Land Acknowledgements: What’s the Point?

Written by: Sofia Watt Sjöström, Lives for Literacy Intern

I think a lot of people don’t get land acknowledgements. The language is a bit stilted and formal. Without context, it can be hard to understand what they’re saying. And what are they really doing? They feel symbolic – removed from reality, even hollow. One anonymous person told me that they hate this “virtue-signalling without any effect.” 

I get it. Up until about a year ago, I also felt that land acknowledgements were pretty meaningless. Even now, I sometimes hear them read – monotonously, as the first item to be checked off a list, before the real work can begin – and cringe. I believe that land acknowledgements can serve a purpose, but I don’t think that purpose is inherent. You can’t just read them without thinking. For them to work, you must have something in mind. 

Once again, partaking in Circles for Reconciliation changed my perspective on this issue. During our ten sessions, each participant and facilitator was expected to provide a land acknowledgement for one session. We weren’t given rules or a template, though we did get a bit of time to prepare. The only instructions were to speak from our hearts. 

It might sound crazy, but those land acknowledgements were beautiful. At the end of the Circles, me and my peers collected them all in a booklet. This booklet, which also contains other reflections, we published online. Today, when I look over the land acknowledgements we wrote, I am stunned at how interesting, heartfelt, and well-written they are. They are nothing like those formal templates you hear all the time. Each one is personal and unique. 

As a history student, I took my land acknowledgement as an opportunity to read up on my school’s colonial past. I discovered that the group of nuns who started Marianopolis College, the Congregation de Notre-Dame, were also involved in the expropriation of Indigenous lands (Jackson). I learnt that their founder, Marguerite Bourgeois, also founded a school designed to assimilate Indigenous girls (Jackson). Of course, I already knew that a lot of people and organizations from that time were involved in assimilation and colonialism. But knowing the specifics helped me understand just how entrenched injustice was in my past. Injustice helped, albeit indirectly, to put me into the position I’m in today. I don’t like it, but I cannot extricate my own life from the web of history. I think that it’s important to recognize how the legacy of colonialism has benefited me. 

This land acknowledgement felt like more than empty words. It felt personal and meaningful and real

Photo by Micah Garen on Getty Images

When they’re done right, I think land acknowledgements are a bit like historical plaques. They force us to confront history – rather than brushing over it or tearing it down. For many, they are an opportunity to learn. Land acknowledgements are not only historical, either, but also emphasize the land’s relevance to Indigenous communities today (Whitebean). For Indigenous listeners, they can be a form of affirmation – a reminder that Indigenous peoples are recognized and “welcome here” (“Why is the Territorial Acknowledgement Important to Heather?”). 

This is particularly poignant in schools. After all, these institutions have caused Indigenous peoples much grief. A hundred years ago, Indigenous students could not even finish university without losing their status Indian rights (Patzer). And you already know about the residential school system’s legacy of cultural genocide… Acknowledging Indigeneity may help to make the classroom a safe space – and hopefully lead to meaningful conversations, too. For international students, this might even be an introduction to Indigenous points of view (“Why is the Territorial Acknowledgement Important to Heather?”). 

Still, land acknowledgements can feel artificial when they are delivered at the beginning of class. Certain expressions, like “unceded lands,” may be hard to grasp. It’s also a bit confusing to hear several Indigenous names, without context or explanation. Yet seemingly convoluted land acknowledgements are often painstakingly thought-out. It might be worth our time to read an explanation, such as the one by Concordia University. According to them, “unceded” is meant to recognize that the land was never truly given up, but forcibly taken (Whitebean). Referring to each Indigenous community by name recognizes that Indigenous peoples in Canada are heterogeneous (Whitebean). It also replaces colonially-imposed terms such as “Mohawk” with the terms specific communities use for themselves, such as “Kanienkehà:ka” (Whitebean). Clearly, each word is there for a reason, and this is to maximize respect. 

Image Source: Edmund Rice Centre

Still, the University affirms that this land acknowledgement only “serves as a guide” (Whitebean). It should not be read word-for-word, but “infuse[d with] something more personal” (Whitebean). You can use it as a template and put things into your own words. You might even want to take a moment to speak about why you are saying this (Whitebean).  

One way to bring yourself into the picture is to introduce yourself as well as the land. Professor Annie Khatchadourian from Marianopolis College told me that she likes to begin her classes both with a territorial acknowledgement and a personal introduction. She realized that recognizing her subjectivity helps to create a safer, more intimate environment for discussion. It is important to be upfront and honest about who you are and situating yourself before you deliver your land acknowledgement can help to make it feel more real. 

Still, is there really any use in just saying nice things, if nothing concrete follows? Many land acknowledgements are simply “used and then discarded” (“Why is the Territorial Acknowledgement Important to Elizabeth?”). They are said because they must be but fail to do anything. If people tune them out, they can even fail to generate interesting thoughts, let alone stimulate discussion. I think this is a legitimate problem. It’s kind of like fake friendship: cheery smiles, nice words – but flagrantly inauthentic if accompanied by nothing else. How do we fix it? Well, I don’t really know, but I always like to say that the starting point is deliberation.    

I believe that land acknowledgements have potential meaning. My experience with Circles for Reconciliation taught me that much. Unfortunately, they often feel empty, and can be off-putting to those who do not understand what they’re about. Nevertheless, when they’re done right, they can be a “good starting point for deeper conversations” (Whitebean 4). Not only do they promise, however indirectly, more concrete change to come, but they can also simply get people to start talking and thinking about Indigenous lands (“Why is the Territorial Acknowledgement Important to Heather?”). This is important, because it brings Indigenous peoples out of the history textbooks, reminding many of us that this land is still shared. 

If you’re curious, feel free to look at the Marianopolis Circles for Reconciliation booklet: https://issuu.com/mari.litmag/docs/circles_booklet. The land acknowledgements can be found from p. 56-60. 

Works Cited

Jackson, Sydni Marie. ”Unsettling the History of Saint Marguerite Bourgeoys.” The Link, The Link Publication Society, Dec. 19 2018, https://thelinknewspaper.ca/article/unsettling-the-history-of-saint-marguerite-bourgeoys

Patzer, Jeremy. “The Indian Act: Disempowering, Assimilatory and Exclusionary.” Circles for Reconciliation, November 2020, https://circlesforreconciliation.ca/gathering-theme-the-indian-act-disempowering-assimilatory-and-exclusionary-revised/

Whitebean, Shiann Wahéhson. “Territorial Acknowledgement”. Concordia.ca: Indigenous Directions, 8 Jul8 2017, https://www.concordia.ca/indigenous/resources/territorial-acknowledgement.html

“Why is the Territorial Acknowledgement Important to Elizabeth?” YouTube, Concordia University, 20 Apr. 2021, https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=7rmDuMvYVs8&t=15s/.

“Why is the Territorial Acknowledgement Important to Heather?” YouTube, Concordia University, 20 Apr. 2021, https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=7Wz89kAtlCQ&t=113s

About the Author:

Sofia is an incoming McGill Law student, passionate about writing and justice. She feels that it would be relevant to state that she herself is non-Indigenous. Although she has done research and interviews to inform this series of articles, she wants to acknowledge the limitations of her point of view. However, she believes that Reconciliation is an issue that concerns all of us, non-Indigenous and Indigenous both.

Published by livesforliteracy

A non-profit organization dedicated to eliminated illiteracy, and raising awareness of the beauty of education. Primarily based in Montreal, Quebec, Canada. Lives for Literacy members come from all regions of the world! We are leaders who have a strong dedication and commitment to changing the world!

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