What Land Acknowledgement Is and Isn't
Annie Battiste, a facilitator with the Office of the Treaty Commissioner (OTC), spoke to the PRRC at our February 28th meeting via an online educational session, about the importance of land acknowledgements. The PRRC learned about the history of treaties, the importance of land acknowledgments, and were given information and guidance on how to prepare and properly write them. Land acknowledgements have become a part of many public events and meetings as non-Indigenous and Indigenous people work towards reconciliation.
Annie Battiste’s bio reads that she is named after her maternal grandmother and is a proud Mi’kmaw woman and member of Potlotek First Nation situated in Unama’ki (Cape Breton, Nova Scotia). She is a certified teacher, holding a bachelor’s degree and a master’s degree in Educational Foundations from the University of Saskatchewan. Annie was the Indigenous Relations Director at Big Brothers, Big Sisters of Saskatchewan and although she is now working in Nova Scotia, she is still available through the Speakers Bureau of the Office of the Treaty Commissioner. Her work as a Reconciliation Consultant in anti-racism, treaty education, and Indigenous education has been mostly within educational institutions and non-profits. She is committed to social justice and improving treaty relationships within Indigenous and non-Indigenous organizations through deep reflection on their historical roots of Canada and its possibilities for new directions in empowerment of diverse groups and peoples.
The OTC adopted the phrase, ‘We are all treaty people’ because the Treaties were meant to be an agreement of relationship between First Nations and settlers. They were negotiated to permit the sharing of lands and resources and the writing of the Treaties was to place the relationship between Indigenous and non-Indigenous people in a legal context non-Indigenous societies understood. Indigenous cultures already understood the making and keeping of peace treaties, as they were part of their social order for millennia. Europeans were more familiar with conquering via war rather than a peaceful negotiation. One cannot understand the importance of land acknowledgement without understanding the concept of treaties. Treaties were agreements between two sovereign nations, meant to be living permanent agreements which benefitted both parties and allowed both to co-exist in the same space. Reconciliation is the modern enactment of the Treaty agreements.
A treaty is much more than its written words. It is inherently a complex relationship involving peoples, histories and physical land. The written record of these treaties is like that part of the iceberg visible above the water and there is so much more than what is visible. To fully understand the Treaties, one has to realize that there is no book or record that can be pulled out of a library to read and learn from. It involves coming to understand what all the different parties involved or impacted by the Treaty understand that treaty to be. The written component of the Treaties is in some instances almost an anecdotal record that a treaty was agreed upon. The whole treaty also includes and is influenced by the understanding of the Treaty by the creators or writers, the First Nations peoples, the Treaty Commissioner and even the settlers.
Battiste stated that treaties between Indigenous people and non-Indigenous people are the building blocks of modern Canada, entered to benefit both parties. For the settlers, the treaties provided peaceful access to lands taken up for farming and railways, allowed for peaceful settlement of the west, prevented costly wars, and prevented American expansion northward. For the Indigenous peoples, the perceived benefits of the treaties were the chance to learn new skills that the settlers brought with them, the maintenance of peace and order with all peoples, the promise of enriched livelihoods and the continuation of those livelihoods, and food security for their families and communities.
In this era of reconciliation, land or treaty acknowledgements are political statements meant to recognize First Nations, Inuit, and Métis territory, however many Indigenous people argue they've grown to become superficial and performative. It only becomes meaningful when coupled with an authentic relationship and informed action. They should not be copied and pasted statements that are read to ‘tick off’ another box on a to-do list, but rather should be meaningful personal commitments. It’s like, for Christians, reciting the Lord’s Prayer without ever thinking what it means and what is being said or following it with action. Words without actions are meaningless.
