A history of the Juno Awards' most powerful, non-musical moment: treaty acknowledgements

It’s a practice that began in 2016, and moved to the broadcast with Buffy Sainte-Marie's stirring words a year later

A practice that began in 2016, they moved to the show with Buffy Sainte-Marie's stirring words a year later

Elisapie delivers the land acknowledgement at the 2019 Juno Awards, held at Budweiser Gardens in London, Ont., on March 17, 2019. (Lars Hagberg/AFP via Getty Images)

The 2020 Junos have been cancelled since this article was first published.

When New Zealand filmmaker Taika Waititi introduced the winners of the Academy Awards' honorary prizes in February 2020, he did something that had never yet taken place on the Oscars broadcast: he acknowledged the ancestral lands on which Hollywood is built.

"The academy would like to acknowledge that tonight we have gathered on the ancestral lands of the Tongva, the Tataviam, and the Chumash," the filmmaker said. "We acknowledge them as the first peoples of this land on which our motion pictures community lives and works."

Waititi went on to win for best adapted screenplay for his film Jojo Rabbit, becoming the first filmmaker of Maori descent to win an Oscar. It also made Waititi the first Indigenous nominee to win a competitive Oscar since 1982 — when Buffy Sainte-Marie took home the award for best original song for An Officer and a Gentleman's "Up Where we Belong."

Thirty-five years after winning that Oscar, Sainte-Marie would become the first person to give a treaty acknowledgement at the Juno Awards, on its live broadcast. (Three years before Waititi would appear to do the same at the Oscars, and still pending on when the Grammy Awards will incorporate one into their ceremonies.)

Treaty and territory acknowledgements have existed in Indigenous cultures for centuries, and have only more regularly been used by settler populations in the last decade as a means of reconciliation, particularly in Canada since the Truth and Reconciliation Commission released its 94 calls to action in 2015. The acknowledgements are a way to recognize the traditional territory of and treaties with Indigenous peoples, who called the unsurrendered land home long before settlers did.

"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," Alison Norman, a research adviser in the Ontario Ministry of Indigenous Relations and Reconciliation and a researcher at Trent University, told CBC News in 2017.

It's a living speech that continues to experience growing pains. Last year, Pride Toronto apologized for releasing a land acknowledgement that failed to recognize any Indigenous communities at all. "Take a moment to connect to the land that you are currently standing on," it read. "Now introduce yourself spiritually; build a relationship with Mother Earth that provides for all our relations." (Specifically, Toronto is on the traditional territory of several nations, including the Mississaugas of the Credit, the Anishinaabe, the Haudenosaunee and the Wendat peoples.)

This year marks the Juno Awards' fourth airing of a treaty acknowledgement on air. Below, we look at the award show's brief history of acknowledgements  and you can learn what words Saint-Marie chose to use in the place of the script she was given.

2016: Calgary 

Elder Fred Eagletail delivered the Juno Awards' first treaty acknowledgement at the Chair's Reception, a private event. 

2017: Ottawa

The first treaty acknowledgement to appear on the Juno Awards broadcast was done by Buffy Sainte-Marie, as she opened the awards by recognizing "the unsurrendered territory of the Algonquin Anishinaabe nation."

The first televised land acknowledgment at the Junos | Junos Vault

4 years ago
Duration 0:53
2017 marked the first year The JUNO Awards included a treaty acknowledgment in its live television broadcast. Discover the history of these powerful, non-musical moments at the Junos: https://www.cbc.ca/1.5488233

It wasn't a smooth road to this acknowledgement, though. In a 2018 interview with the Georgia Straight, Sainte-Marie explained how she scrapped the original script and made her own.

"They asked me to start the Junos off by saying, 'We are here tonight on the unceded territory of the Algonquin people, who have been here for millennia,'" she said. "And I wouldn't read it. The Junos, they handed me the script, and I said, 'No, no, no. We've got to change this.'"

"The word 'unceded' is lawyer talk," she explained. "I consider it lawyerese, and it trips up the listener or the reader. It stops you for a second, for a crucial second. Unceded. That means you don't have a chair? Does that mean you're in a tennis match but you didn't qualify? And millennia? Who the f--k says 'millennia', unless you're on television and trying to sound important? So I changed it. I said 'the unsurrendered territory,' and I said 'who have been taking care of this land for thousands and thousands and thousands of years'. It's a huge difference, whether you go along with the lawyer talk that comes down from government, or whether you have the f--king guts to stand up for people talking to people."

Sainte-Marie's acknowledgement was followed by a powerful opening medley by A Tribe Called Red, Tanya Tagaq and drum group Black Bear Singers, which they kicked off with a spoken-word piece by late Native American activist, author and poet John Trudell. 

2018: Vancouver

The Jerry Cans' Nancy Mike delivered the Vancouver land acknowledgement in Inuktitut, before she began throat-singing to kick off the song "Northern Lights" with her band (and backup singers that included current Juno nominee Riit). Mike's bandmate, Andrew Morrison, had a plain, black-on-white sticker on his guitar for the band's two performances: "Justice for Colten and Tina," it said.   

Here is the acknowledgement in full:

(We are thankful) 
Nunasinni tammani 
(to be here on the land of) 
Musquem, Sqaumish, and tsleilwatuth 
(Musquem, Sqaumish, and tsleilwatuth) 
(First Nations) 
(unceded traditional territory) 
Tungasuppugut Tammani 
(We are welcomed here) 
(We acknowledge being welcomed)

2019: London, Ont.

Salluit, Quebec-born and Montreal-based singer-songwriter Elisapie delivered the 2019 acknowledgement live on the broadcast, beginning with a stirring poem in Inuktitut, which is also the intro to her video for "Arnaq." The English translation of the poem was posted on a screen behind her:

I am a woman.
I give you life.
I give you love.
So you can give it in return.
It becomes your mirror.
Never forget where you're from.
I'm a woman.

The poem blended seamlessly into the English-language treaty acknowledgement. "I would like to begin by acknowledging the treaty territory of the Anishinaabe, which is defined within the pre-confederation treaty known as the London Township Treaty of 1796. Throughout time, this region has also become the current home to the Haudenosaunee and Lenni Lenape nations."

Elisapie delivers the Treaty Acknowledgment | Juno Awards 2019

5 years ago
Duration 1:22
Elisapie delivers the Treaty Acknowledgment at the 2019 Juno Awards.

2020: Saskatoon

We don't yet know who's going to deliver the acknowledgement for the Juno Awards broadcast on March 15, but there is an approved land acknowledgement, developed by the University of Saskatchewan council, that will be used at smaller events. 

When spoken, it will be: "As we gather here today, we acknowledge we are on Treaty 6 territory and the homeland of the Métis. We pay our respect to the First Nations and Métis ancestors of this place and reaffirm our relationship with one another."

When in print, it will be: "We acknowledge we are on Treaty 6 territory and the homeland of the Métis. We pay our respect to the First Nations and Métis ancestors of this place and reaffirm our relationship with one another."

There will also be a private ceremony honouring "the Indigenous nominees and culture," according to Canadian Academy of Recording Arts and Sciences. The 2020 event, which takes place every year now, will be on Friday, March 13, and will be hosted by the Treaty 6 nations. It will include performances by local artists, drummers and singers of the Treaty 6 territory, and Indigenous Juno nominees.