boundaries and dispossession) and their own knowledge of connection to place.
It is important for you to do your own searching and learning. Merely repeating the names of local Indigenous nations in a sort of before-event check list right after indicating where the toilets are and pointing out the snack table, does not automatically mean that you, your group or your audience understand. Best practices must evolve over time through relationship building, listening and learning, and a commitment to deeper engagement with the purpose and impact of territorial acknowledgments.
We urge you to take some time and learn more about the territories you are living, working and organizing on. Talking to your Indigenous friends, coworkers, and neighbours is the best way to understand the history of the land you are on. These websites can also get you started:
Connect Indigenous rights to the subject matter of your event or meeting or to your activist work in general
Even if we are organizing on issues that are seemingly separate, the struggle for Indigenous rights is deeply connected to all human rights work and residents in Indigenous territories. Take the time to reflect on these systemic connections. If you find it hard to capture the relationship between the issues you are working on in words, you can also speak to how you and your group will continue to support Indigenous rights in your ongoing activist work.
Moving the work we do and our lives beyond simple territorial acknowledgments means asking hard questions about what needs to be done once we are aware of Indigenous presence. We must remain uncomfortable, and make concrete, disruptive change. How can you be in good relationship with Indigenous Peoples, with non-human entities, and with the land and water? Indigenous legal systems, language, culture and other ways of being address all those questions. Building deeply meaningful and reciprocal relationships with your Indigenous neighbours and community members will help you and your group to work towards justice.
Put the answers for the above questions together as a statement
Example: “I acknowledge the traditional, ancestral, unceded territory of the Musqueam, Tsleil-Waututh and Squamish First Nations on which we are learning, working and organizing today. I believe it is important to acknowledge the land because growing up as a settler, I never heard the traditional names of the territories. Indigenous people were talked about in the past tense and all the struggles they faced were in the past tense as well. It is easier to deny Indigenous people their rights if we historicize their struggles and simply pretend they do not exist. As an activist I would like to take this opportunity to commit myself to the struggle against the systems of oppression that have dispossessed Indigenous people of their lands and denied their rights to self-determination, work that is essential to human rights work across the world.”