Nfld. & Labrador

Memorial University embracing 'decolonization' by acknowledging Indigenous territory at start of events

Learn why Memorial University faculty and students are making a push towards truth and reconciliation with a short declaration at the start of many campus events.
Catharyn Andersen has been Special Advisor to the President on Indigenous Affairs since 2015. (Heather Barrett/CBC)

Staff and students at Memorial University are striving towards reconciliation with the province's Indigenous population with a short declaration at the start of many on-campus events.

If you've attended anything at MUN so far this school year, you've probably heard it.

"We respectfully acknowledge the territory in which we gather as the ancestral homelands of the Beothuk, and the island of Newfoundland as the ancestral homelands of the Mi'kmaq and Beothuk," the declaration begins.

It also goes on to acknowledge the Inuit and Innu populations as the original inhabitants of Labrador.

Many events at Memorial University are starting with the land acknowledgement — a declaration that campus land sits on Indigenous territory. (CBC)

The statement was drafted in consultation with Aboriginal organizations in the province, according to Catharyn Andersen, MUN president Gary Kachanoski's special advisor on Aboriginal affairs.

Every town in the province has some Aboriginal history, Andersen said, and acknowledging it is a start to improving relationships.

"I think it's important that we put that into our consciousness and remember that," she said. "It's one step and a first step we can all take."

It is a step Ian Sutherland, dean of the music school, was happy to take.

Sutherland read the statement — known as the land acknowledgement — at an event on campus last week.

"It's an extremely important part we play in recognizing that relationship and the nature that relationship has had in the past as we strive to forge reconciliation and truth," he told Weekend AM's Heather Barrett. 

Conversations have flowed from that.- Ian Sutherland, dean of music

While the initiative may be new to some people in Newfoundland and Labrador, it is not a new thing nationwide, said Andersen.

The Canadian Association of University Teachers has a list on its website of land acknowledgements for nearly every university in the country.

The land acknowledgement is a step in "decolonization," Andersen said.

According to Sutherland, it has made people ask questions — not in a judgemental manner, but inquisitive.

Events at Memorial University's School of Music buildings will begin with an acknowledgement of the province's Aboriginal groups. (Todd O'Brien/CBC)

"Conversations have flowed from that, with people wondering, 'What is my responsibility within the call for truth and reconciliation?'"

And while critics might say it's just words, Sutherland believes it still holds power.

"These words carry weight, they carry power when put into action," he said.

Anderson quoted Murray Sinclair, the Canadian senator from Manitoba who chaired the Truth and Reconciliation Commission.

"Education is what got us into this mess, and education is what will get us out."