Indigenous History Month: What do baby steps in Reconciliation look like?

NationalIndigenousMonthLast 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.


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27 Responses to Indigenous History Month: What do baby steps in Reconciliation look like?

  1. Pingback: June 2021: non-Indigenous Canadians now understand only too well why we need National Indigenous History Month | Robby Robin's Journey

  2. Roy McCarthy says:

    Good to read and a nice counterpoint to the raw history you described previously Jane. Most important is the work being done in schools. For us Brits it’s been a gradual process of un-learning that which we understood from our childhood learnings, whether taught in schools or read in books and comics.

    • Jane Fritz says:

      Thanks, Roy. Sadly, what you say about “you Brits” holds for all citizens of former British colonies, and that includes the U.S. It undoubtedly could also apply to French, Spanish, German, and Portuguese citizens and what they were taught about their countries’ colonization “activities”.

  3. Pingback: Indigenous Peoples Day, lessons in environmental stewardship and more | Robby Robin's Journey

  4. These are all important steps. Simon Fraser University, where I worked until retirement last year, has also taken similar steps and plans to do more. Thanks again for another great post, Jane!

  5. kegarland says:

    OMGoodness! I was just introduced to land acknowledgments recently with a group I’ve been presenting with, and I think it’s one of the most authentic ways to honor a group of people and their contributions.

    Meanwhile, in the other North America…we’re finding ways to oppress history :-/

    • Jane Fritz says:

      Oh, I’m glad you’ve actually been a part of it, Kathy. It’s a very small step, but I think it truly is meaningful. Now for lots more small steps … plus some badly needed big steps!

      I wish I could look down the road and see the U.S. turning a corner on the dark place it seems to have backed itself into. I will continue to pray that substantive changes can occur on Biden’s watch.

  6. barryh says:

    Thanks, Jane. Eye-opening. Makes us realise just how uncivilised the European settlers/conquerors were. And here in Britain we have people who want to go back to those earlier times when Britain was ‘Great’.

    • Jane Fritz says:

      Uncivilized and arrogant in their sense of superiority. For so long, in so many places. Now it’s up to their descendants – us – to make it right. Boy, it’s a long, slow process, but as long as we’re proactively engaged in a process there’s hope.

  7. BernieLynne says:

    Your blog hit the small step positive spot needed on the somewhat bleak horizon. Another country that has made many strides is New Zealand where they now have 2 official languages. Sometimes the sheer size of Canada itself makes it a challenge, no matter what the issue. Like things like foster care and going away to school. These need to be community based and it’s difficult in such remote spots. Although the pandemic has proven that one can do internet schooling as long as one has internet access.

    • Jane Fritz says:

      I agree, the challenges in Canada are enormous and varied. One solution does not fit all, or even several. But many of the challenges were caused by past giver policies in the first place, and I’d sure be happy to see a few more proactive approaches … in concert with what really works for the people whose lives are at stake.

  8. Well said. I am learning so much that was never taught in school (in my day, which was aeons ago). The land acknowledgement is an important step in recognizing our truth. It is slow work, to open and change people’s minds (and some will never change, being set in concrete, as it were) but eventually I hope we get there.


  9. debscarey says:

    All steps are important and when baby steps allow progress to be made, that’s commendable. In South Africa, rugby was the sport of the whites and soccer the sport of the blacks. That has slowly been changing to the extent that when SA won the last Rugby World Cup, the captain was a black player. One of those baby steps is that SA’s national anthem was also been overhauled with three parts in Zulu, English & Afrikaans. Early on, I was upset to notice how many white players only sang the final part, and how the volume of crowd singing rose hugely at the same point. Now all the players sing throughout with passion, and the crowds are slowly doing likewise. It’s not fully there yet – not by a long shot – but it is changing. Hopefully things will do likewise in Canada.

    • Jane Fritz says:

      What a perfect example of the kind of changes that can slowly but (hopefully) surely make a difference. Just hearing the national anthem in 3 languages serves as a reminder of the diversity of SA’s culture and history. Just reading your comment reminded me of the emotion we all felt in so many parts of the world when SA had its new flag and first full election, with everyone lined up together waiting as long as it took for the privilege of voting. An example of how change can happen, even as it remains a work in progress. We have more parts of Canada now singing parts of our anthem in English and part in French, and that is a very good thing. There are at least 50 separate indigenous languages, so that wouldn’t work (!), but perhaps it could work to be added at a local level. Whatever raises awareness, followed by acceptance. Thanks, Debs.

      • BernieLynne says:

        I have heard part of of it done in an indigenous language in Ottawa on Canada Day. Also here in Saskatoon I’ve heard it partially done in Cree.

        • Jane Fritz says:

          I’ve heard of one occasion here when I Canada was sung in the Wolastoqey language at a hockey game. By all accounts it was emotional and well received. Good point, that needs to be encouraged more. It’s still occasionally a challenge to get people to sing it in both French and English. When the Jets hosted the Habs in their Stanley Cup playoffs, the singer didn’t even sing one line of I Canada in French. We noticed and we’re not impressed. In Montreal, the totally awesome singer sang in French and then belted out the final line in English. Happily (for us) the Habs won. 😊 Go, Habs!

        • BernieLynne says:

          Another Habs fan! We rarely turn it on early enough to hear the anthem. Well to be honest hockey lost me when the playoffs got later and later and later in the year. So we will watch if it’s our team and it’s on at supper time but even then we probably don’t watch the whole game even though my other half is a Habs fan.

        • Jane Fritz says:

          Lol, well at least you live where games start at a reasonable time. Where we are, tonight’s game starts at 10pm!

        • BernieLynne says:

          Man that would have to be a die hard fan!! Imagine double OT!!

  10. We are grappling with the same things in the United States, and you can bet that they have become part of the culture wars inflamed by commentators on the far right. Nevertheless, as your post indicated, very important to face history as it was, not as we wish it had been.

    • Jane Fritz says:

      I know, the naysayers are hard to take. I think some steps here are making a difference; I hope I’m not just being naive. The important thing is for the steps to continue and for major changes in govt policy to follow.

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