Last week’s post in recognition of National Indigenous History Month focused on one of the ugliest truths of the Canadian government’s heinous assaults on the Indigenous Peoples, the residential school system. There’s a long list of egregious government policies and failings towards Indigenous Peoples that I could continue with, but instead of going to that dark place, let’s talk about a few of the small but hopefully positive changes that have occurred since the work of the Truth and Reconciliation Commission (TRC) has shone a nationwide light on these issues.
Perhaps foremost, the telling of – and genuine understanding of – Canadian history is being “revised” to include recognition and appreciation of the long history and continuing presence of the Indigenous Peoples of Canada. A few steps are helping. The hope is that this movement keeps gaining momentum.
The introduction of the Land Acknowledgement is one example of a small but meaningful step in raising awareness among non-indigenous folks by acknowledging and honouring the First Peoples, who have lived here for thousands of years. The Land Acknowledgement is a statement now used to begin most public events across the country. The precise wording varies from city to city depending on the First Nations in the region and the treaties that were or were not signed there. But in each case, it brings much food for thought for us non-indigenous people. For many if not most of us, hearing that we are about to see a concert or watch a graduation ceremony on “unceded and unsurrendered territory” is a powerful reminder of how much we have to learn and help change.
Some examples of Land Acknowledgement from across the country:
I would like to acknowledge the traditional, ancestral, unceded territory of the Musqueam, Tsleil-Waututh and Squamish First Nations on which we are learning, working and organizing today. (from Vancouver, BC)
We respectfully acknowledge that UNB stands on the unsurrendered and unceded traditional Wolastoqey land. The lands of Wabanaki people are recognized in a series of Peace and Friendship Treaties to establish an ongoing relationship of peace, friendship and mutual respect between equal nations. (from Fredericton, NB)
The City of Toronto acknowledges that we are on the traditional territory of many nations including the Mississaugas of the Credit, the Anishnabeg, the Chippewa, the Haudenosaunee and the Wendat peoples and is now home to many diverse First Nations, Inuit and Métis peoples. (Toronto, ON)
Some people have voiced concern that Land Acknowledgements will become merely a token gesture, but for now at least most people are working hard to keep that from being the case. I’m happy to report that in my neck of the woods the audience usually applauds in support.
Changing or restoring place names to reflect a more complete/honest/honourable view of history is equally important as a step in the reconciliation process. Just this past week, Halifax regional council approved, in a unanimous vote, the changing of the name of a downtown park from Cornwallis Park to Peace and Friendship Park. Edward Cornwallis was the British founder of Halifax, and, as it turns out, was unbelievably vile in his words and actions towards the indigenous inhabitants of his day (1749), including putting out a bounty on their heads. Of course, that was never mentioned in the school history books or on his public statue. Selective history at work. Making these acknowledgements and then making the changes are crucial steps. Halifax is working on making more changes.
I happen to live on the beautiful St. John River in New Brunswick, as do several First Nation communities, including 3 First Nation communities within our greater metro area. When you google ‘St. John River’, one of the entries that comes up says:
The river, discovered by the French explorers the Sieur de Monts and Samuel de Champlain in 1604 and named for St. John the Baptist, is 418 miles long and drains 21,000 square miles (54,000 square km), 14,000 square miles of which are in New Brunswick and Quebec.
Discovered?! I’m happy to say that most entries have now been altered to include the fact that the Maliseet and Passamaquoddy were already there and had been for thousands of years, although fewer of them mention that the beautiful river already had a name and didn’t need another one. To the Wabanaki Nation of this region, this river is the Wolastoq, meaning ‘the beautiful and plentiful river’ in their language. And the Maliseet are the Wolastoqiyik (or Wolastoqey), the people of the beautiful river. As a Wolastoqiyik elder pointed out recently, “the identity of the people of the river was lost, not just the name of the river.” There is now a public movement to restore the river’s original name, the Wolastoq. Soon, one hopes. Very soon.
Correcting selective or revisionist history is another critical component of fostering enduring reconciliation. Not so terribly long ago, Loyalist history reigned supreme in southern New Brunswick. The Loyalists were those British subjects loyal to the King who fled the American colonies in the aftermath of the Revolutionary Way and made their way to New Brunswick and Nova Scotia. (I might add that some of the better off came with their slaves, but that was never mentioned either). The longstanding narrative of this history told of these hardy, intrepid loyal British subjects arriving in the 1780s and establishing a civilized society from nothing. Never any mention of existing indigenous people, or for that matter the Acadians, who had been there for a long time, co-existing with the Wabanaki until the Brits did their best to obliterate them from the region. Or of the pre-Loyalist Brits who were already here, quietly making a life for themselves.
My university, UNB, was established by the Loyalists in 1785 and is the oldest English-speaking university in Canada (only second to Harvard and maybe Columbia in North America). But for a long time it told its history in a truly selective manner, managing to give the impression that these Loyalists had happened upon virgin wilderness and had created a centre of civilization from scratch. I am delighted to report that the official history for UNB has changed dramatically in the past few years since the TRC, so that now its history web page starts like this:
The University of New Brunswick is situated on the traditional territory of the Wolastoqey people. The river that flows beside the university is Wolastoq (beautiful and bountiful river), along which live the Wolastoqiyik (Maliseets).
Wolastoq, renamed “St. John River” by early colonial authorities, was a vital part of life for the Wolastoqiyik, providing food and medicine and connecting the Wolastoqey villages alongside it. The land fed by the river was used for hunting, harvesting medicines and obtaining building materials. Daily life and culture were rich and varied. Ceremonies were performed, and knowledge was passed down through generations.
The University of New Brunswick is the first English-language university in Canada, but the first language spoken on this land is Wolastoqey latuwewakon. The first teachings on the land were the teachings of the Wolastoqiyik.
The Peace and Friendship Treaties of the 18th century allowed colonial settlers to establish settlements on Wolastoqey territory but, unlike many treaties across Canada, did not surrender any land. As part of the treaties, colonial settlers promised not to interfere with Wolastoqey fishing, hunting and traditional governing practices.
The idea for a university on this land was born as the American Revolutionary War drew to a close in the 1780s. Thousands of Loyalists gathered in New York City to await transportation to homes in other British colonies. …
Hopefully this change in UNB’s approach to acknowledging its history is similarly being made in history books for schools across the country. Such changes are vital, so that kids with indigenous blood going to school learn the truth about their ancestors’ role in the history of Canada, rather than either nothing or, even worse, a negative revisionist version.
These steps are only a start, but they are meaningful. It is the start at least of the Indigenous Peoples in Canada no longer being invisible to others in Canada. It’s the beginning of belonging, if they so choose. The beginning of restoring pride of place.
Baby steps in Reconciliation can make a difference. Now that non-indigenous folks are (finally) confronted head-on by the Truth, let’s embrace as many ways as we can for non-indigenous allies to help make the Reconciliation process a success. For the Indigenous Peoples of Canada. For a healthier Canada. For all of us.