Blog Post

Truth and Reconcilitation - moving beyond land acknowledgement performances

By: Marco Campana
November 15, 2021

We can and should know whose land we live, work, and play on. And we should acknowledge that when we meet and gather together. But, if you're like me, you may be finding land acknowledgements have become a bit of performance without substance.

As Métis artist and educator Suzanne Keeptwo puts it: "Land Acknowledgements often begin academic conferences, cultural events, government press gatherings, and even hockey games. They are supposed to be an act of Reconciliation between Indigenous peoples in Canada and non-Indigenous Canadians, but they have become so routine and formulaic that they have sometimes lost meaning. Seen more and more as empty words, some events have dropped Land Acknowledgements altogether."

Crafting your land or territorial acknowledgement should be done thoughtfully. The Canada School of Public Service offers a useful overview.

We can and should also go deeper. I wondered, what responsibility do we (our sector) and newcomers have when it comes to truth and reconciliation with Indigenous peoples? Here is my take, and it is evolving. I'm still learning. So what I have here will be imperfect. As I learn, I'll share more here.

Truth and reconciliation and newcomers

The Truth and Reconciliation Commission of Canada provides two specific Calls to Action related to newcomers.

Newcomers to Canada

  1. We call upon the Government of Canada to replace the Oath of Citizenship with the following:
    I swear (or affirm) that I will be faithful and bear true allegiance to Her Majesty Queen Elizabeth II,
    Queen of Canada, Her Heirs and Successors, and that I will faithfully observe the laws of Canada including Treaties with Indigenous Peoples, and fulfill my duties as a Canadian citizen.

This one has been done.

So let's focus on this one:

  1. We call upon the federal government, in collaboration with the national Aboriginal organizations,
    to revise the information kit for newcomers to Canada and its citizenship test to reflect a more
    inclusive history of the diverse Aboriginal peoples of Canada, including information about the
    Treaties and the history of residential schools.

The Welcome to Canada guide was last updated in 2013, so this is still pending. But it looks like work is being done on it.

Fostering Safe Spaces for Dialogue and Relationship-building Between Newcomers and Indigenous Peoples from Immigration Partnership Winnipeg seeks to address this call to action. It is something we all should read. They "suggest several wise practices for the relationship-building process as recommended by participants. In so doing, the report seeks to inform a framework related to the development of an orientation toolkit for newcomers."

The document helps us to see that the work of ensuring newcomers are oriented and informed about Indigenous Peoples is ours as well. It should be included in our information and orientation work with newcomers. We can create our own information kits. And that's exactly what they recommend:

"An orientation toolkit was identified as an essential resource to support agencies serving newcomers. The toolkit
can be used to educate newcomers on Indigenous Peoples and build a positive relationship with Indigenous
communities. Recommendations were specifically taken from participants of this study with the objective to
develop a framework which can inform orientation related work in the settlement sector."

Fostering Safe Spaces for Dialogue and Relationship-building Between Newcomers and Indigenous Peoples from Immigration Partnership Winnipeg

According to this guide, a toolkit should include:

  • History
  • Treaties
  • Stereotypes
  • Positive stories
  • List of resources

You may also wonder how to help newcomers understand how this is important for them. The guide is helpful here as well:

"I have had newcomers ask me: what is it that we have to do… what’s our role in this dialogue?

You may not have responsibility for the past but you do have a responsibility for the future because you made a commitment to this country. And the responsibility for the future is reconciliation. So, that means that you still have to understand what this history is, you have to understand what it has done to this country, you have to understand what it is doing to this country and you have to understand what it will continue to do, unless we change it. And the leadership from those newcomer communities that are occupying more and more leadership positions in government also need to figure out where they fit into that dialogue around change for the future, because they do fit. They are going to be influential leaders of this conversation."

Senator Murray Sinclair

You can also cite newcomer voices themselves. For example:

From Reconciliation in Practice: A Cross-Cultural Perspective Edited by Ranjan Datta

"I see reconciliation as acknowledging the past, respecting the land on which we live, and building relationships based on respect, equity, and inclusivity. I am grateful to live and work on Treaty Six Territory and the Homeland of the Métis and Cree Nations. I stand with our Indigenous sisters and brothers against the injustices and inequalities they continue to face. To me, reconciliation will only work if we acknowledge the truth of the past, build meaningful relationships, and stand with one another against injustices and inequities. The process of reconciliation involves both Canadian society as a whole and all levels of government. Furthermore, it must be nation-to-nation, as our current government promised, and action-based. I acknowledge that there is encouraging work being done toward reconciliation and bettering the conditions in Indigenous communities, yet not much has been achieved thus far. It remains to be seen whether these promises will come to fruition."

Excerpt from chapter author Ali Abukar

Unceded territory

When we hear the words unceded territory in land acknowledgements, do we understand what that means? I didn't really, so I looked for answers.

The short answer is that "territories that were never signed away by the Indigenous people who inhabited them before Europeans settled in North America. In other words, this land was stolen..."

"What to do about it, however, is deeply complex - and legal questions about how to handle claims to unceded land have become a subject of public discussion..."

Of course, we should be listening to Indigenous peoples about this complexity, and what should be done.

The Immigrant Education Society tells us this about Treaties:

Although the Europeans and First Nations signed the same documents, both sides had very different views on what the treaties actually meant.

The First Nations thought that the treaties were a way to establish and maintain good relationships with the new settlers in their land. They believed that the treaties simply gave the settlers some access to the land for farming.

The Europeans believed that the treaties were a way for them to take away the First Nations peoples’ land so they could begin building railroads and larger settlements.