We know that Columbus did not discover the Americas, nor did the other European seafarers who preceded him. This land was—and still is—already inhabited for well over 10,000 years by thriving traditional territories and bands of Indigenous people. A Land Acknowledgement, therefore, is a formal statement that recognizes the unique and enduring relationship that exists between Indigenous Peoples and their traditional territories and commemorates the fact that Indigenous people have not and cannot be erased. It recognizes the continued oppression, land dispossession, and involuntary removals of hundreds of Indigenous tribes over a relatively short period of time. Land acknowledgements are the stepping stones in the rebuilding of the treaty relationship. Associate Professor in the Department of History at the University of Toronto Heidi Bohaker said, “Really this is a country built by treaty… there were no wars of conquest. It’s a negotiated place.” Most Canadians actually live in a treaty area and where they do not, they are living on unceded Indigenous lands. Most of northeast Saskatchewan is on Treaty 6, with a slice by the Manitoba border belonging to Treaty 5 and the area around the Quill Lakes being part of Treaty 4. And it would be remiss to not mention that Wakaw, the RM of Fish Creek and the RM of St. Louis are located in the heartland of the Metis peoples.
A land acknowledgement can be simple or complex, Battiste explained. They should aim to acknowledge the peoples who live on the land the event takes place on, to celebrate the treaties that aimed to provide a framework on how settlers and Indigenous people could live toward in perpetuity and provide a steppingstone for reconciliation. In Saskatchewan, it could be as simple as acknowledging the numbered treaty relating to the land, as well as acknowledging the Métis people. Territorial acknowledgements have existed for hundreds of years as part of many Indigenous cultures. Acknowledging relationships to space and place is an ancient Indigenous practice that flows into the future. For non-Indigenous communities, land acknowledgment is a powerful way of showing respect and honoring the Indigenous Peoples of the land on which we work and live and is a simple way of resisting the erasure of Indigenous histories and working towards honouring and inviting the truth, but it also needs to be personal. We have to ask, 'How do I/we benefit by living on this land that is a traditional territory of Indigenous people?' and ‘What can I/we do to facilitate reconciliation?’ You can have the nicest, most beautiful and most respectful land acknowledgment of all time, but if you have no actions to back up your words, then why are you bothering? If you're going to say in your land acknowledgment that you want better relations, then you need to be able to prove your words and be able to show how you are moving toward that.
Following Battiste’s presentation, PRRC members were given the opportunity to try writing our own treaty land acknowledgements and sharing them to get feedback from Annie. It can be difficult to not get caught up in ‘ticking off’ those boxes and in trying to use the ‘correct’ formula. The eagerness to “do it right”, can result in a lengthy, unwieldy statement. I found myself in this very position, where everything I wrote was something I felt and wanted to say. It can be difficult to refine and edit something that is so personal, but perhaps that initial statement can serve as a personal statement of acknowledgement. Writers know that not everything that is written needs to be shared. Somethings are written out of introspection, where beliefs and musings are committed to paper to expose them to the individual's own personal critique. The lengthy acknowledgement can then be the basis for a public statement for self, business, or organization.
Following the educational session, discussion turned to the upcoming educational conference. Our Educational Gathering will take place at the Ramada Inn, Saskatoon, SK on March 15, 2023, from 9:00 am to 4:00 pm and will feature presentations representing the four sections of the holistic Medicine Wheel model.
This is the 5th year that PRRC is filling an under-met need; a rural, public, cost-free, safe space to learn about reconciliation and what it means for the people who share this land as neighbors. The Rural Reconciliation Educational Gatherings aim to bring neighbours together to learn about and discuss reconciliation topics with community always at the heart of our event.
As the PRRC, we see Saskatchewan’s Prairie Rivers region as the land around and between the north and south Saskatchewan Rivers. The significant shared history of this area cannot be understated, and the PRRC is committed to creating inclusive communities through education and relationship building. We are proud to be one of the leading and most active reconciliation circles in a network of ten reconciliation circles across Saskatchewan. Communities represented on PRRC include Aberdeen, Duck Lake, Hepburn, Martensville, Mistawasis Nêhiyawak, One Arrow First Nation, Osler, Rosthern, Wakaw, and
Warman, and are always growing. Monthly meetings are held, consisting of both a formal and educational component, and the PRRC offers support for member-organized reconciliation events within members’ home communities.
Carol Baldwin, Local Journalism Initiative Reporter, Wakaw Recorder