Land Acknowledgements and Treaties

I am a big fan of Land Acknowledgements.

I also believe that there will never be a time that we don’t need to do them.  This post is about the treaty obligations that bind the land which we acknowledge. As long as this land is governed by treaty, we should acknowledge those obligations as often and for as long as we live here.

I know that Land Acknowledgements are fraught with controversy and are frequently simply performative.  I know that some Indigenous People hate them because they believe, rightly in most cases, that the people reciting them are just saying a mantra, not a promise or a commitment to truly work towards reconciliation and decolonization.  It has been suggested that the name be changed to Settler Acknowledgement because that should be their purpose and I agree.

For me, personally, the Land Acknowledgement is my promise as a settler to work towards reconciliation and decolonization. To engage with the decisions made by my ancestors in the 18th, 19th and 20th centuries and mine as someone living and doing business on this land. I fully acknowledge that my ancestors came here and occupied stolen land in Ontario, Saskatchewan and B.C. And I acknowledge that they were very likely strong supporters of settler ideology including residential schools. So my journey is reconciling the memories of my family and the actions I take today to ensure that I am part of decolonization.

In that spirit, something I have noticed recently about many Land Acknowledgments is that they acknowledge that people may have lived in particular territory since time immemorial and they may properly identify and even pronounce the names of the nations, but they don’t mention the treaties.  This seems problematic to me. We are all treaty people.  Starting with the Two Row Wampum and the One Dish One Spoon Wampum, those treaties contain the philosophy of cooperation between Indigenous Peoples and colonizers as well as promises and obligations.  Recently the Robinson-Huron Treaty has been in court because the promises made to share the wealth in the resources in Northern Ontario was shamefully broken. That lawsuit may result in billions of dollars in compensation owing to people whom Canada systematically starved and tried to eliminate.

So I think all Land Acknowledgement should talk about the treaties that cover the territory, acknowledge that many were imposed and not agreed and that there is land that is not ceded and not covered by treaties and therefore unlawfully occupied by settlers.

Where I live and do business, the land is covered by the McKee Purchase, also known as Treaty 2.  The land was originally colonized by France and ‘won’ by the British after the Treaty of Paris in 1763. Andrew McKee, a part Indigenous man was given land south of Detroit in 1784 by the Odawa and Ojibwe for his support during the American war of independence. As the gifts were considered illegal by the British government who had decreed that only the Crown could negotiate for land, McKee arranged for the transfers to be confirmed by the Land Board and two portions were retained for Indigenous use (Huron Reserve and Huron Church Reserve) which remain unceded to this day. Eventually McKee negotiated for the sale to the British of the land all the way from the Detroit River to the Thames River for a rather paltry exchange of goods measured by their weight rather than their value.

The British Government gave the land to United Empire Loyalists moving north from the newly formed United States.

It is not clear if there are specific land sharing obligations owed as there are in the case of the Robinson-Huron Treaty case, but nevertheless, local Land Acknowledgements which do not mention the McKee Purchase are not sufficient. They merely tip their hats to some idea of fantasy Indigenous peoples living here somewhere in the distant past and ignore the history of colonization that has resulted in this land, purchased for a few fishhooks, guns and blankets, being now the site of billions of dollars of investment that is not being shared with the original inhabitants.