Even if we're not able to resolve the complexities of how the idea of unceded territory is dealt with, we should be aware of the weight of those words when we use them.

Other sector resources

There are a number of other useful and interesting resources created in our sector. Below is a short and incomplete list. Please share yours, or others you know about, in the comments below.

Welcome to our Homelands
"This engaging seven-minute video, accompanied by a study guide, targets newcomers and provides them with a jumping off point for learning more about the First Peoples of Canada. It highlights the richly-diverse cultures and pain-filled history of the Indigenous Peoples of Canada and also features Indigenous representatives from across the country extending welcoming messages to newcomers."

INBUILT93 - Indigenious-Newcomer Engagement
"In response to the Truth and Reconciliation Commission’s Call #93 primarily “calling upon the federal government to advance the knowledge of newcomers to Canada of the diverse Aboriginal peoples of Canada, including information about the Treaties…,” the Saskatchewan Association of Immigrant Settlement and Integration Agencies [SAISIA], the Aboriginal Friendship Centres of Saskatchewan [AFCS] and SaskCulture entered into a partnership agreement to implement a Saskatchewan-wide community engagement project titled INBUILT93 (Indigenous-Newcomer Building Intercultural Learning on Treaties – 93) in 5 Saskatchewan communities : Saskatoon, Regina, Prince Albert, North Battleford, and La Ronge."

Building Indigenous-Newcomer Relations Group on SettleNet.org (free account required)
"The "Building Indigenous-Newcomer Solidarity Group" is open to members interested in sharing resources and information about how to engage with and learn from Indigenous communities as we seek to support newcomers. We are interested in building an online space where we can build solidarity as Indigenous peoples, settlers, and newcomers to Canada."

Bridging the gap between Indigenous people and newcomers on National Newcomer Navigation Network (free account required)
"A trusted list of resources and advice to help you learn more about bridging the gap between Indigenous People and Newcomers" including a webinar recording (Inter-Cultural Dialogue: Bridging the Gap Between Newcomers and Indigenous People), and additional resources.

Truth & Reconciliation Statement from the Bow Valley Immigration Partnership
"We know we have so much to learn, and a land acknowledgment is just the beginning. We bring together people and organizations across the Bow Valley to build a welcoming and inclusive community for all - including newcomers and immigrants. We know it will take more than just one single group or organization to achieve our vision, and we cannot do it without Indigenous communities. We are starting by listening to Indigenous elders and knowledge-keepers. We understand our responsibility to educate ourselves and our members. We have a lot of work to do and acknowledge that along the journey we may make mistakes. The below resources have been recommended to us as a way to learn and act on Truth and Reconciliation in the Bow Valley."

Resources to use in ESL/LINC classrooms

I'm not an ESL teacher, so always appreciate when others share their knowledge. In a LinkedIn thread about this post, a couple of folks shared some great insights, and resources. I'm sure there are more, on sites like Tutela.ca and Avenue.ca (homes for curriculum and sharing among ESL teachers), but wanted to paraphrase their comments and add their resource recommendations here:

  • We should aspire to create in-language resources in the first languages of Newcomers. These could be delivered/shared pre- as well as post-arrival.
  • Sharing on sites like Tutela is OK, but should also be curated and vetted for quality. It would be useful to have the Centre for Canadian Language Benchmarks (CCLB) develop or vet resources, in particular to also align with Citizenship test preparation.
  • In the absence of these resources, we need to continue sharing and curating. Here are a few indigenous resources for children that one organization is using in our program at lower English levels:
    • Fatty Legs - "Traveling to be reunited with her family in the arctic, 10-year-old Margaret Pokiak can hardly contain her excitement. It’s been two years since her parents delivered her to the school run by the dark-cloaked nuns and brothers. Coming ashore, Margaret spots her family, but her mother barely recognizes her, screaming, “Not my girl. ” Margaret realizes she is now marked as an outsider. And Margaret is an outsider: she has forgotten the language and stories of her people, and she can’t even stomach the food her mother prepares. However, Margaret gradually relearns her language and her family’s way of living. Along the way, she discovers how important it is to remain true to the ways of her people—and to herself. Highlighted by archival photos and striking artwork, this first-person account of a young girl’s struggle to find her place will inspire young readers to ask what it means to belong."
    • Sugar Falls - "BASED ON A TRUE STORY* A school assignment to interview a residential school survivor leads Daniel to Betsy, his friend's grandmother, who tells him her story. Abandoned as a young child, Betsy was soon adopted into a loving family. A few short years later, at the age of 8, everything changed. Betsy was taken away to a residential school. There she was forced to endure abuse and indignity, but Betsy recalled the words her father spoke to her at Sugar Falls — words that gave her the resilience, strength, and determination to survive. Sugar Falls is based on the true story of Betty Ross, Elder from Cross Lake First Nation. We wish to acknowledge, with the utmost gratitude, Betty's generosity in sharing her story. A portion of the proceeds from the sale of Sugar Falls goes to support the bursary program for The Helen Betty Osborne Memorial Foundation." The page includes a link to a Teacher's Guide for for the book.
    • A Stranger At Home - "Margaret Olemaun Pokiak-Fenton’s powerful story of residential school in the far North has been reissued to commemorate the memoir’s 10th anniversary with updates to the text, reflections on the book’s impact, and a bonus chapter from the acclaimed follow-up, A Stranger at Home. New content includes a foreword from Dr. Debbie Reese, noted Indigenous scholar and founder of American Indians in Children’s Literature, while Christy Jordan-Fenton, mother of Margaret’s grandchildren and a key player in helping Margaret share her stories, discusses the impact of the book in a new preface."

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