By Guest Contributor: David Carey, MA, ACC
As a professional leadership trainer, it is common practice for my colleague and I to begin our training sessions with a public acknowledgement that we are living and working on unceded Indigenous territory. Although I make this acknowledgement with complete sincerity, it recently struck me that I had never really stopped to consider why this acknowledgement was important. I understood that this declaration was a symbol of my solidarity with Indigenous peoples, but I later understand for solidarity to be genuine it required me to understand these declarations from an Indigenous perspective.
A few months ago, our walking group decided to walk the trails of a small ecological park that charges a nominal entrance fee. One member respectfully declined explaining that the park was on unceded territory and as an Indigenous woman, she refused to pay to access lands that rightfully belonged to her and her people.
As the child of colonizers, I was initially surprised at her response. However, in speaking out, she got me thinking seriously about the issues surrounding unceded lands and helped me to shift my perception about an ongoing oppression I had rarely considered …and I am not alone.
I find that Canadians as a whole have a very limited understanding of why the issue of unceded land continues to take such a significant place in our political discourse. An example of this is a recent controversy involving the Montreal Canadians and their decision to publicly acknowledge that Montreal is on unceded Mohawk lands before their games.
To quote Taylor C. Nokes, Toronto Star October 24th 2021 ‘’the statement (the unceded land acknowledgment) launched hysterical editorials, hours of inane talk radio chatter and the interference of Quebec’s populist right wing government.’’
According to the article the thrust of the argument raised by Québec nationalists against the Canadiens unceded land acknowledgement was that when Samuel Champlain explored the area in 1603 the island seemed to be uninhabited so was declared ‘’Terra Nullas and was free for the taking’’. To couch this argument in modern language, ‘’I came and knocked on your door but as no one was home, so I took possession of your house’’.
Put like that, the argument sounds absurd however it is an argument that is being used to exploit Indigenous peoples all across this country.
This is not a story unique to Quebec. It has been repeated across the country. A December 2021 article by Marianne Conner reveals some surprising statistics: Although Indigenous peoples make up 4.9% of the population of Canada, they currently occupy only 6.3% of the land mass. She highlights nearly all of the
Maritime Provinces, large parts of Ontario and Québec, and 95% of British Columbia are on unceded territory.
Looking at these statistics has brought me new understanding and appreciation for why an Indigenous woman would be resistant to pay to walk on unceded lands. It has also helped me see my pre-training land acknowledgments as extremely important.
Land acknowledgments are more than words to recite; they are a call to action to foster better understanding among those who occupy the land now known as Canada. They are an acknowledgement of an oppressive system that knowingly robs Indigenous peoples access to their birthright. Land acknowledgements are a first step in moving our nation towards truth and reconciliation.
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