Indigenous land acknowledgments alone won't advance reconciliation, say critics

Some Indigenous and non-Indigenous people wonder whether land acknowledgments are beginning to ring hollow when they aren't followed up with further reconciliatory action, not to mention a full understanding of what they mean.

'If we only have scripted statements at events, it becomes just another part of the agenda'

An art installation reading 'As long as the sun shines, the river flows and the grass grows' by Duane Linklater sits atop the MacKenzie Art Gallery in Regina. The phrase was spoken during treaty negotiations with the British Crown. (Penny Smoke/CBC)

This piece was originally published March 28, 2019.

You hear them at artistic performances, before speeches and political events — even before the puck drops.

They're called land acknowledgments: statements made, often by politicians or public officials, recognizing the treaty territory of the Indigenous people who called the land home before the arrival of European settlers, and in many cases still do call it home.

Eleven treaties were signed between First Nations and the Crown between 1871 and 1921, each treaty delineating land deemed to be the traditional territory of the First Nations signing it.

Indigenous land acknowledgments have become common since the Truth and Reconciliation Commission's 94 calls to action were released in 2015, urging all levels of government to change policies and programs in an effort to repair the harm caused by residential schools and move forward with reconciliation.

The Saskatchewan School Boards Association, for instance, uses the following land acknowledgment:

I would like to begin by acknowledging that we are on the traditional lands, referred to as Treaty 4 territory, and that the city of Regina is located on Treaty 4 territory, the original lands of the Cree, Ojibwe, Saulteaux, Dakota, Nakota, Lakota, and on the homeland of the Métis Nation. We respect and honour the treaties that were made on all territories, we acknowledge the harms and mistakes of the past, and we are committed to move forward in partnership with Indigenous Nations in the spirit of reconciliation and collaboration.

But now, some Indigenous and non-Indigenous people are wondering whether land acknowledgments are starting to ring hollow when they aren't followed up with further reconciliatory action, not to mention a full understanding of what they mean.

"[Indigenous] ancestry is rooted deeply in these territories since time immemorial," said Amy Seesequasis at Saskatchewan's Office of the Treaty Commissioner.

"Their contributions to the development of Canada are an integral component to understanding our shared history."

Philip Brass of the Peepeekisis Cree Nation says acknowledging traditional land is 'rooted in a spiritual understanding of spiritual territory.' (Michelle Hugli Brass )

Philip Brass, an Indigenous consultant from the Peepeekisis Cree Nation in Saskatchewan, says they have an even deeper significance.

"From a traditional practice, land acknowledgment for Indigenous people is acknowledging one another's linguistic group's territory," Brass said.

"It's a tradition that is really rooted in a spiritual understanding of spiritual territory, so that's something fundamentally different about what we are seeing today."

Still, he appreciates that when "land acknowledgments are made, they are done in a sincere manner and it's not just scripted." Otherwise, "we risk it actually garnering resentment from Canadian society, [which really doesn't] have an understanding of the historical context."

'They can't be the only thing to do'

But land acknowledgments can't be the only means of reconciliation, Brass says.

"I think it can delay real systemic change in action, which is needed [for] any notions of reconciliation."

Earlier this year, in an interview on CBC Radio's Unreserved, Hayden King, an Anishinaabe writer and educator, expressed regret for writing Ryerson University's territorial acknowledgment. He said a written statement doesn't require much work for those reciting it.

"There should be a meaning behind these statements," said Max FineDay, executive director of Canadian Roots Exchange, a national non-profit that works with youth to advance reconciliation. 

"There should be a sense that you know the meaning behind them. If we only have scripted statements at events, then it becomes just another part of the agenda."

Max FineDay from the Canadian Roots Exchange encourages people to learn about First Nations treaties instead of just acknowledging them verbally at public events. (John Paillé)

"They aren't the wrong thing to do," he said. "It's just that they can't be the only thing to do."

On Monday, the city council of Richmond Hill, Ont., about 30 kilometres north of Toronto, rejected a motion to begin its meetings with an acknowledgment of the area's Indigenous community and history.

The motion was amended to include the creation of a new Indigenous training program that would be available to city employees in place of the land acknowledgment. That motion passed.

FineDay, also a member of the interim National Council on Reconciliation, said it's everyone's responsibility to learn more about the treaties, and that both Indigenous and non-Indigenous people making these acknowledgments need to take action themselves.

"Why wouldn't somebody who's doing a land acknowledgment reflect on what the treaty means to them? You know, think about it, and look up the treaty. If they aren't familiar with it … reflect on what that means to them personally."

Doing more than acknowledging

Regina's Globe Theatre began reciting land acknowledgments before each production soon after the recommendations of the Truth and Reconciliation Commission were released. It also installed a plaque in the lobby with a treaty acknowledgment.

"When the Truth and Reconciliation report came out, we came together as a team and came up with a list of actions that we could take immediately, mid-term and long-term, in order to be engaged in that process of learning, acknowledgment and honouring," said Ruth Smillie, the theatre's artistic director.

More recently, the theatre has focused on training, retaining and developing Indigenous actors and stage hands within its professional actors program. The idea to do so came after a professional acting conservatory program in 2016 graduated only two Indigenous students in a class of 51.

"I thought, 'That isn't good enough,'" Smillie said.

The cast and crew of Regina's Globe Theatre rehearse for the upcoming production of Making Treaty 4, a play the company took on as a way of more meaningfully engaging with Indigenous history. (Submitted by the Globe Theatre)

The theatre has turned its attention to Indigenous storytelling, as well, with productions like Salt Baby, a comedic look at a young woman's struggle to find a place within her culture.

Making Treaty 4, taking the stage in mid-April, explores the historical and contemporary significance of Treaty 4, which encompasses Regina. The Globe Theatre plans to offer counselling and a smudging room for audience members.

"It's important for organizations like us to take to heart the need for the process of dialogue, learning, reconciliation," said Smillie, "and for all of us to be on the path to being true treaty people. All of us."


Penny Smoke


Penny Smoke was born and raised in Saskatchewan. She is of Cree and Saulteax decent from the Treaty 4 area. Penny has worked as a producer with The Afternoon Edition, The Storytelling Project and is currently working with CBC Indigenous. In 2019 Penny was the recipient of the Adrienne Clarkson Diversity Award, both regionally and nationally.