Whose land is it anyway?

By: on June 22, 2018 |

This column will not begin with an acknowledgement that readers are on Treaty Land. Or that this is the traditional territory of various Indigenous tribes. Or that that the rest of us are merely guests of the Original owners of this land.

I don’t make visitors stand in the doorway while I list off the names of all the families who’ve previously owned my house before welcoming them in. That would be tedious and irrelevant. Why do it in public on a bigger scale?

And yet land acknowledgement statements have become accepted practice before classes, city council meetings, concerts, sporting events, church services, conferences and all other manner of public gatherings. It’s almost as if the country as acquired a second, tuneless, national anthem.

If this practice is meant to promote greater understanding between Indigenous peoples and the rest of Canada, it’s not working. Instead these statements are creating confusion and conflict. They’re also rife with historical inaccuracies.

The current popularity of these statements can be seen as a sign many non-natives are keen to show they care about Indigenous issues. Paying homage to native stewardship of the land seems like a nice, polite and very Canadian thing to do. The Winnipeg Jets, for example, open every home game with an acknowledgement that they play on “Treaty 1 land.” Regardless of intent or symbolism, however, such claims can have practical implications.

For example, during the Jets’ exciting run through the Stanley Cup playoffs this spring, native grandmother Gerry Shingoose caused a fracas at one of Winnipeg’s famous ‘Whiteout’ street parties by taking the hockey team’s pre-game acknowledgement literally. Standing on a sidewalk inside the designated party area, Shingoose was asked to move onto the street since city regulations required the sidewalks to be kept clear at all times. She refused. “I can stand anywhere. This is Treaty 1 territory,” she defiantly told security personnel as she filmed herself with a cellphone. “No it’s not,” exasperated staff responded. Shingoose stood her ground. “This is Indigenous land,” she repeated determinedly. “This is Treaty 1 territory.”

The numbered treaties of the Canadian West were contractual arrangements between the Canadian government and many Indigenous tribes. In exchange for compensation in various forms, natives on the Prairies did “cede, release, surrender and yield up to Her Majesty the Queen and successors forever all the lands” described by the document, with a remainder set aside for reserves. This was a mutually-agreed-upon process no different from buying a house today; land was exchanged for certain considerations, all sales final.

Shingoose was eventually dragged off by police, her claim to traditional ownership of Winnipeg’s sidewalks notwithstanding. But the notion that she has the right to stand wherever she wants in the city because she’s on “treaty land” is certainly not without argument, considering the prominence this exact claim is given prior to every Jets home game, as well as before countless other public meetings and events across Canada. Repeat something often enough and people start believing it’s true.

Indigenous Canadians receiving treaty money, 1930. (Image: Library and Archives Canada / MIKAN 3348407).

What the Shingoose affair reveals in miniature is the enormous and very problematic cultural difference in meaning given to these ubiquitous land acknowledgement statements. Non-natives tend to see them as an entirely figurative act meant as a demonstration of concern. On the other hand, many natives interpret these statements as concrete proof they retain some sort of residual moral or legal right to territory their ancestors long ago sold to the rest of Canada.

Such a massive gap in perception will eventually lead to a reckoning, warns Frances Widdowson, an academic at Mount Royal University in Calgary and outspoken critic of land acknowledgement statements on campus and elsewhere. “What happens ten years down the road when some Indigenous people suggest it’s time we start paying rent on this land, given that we’ve admitted over and over again that it isn’t really ours?” she asks in an interview. It’s a good question. Widdowson rightly warns this confusion is “leading to resentment, not reconciliation.”

Land acknowledgement statements are also becoming a way to control legitimate debate and compel speech. When giving a talk at another university, Widdowson was told that, as a guest on Indigenous land, she could only say things her ‘hosts’ agreed with.

And following a recent vote by the Ontario Medical Association that rejected making land acknowledgements prior to their meetings as a meaningless form of tokenism. Dr. Nel Wieman, president of the Indigenous Physicians Association of Canada, instantly denounced the decision as proof that “privilege and racism” were running rampant throughout the doctors’ group. Once upon a time you had to do something explicitly racist to be declared one. Now anyone who chooses not to fall in line with current political fashion can be smeared with this horrible epithet.

Finally, as with the mischaracterization of “treaty land” as a legally meaningful concept, land acknowledgment statements elsewhere in Canada also fail as honest history.

I live in Waterloo, in southwestern Ontario, where the standard pre-event acknowledgement claims we’re on the “traditional territory of the Anishinaabe, Neutral and Haudenosaunee peoples.” Not exactly.

The Haudenosaunee (also known as the Iroquois Confederacy) currently in the Grand River area of southwestern Ontario traditionally lived in New York state. During the American Revolution, Chief Joseph Brant and his Mohawk warriors fought as allies of the British. When that ended in defeat, Brant asked the British Crown to relocate his people to more congenial surroundings.

So in 1784, Governor-General Frederick Haldimand bought a tract of land ten kilometres wide on either side of the Grand River from the Mississauga people (members of the Anishinaabe group), as a new home for the Haudenosaunee. Brant and his 2,000 followers showed up around the same time as many white loyalist refugees were also making their way to southwestern Ontario to claim similar British land grants. As such, they are no more ‘traditional’ owners of the land than anyone else living on land bought from someone else.

The Mississauga had held sovereignty over the Grand River area since 1700, but “did grant, bargain, sell, alien, release and confirm unto His said Majesty” the entire tract for £1,180. Again, this was an outright land sale no different from Prairie treaty negotiations, or selling your house today.

As for the Neutral tribes, they were indeed the original residents of the Grand River area. But we know very little about them today because they were wiped out during a devastating series of native wars in southwestern Ontario that erupted long before any European settlers arrived.

A truthful land acknowledgement claim would thus have to acknowledge that the original owners of the land had it stolen from them by other Indigenous tribes, who have been squatting on it ever since, along with the rest of us settlers.

Further, it is often pointed out that Indigenous groups today control a mere sliver of the original 385,000 hectares of the Haldimand Tract; the implication being that Brant’s descendants were swindled out of their birthright. And while the details of this land deal are endlessly complicated, it is important to note that Brant had always intended – with backing from hereditary chiefs − to sell off large chunks of the land to attract white settlers into his new territory for, in the words of Brant himself, “the purposes of making roads, raising provisions and teaching us the benefits of agriculture.”

Brant sold the land because he wanted to bring white and native societies closer together; and in doing so, give his people the opportunity to learn and prosper from Western culture and technology. Maybe someday we’ll get around to acknowledging that.


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About Peter Shawn Taylor

Peter Shawn Taylor is editor-at-large for Maclean’s magazine.