During the opening ceremony for the North American Indigenous Games (NAIG) on Sunday evening, organizers will honour and acknowledge the Aboriginal homelands on which the games are taking place.

It's a tradition that has dated back centuries for Indigenous people, but for many non-Indigenous Canadians, officially recognizing the territory or lands we stand on is a fairly new concept. 

However, it's one that many Indigenous people say marks a small but essential step toward reconciliation. 

"We honour and thank the Huron-Wendat Nation, Metis Nation of Ontario, Mississaugas of the New Credit First Nation, Mississaugas of Scugog Island First Nation and Six Nations of the Grand River as our community partners and traditional inhabitants of the lands of the City of Toronto, Region of Hamilton, Durham Region and surrounding areas," reads the acknowledgement, which is published on the official NAIG website

What is a territorial or land acknowledgement?

A territorial or land acknowledgement is an act of reconciliation that involves making a statement recognizing the traditional territory of the Indigenous people who called the land home before the arrival of settlers, and in many cases still do call it home. 

For example, at the beginning of the city of Toronto's city council meeting, the speaker acknowledges the meeting space as "the traditional territory of the Mississaugas of New Credit First Nation, the Haudenosaunee, the Huron-Wendat and home to many diverse Indigenous peoples."

The acknowledgement is increasingly being used at other civic events, the city says.  

Karyn Recollet is an urban Cree woman and an associate professor at the University of Toronto's Women and Gender Studies Institute.

She says it is important to see the territorial acknowledgement as an activation of Indigenous culture. 

"To think about land activation and land acknowledgement is to remember that there are these rich Indigenous governances that still exist, that are ongoing and that will go into the future," she said.

Karyn Recollet

'Acknowledging relationships to space and place is an ancient Indigenous practice that flows into the future,' says Karyn Recollet is an urban-Cree woman. (Karyn Recollet)

What is its purpose? 

"Its purpose is to recognize that we, as settlers and as people who are not part of First Nations or Indigenous groups, are here on their land," said Alison Norman, a research adviser in the Ontario Ministry of Indigenous Relations and Reconciliation and a researcher at Trent University. 

Norman says land acknowledgements have become increasingly common in non-Indigenous spaces in the last few years, especially since the Truth and Reconciliation Commission (TRC) on residential schools released its 94 calls to action in 2015. 

"Many organizations, libraries, governments and school boards are all thinking about what we need to do to respond to the TRC," she said. "It's about thinking about what happened in the past and what changes can be made going forward in order to further the reconciliation process."

Craig Waboose

A lot of people are unaware of Canada's actual history and this gets people talking and conversations starting, says Craig Waboose, who belongs to the Eabametoong First Nation in northern Ontario. (Craig Waboose)

Craig Waboose, who belongs to the Eabametoong First Nation in northern Ontario, is working with Toronto city councilor Mary-Margaret McMahon to help "Indigenize" city hall and implement the TRC calls to action. 

"A lot of people are unaware of Canada's actual history and this gets people talking and conversations starting," he said. "Personally I feel like I can have a conversation about who I am, where I'm from and what I'm doing in the city."

How long have territorial acknowledgements existed?

Territorial acknowledgements have existed for hundreds of years as part of many Indigenous cultures. 

"When we talk about the newness of territorial acknowledgements, these aren't new. Acknowledging relationships to space and place is an ancient Indigenous practice that flows into the future," said Recollet.  

"What we see as concrete, what we see as the CN tower, as buildings, these are all places that have been prayed for, that have been gathering places for ceremonies and I think it is important to remember that." 

How is it determined who is acknowledged?

The city of Toronto's acknowledgement was decided on by the Aboriginal Affairs Advisory Committee in 2013-14 and finalized in March 2014. 

The city consulted with all three of the communities recognized in the acknowledgement — the Mississaugas of the New Credit First Nation, the Haudenosaunee (Six Nations or Iroquois Confederacy) and the Huron-Wendat.

"It's complicated history, which makes it difficult and important to get it right," said Norman, who also acted as a researcher for the TRC. "In Toronto we've had many Indigenous people who have lived here, called this territory home and passed through here."

For those organizing a community event or wanting to get the acknowledgement right, Norman recommends looking at what bigger organizations, universities and governments, that have consulted heavily with an Indigenous advisory panel, have done.

What does the acknowledgement mean to Indigenous people and communities?

"It reminds us we are accountable to these relationships and to remind us every day, for example in school systems, of the accountability that everybody has to listen to the concerns of the community and how we can align to our [Indigenous] community," said Recollet. 

"It shows that people are willing to hear you out as an Indigenous person, and they recognize that your culture and your past really means a lot," said Waboose. 

What does the acknowledgement mean to non-Indigenous communities?

"It certainly isn't enough but it is a necessary first step," said Norman. "It needs to be the beginning of a learning process."

Norman said for people who want to take steps to reconciliation, the acknowledgement should lead to more questions about who the people listed in the acknowledgement are and how their land came to be possessed by settlers. 

"It also needs to be personal," she said. "We have to ask, 'How am I benefitting by living on this land that is a traditional territory of Indigenous people?'"