A billboard-size highway sign that highlights the province’s rich Mi’kmaq heritage stands along the Trans-Canada Highway near Amherst, N.S. on Monday, Jan. 14, 2019. THE CANADIAN PRESS/Andrew Vaughan

OPINION: The smoke and mirrors of indigenous acknowledgments

We want action, we get nothing more than box-ticking

A sort of tuneless anthem has taken root in Canada, as it has become widely accepted that prior to everything from government meetings to hockey games, we are subjected to an acknowledgment that participants are on the traditional, unceded land of various Indigenous peoples.

And in today’s politically correct climate, only a few people have raised their voice to question the practice.

Advocates of the land acknowledgments argue that the recitations are an honest and historically accurate way to recognize the traditional First Nations of a place. They say that the practice commemorates Indigenous people’s principal kinship to the land and keeps the spirit of reconciliation alive.

Hmm … I wonder.

At a recent municipal council meeting, I heard the mayor express gratitude for the First Nation of the region for “sharing their land with us for these many centuries,” and, being a writer, it got me considering some analogies.

I considered how I would feel if my car was stolen and the thief left me a note, assuring me that every time he gunned the engine he’d make a point of reciting a thank you for my “sharing” my classic Impala with him.

I doubt that it would make me feel any better about my transit pass.

And my cynicism isn’t unique.

Frances Widdowson, a Mount Royal University professor, says the reality is that the lands will never be handed back to Indigenous peoples and she calls the acknowledgments nothing more than smoke and mirrors.

“What happens 10 years down the road when some Indigenous people suggest it’s time that we start paying rent on the land, given that we’re admitted over and over again that it isn’t really ours?” she asked.

It’s a good question. I doubt we’ll be writing any cheques.

Another argument supporting territorial acknowledgements points out that they have existed for hundreds of years as part of many Indigenous cultures. That may be, but I doubt that many schools, town councils, or hockey coaches have brought in an elder to speak about this topic.

I was certainly never taught about the practice. The recitations just started happening after the Truth and Reconciliation Commission released its 2015 report on the devastating legacy of forced assimilation and abuse left by the residential school system.

So, let’s have a reality check.

That report listed 94 calls to action based on its findings. Almost five years have passed and at last count only 10 have resulted in actual action.

And therein lies the problem.

Territorial acknowledgments are an exercise in box-ticking. It’s a way of making white society feel better about things in the face of political hypocrisy, unfulfilled promises, and meaningless rhetoric aimed at First Nations.

Worse, the empty gesture presents the danger that we all get a wee bit desensitized to the real problems facing our First Nations, letting us feel good about ourselves without having to do anything to solve those problems.


Tim Collins is a Sooke News Mirror reporter.


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