Today, the Canadian Association of University Teachers released a “Guide to Acknowledging Traditional Territory”. The document lists Canada’s universities and the traditional Indigenous territories on which each resides. It can be found here: Guide to Acknowledging Traditional Territories.
What are your thoughts on this? Do you practice this type of acknowledgment? Do you find initiatives such as these helpful? Do you have issues with it? While its writers might be well-informed and intend this as a helpful resource, I think that the uptake of these standard acknowledgments will result in creating space for continued complacency while allowing universities to relate such initiatives to key performance indicators about Aboriginal relations in their reporting.
On the one hand, I think it’s useful for people to have this as a small first-step in what should be an ongoing process of uncovering, recovering, and discovering all that we/settlers have erased through the formation of the Canadian state/institutions. I know that, as a settler who has only developing knowledge of her own ancestral settlement history on Turtle Island, let alone the complex history of the Canadian state, being given a list of traditional territories initially and intuitively feels helpful.
On the other hand, I’ve witnessed enough criticism of this and similar acknowledgment-based practices by both Indigenous and non-Indigenous peoples to take a second pass at the implications of this. What are my motivations for wanting or finding this guide or any other ready-made acknowledgment helpful? Are they first and foremost to not look ill-informed? To avoid criticism? To do things ‘properly’? To shut down difficult discussions? To be respectful? To fulfill what I think is expected of me? Is my motivation to learn deeply about these lands and my current and historical place on them?
I worry about the work that has been done for us, here. I take issue with the institutional standardization and expectation of these acknowledgments. It is important for people to do their own searching and learning. It is especially important to find a way of connecting with the past and present in ways that are personally meaningful and powerful. While this might seem like a statement of ideals or principles, I mean it in material and personal terms.
How much time would it take for someone to search the traditional territory of a given place today? Assume that I am someone who doesn’t know what traditional territory I am on and am new to this practice of acknowledgment. Let’s add Ottawa to this example as well. Suppose that I’m going to give public talks at Carleton and Ottawa Universities and will be chairing a committee meeting at Saint Paul University, later today. How long would it take me to find this information? I’ll actually do it now… In 18 seconds (yes, I timed it), I came up with these results and skimmed them without clicking on them:
If I were just about to give a talk, lecture or chair a meeting at any of these universities, and if I had 18 seconds to spare, I could learn that “The entire Ottawa Valley is Algonquin traditional territory…”. So, without knowing anything else, I could rush into my talk and begin by saying: “I would like to acknowledge that I am on the traditional territory of the Algonquin”. Some might groan at this, some might feel that was great to do, some might not understand, some might not care, some might correct this person. The only thing missing between my quick search and what is in the Guide is the word “unceded”.
Keeping with the scenario, maybe I’ve heard some people in past talks or meetings use the term “unceded”. Let’s say that I want to be respectful and accurate and I’m not sure if I should use that word. Enter timed Google search #2… I’ll type the following into google: “Is Ottawa unceded territory?” 29 seconds, including a bit more detailed skim-reading but not clicking on any links, came up with this:
So now, if I were just about to give a talk or chair a meeting at any of these universities, and if I had another 29 seconds to spare, I could learn from this first page on google, without clicking on any links, that “The agreed upon fact is that Ottawa and much of Eastern Ontario sits on unceded Algonquin land” or that “Ottawa area … on unceded and unsurrendered Algonquin territory”.
Maybe I’m belabouring the point, but a total of 47 seconds of Google search yielded my ability to speak the words given to me by the Guide without actually knowing anything about it: “We [I] would like to begin by acknowledging that the land on which we gather is the traditional unceded Algonquin territory”. In both cases, whether I take these words from a 47 second Google search or by referencing the Guide, I know nothing about what this actually means or why I’m saying it at all other than it is respectful to do so.
My point is not to deride the work or intentions that have gone into this initiative, although I admit that it seems so right now, I’m sure. I respect that CAUT struck a working group and assume that Indigenous representatives in each of these territories had direct input on its content and final say on the document. I’m certain they did not put seconds of internet search engine work into this, as I just did. I also appreciate that the CAUT acknowledges this as a beginning and “encourages Academic staff associations to reach out to local Aboriginal communities to open pathways for dialogue”.
But, what is the substance of this practice of acknowledgment when it has been handed to us? Where is the integrity in speaking words about which we have very little or no understanding? Where is the inspiration or incentive for those who don’t care about the injustices that Indigenous peoples fight strongly against every day – to now give a damn? How can, might or do initiatives such as these advance justice for Indigenous peoples on their own terms?
One thing that Indigenous communities regularly charge Canadian institutions and leaders with are empty words –and rightly so. This is often in terms of making false promises with no or partial substantive follow-through. When spoken by persons such as the one I’ve used in my example above, or worse, by people who don’t care and have no intention of further understanding, these acknowledgments are empty words unless followed-through with actions: further investigation and development of knowledge about the traditional territory referenced, one’s history and settlement in the region, listening to the people of that territory, seeking ways to make space in our own communities for those traditional territories to hold weight, just as settler city and province names do as a matter of fact. Otherwise, these acknowledgments serve little else other than courtesies and presentation guidelines alongside wordy PowerPoint dos and don’ts.
I think it’s far more productive to acknowledge, if we’re going to acknowledge anything, what we don’t know. At least then, perhaps we can have some honest conversations. Now that many university departments, administrative centres, professors and students have taken up this practice of territorial acknowledgment as a matter of routine communication practice, wouldn’t it be more powerful to speak the words: “I know that I am supposed to acknowledge that I am on the traditional lands of x, y, and z, but actually, I don’t feel comfortable saying this because I actually know nothing about these peoples, I’ve never met or spoken with anyone from this territory, I know nothing about their history, or what my acknowledgment means in terms of every day life”? Maybe that could inspire post-meeting conversations with real, spontaneous, clumsy, heart-felt, offensive, well-meaning, stepping stone kinds of acknowledgments. Putting oneself in that vulnerable spot and taking on the fear of criticism or judgment in order to learn something can be a very, very powerful and deeply personal motivator to learn more. Acknowledgments that are rooted in violence and oppression should never be standardized practice or instrumentally administered.