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By Carol Arnold, teacher, living and teaching on the shared and unceded territory of the Coast Salish Peoples, specifically the SENCOTEN- and Hul’qumi’num-speaking Peoples

Shortly after moving from Edmonton to BC in 2002, and joining the BCTF, I attended my first zone meeting in Victoria. Jim Iker, then Executive Member-at-Large, took the podium and opened the session by acknowledging that we were meeting on the traditional, shared territories of the Songhees and the Esquimault Peoples. I don’t remember all that he said, but he spoke with respect and sincerity, provoking in me an emotional response that was powerful and immediate—tears poured down my face and I could barely control the emotion that welled up in my throat. In my entire adult life, I had never heard a public acknowledgment of Indigenous Lands in a manner that made it clear the land still rightfully belonged to the Songhees and Esquimault First Nations. I am neither Songhees nor Esquimault, but I identify as Indigenous. Such public recognition extended beyond the territory in Victoria; it acknowledged me as well. 

I have recounted this story to my friends and colleagues many times. One time, at a plenary session of Summer Leadership Conference, I stood and told the assembly about my first experience at that zone meeting and what impact that public acknowledgment had on me. To this day, I relive that emotional experience when recalling that day from 2002. I shared this story in response to a discussion about who should have the role of providing a territorial acknowledgment and addressing why they are important.

In the early days of land acknowledgments, the practice in many school districts was to assign the acknowledgment role to the Indigenous person on staff. Often, it was the “visible” Indigenous person who was asked to provide the opening words. In addition, Indigenous staff members were also often asked to create a script that could be used by district personnel. The script would provide authentic and “correct” information about the local Indigenous Peoples. The script writer would not only help identify the Indigenous Peoples who should be acknowledged but also provide the correct combination of words: “shared,” “unceded,” “traditional,” etc.  

Over the past 20 years, the practice of acknowledgments has evolved through reflection, discussion, and the emergence of the Truth and Reconciliation movement. Thankfully, many voices and experiences have helped us come to some important realizations. First and foremost, the act of acknowledging colonization, theft of land, and the displacement of Indigenous Peoples is for white people, settlers, Europeans, and non-Indigenous members of any assembly.    

People who hold authority within the group, the president, vice-president, member-at-large, principal, superintendent, trustee, MP, or MLA, are the most appropriate choice for land acknowledgments. They have the ability to create change, make gestures of Truth and Reconciliation, offer space, and make commitments that help raise up the Indigenous Peoples of the territory. Anishinaabe writer and educator Hayden King describes this as being “privileged.”

In a 2019 CBC interview by Rosanna Deerchild, on the program Unreserved, Hayden King expressed how he regretted writing Ryerson University’s territorial acknowledgment. King soon came to realize his good intentions had given way to a rote, tick-the-box set of practices that became meaningless. This pattern is present in BC too.

A script is something that is canned and thus lacks a personal, thoughtful, or meaningful connection to the purpose of the gathering it opens. Beyond that, scripts may even be incorrect, lacking research into who the actual Indigenous Peoples are that need to be recognized. 

King pointed out how institutions could use their position of privilege to create real change by taking actions that prove the sincerity of the gesture. In the case of Ryerson, they can go beyond the acknowledgment to offer to hire more Indigenous professors, create more spaces for Indigenous students, share some of their land, etc. In the CBC TV spoof by Baroness Von Sketch, the emptiness of an acknowledgment shared at the beginning of a theatre performance brilliantly shows how acknowledgments can become feel-good but sterile gestures.

As a teacher of the course BC First Peoples, I realized it was important to include students in discussions about meaningful acknowledgments. It created the opportunity to research the history of Indigenous Peoples where we live and learn as much of that history as possible. In so doing, students became knowledgeable practitioners of territorial acknowledgments. We came to understand the importance of introducing ourselves and who we are by recognizing our ancestors and where they came from. We also learned the difference between an acknowledgment and a welcome. The welcome is reserved for a recognized spokesperson of the local Indigenous Peoples. The acknowledgment, by comparison, is a public expression of our indebtedness to the original people of the land where we live. Now how do we repay that debt?

School assemblies (start of the school year, Remembrance Day, graduation, etc.) are opportunities for students to speak to other students, show leadership, and role-model reconciliation. Recognizing and admitting we are uninvited settlers on appropriated land is a necessary first step. 

King suggests there are three component requirements for making the acknowledgment meaningful:

  • 1.Research the local Indigenous Peoples, know their proper names and learn their history. Look into current events affecting local Indigenous Peoples: for example, is there an issue or struggle they are currently engaged in?
  • 2.Use meaningful and personal words to acknowledge your relationship to the territory: for example, European settler, Indigenous visitor, immigrant settler.
  • 3.Understand the obligation that comes with acknowledging a territory: what commitment can you make?

Twenty years ago, the BCTF was a leader in establishing the practice of land acknowledgments, paving a revolutionary path to thinking about the unceded territories of BC. With that came an understanding about the degree of change necessary to forge new relations between colonial-settler society and Indigenous Peoples. 

As a union we have continued to educate and support multifaceted efforts to decolonize schools, the education system, and our own union. We have now firmly asserted support for Aboriginal Title and Aboriginal Education, but we need to push forward to ensure acknowledgments are meaningful expressions that work toward action. This discussion rightfully belongs to us as teacher-allies. We need to revitalize our own practices starting now. We have many members who have been leaders throughout this process, sharing inspiring land acknowledgments, but too often we witness lackluster, scripted opening statements that take less than 30 seconds. We shouldn’t accept lapsing into a habit empty of any real purpose. The value of these acknowledgments cannot be underestimated in opening and creating safe spaces for Indigenous students and teachers: you are seen. 

As a union, we must continue to ask, how can the BCTF lead in eradicating barriers for Indigenous teachers and students? What can we do internally, and in terms of policy, to decolonize our own practices? What can we do to facilitate this reflective process? As individuals, we can take immediate action by asking ourselves, "How can we make our land acknowledgments meaningful statements that address our obligations to Indigenous Peoples across BC?"


Baroness Von Sketch spoofing empty land acknowledgments:

Hayden King on CBC's Unreservedhttps://bit.ly/3tdpr2H

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