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'I expect more': Why some Indigenous people in Sask. want land acknowledgements to change

These days, it is more common than not to hear a land acknowledgement at the beginning of any event or meeting.

The recognitions became popular following the Truth and Reconciliation Commission’s (TRC) Calls to Action in 2015 as a way to honour Indigenous peoples’ rights to the lands we live on.

Eight years later, many believe it is time to put the words into action.

“They have done a good enough job. However, as an Indigenous person when the land acknowledgements actually start, I tolerate them,” said matriarch Brenda Dubois. “I expect more and I think if you were in my shoes, you’d expect more, too. Let’s not just get stuck with the land acknowledgement. We need to move beyond.”

Dubois believes land acknowledgements have turned into forms of “optical allyship.”

Enough time has passed since they were first introduced and it is time to evolve the practice, she said.

“It’s nice to hear that you acknowledge the land we are sharing. But how are you treating this land? How are you related to this land?” Dubois said.

“Don’t get stuck being comfortable. We still have a lot to get through. This is at least the first stepping stone in trying to build a relationship and communication is the first foundation in a relationship.”

Rather than just a land acknowledgement, Dubois wants to see organizations acknowledge the different actions they are taking to create change and improve relationships with Indigenous peoples and the land.

Dubois points to one of the guiding principles of the TRC Calls to Action that relates to the removal of archaic, systemic institutional structures. She said that is a good place for change to start.

“How we become part of the shift is really important because I do not want to be colonized twice,” she said. “Behind this all is how do you rewrite history when it was based upon a false premise.”

Jason Bird, an Indigenous business program coordinator with the First Nations University of Canada, said he sees the value in the acknowledgements as conversation starters.

However, over the years he believes the words have lost their meaning and become performative.

“They don’t mean anything to me as an Indigenous person,” Bird said. “You can go back to the Treaties, and even prior, and you will [see] this history of a lot of great words being said and a lot of great things being promised and the way things we’re going to go, but it all ended up being words and the way it played out was the exact opposite of what Indigenous people actually wanted.”

Like Dubois, Bird wants to see organizations back up their words with meaningful action and ask themselves what actionable measures they are taking.

“What are you doing to help the communities? How are you getting involved in these communities? How are you involving them in your workplace? What are your employment numbers?” Bird said.

The University of Saskatchewan’s Gwenna Moss Centre created workshops and resources to help instructors develop their own meaningful land acknowledgements that are guided by Indigenous worldviews and history.

Other organizations and administrations, including the City of Regina, consult Indigenous leaders and Elders for best practice.

“We don’t necessarily walk into this aspect of culture and ceremony without contacting those who have that lived experience,” said Regina Mayor Sandra Masters.

“If Indigenous leaders have issues with the way that the city is undertaking these (land acknowledgements), we will absolutely pay attention to that with specific voice to residential school survivors and Elders. If that’s the sentiment, I would encourage them to reach out.”

As Sept. 30, the National Day for Truth and Reconciliation fast approaches, Dubois hopes these tough conversations and opportunities for growth continue every day of the year.

She understands the federal holiday will likely come with more land acknowledgements, but she encourages organizations to back up their words with action.

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