This summer, Land Defenders from Six Nations occupied a disputed tract of land in Caledonia, an hour south of Toronto. The dispute about a proposed real estate development escalated to a standoff between the government and the Six Nations Land Defenders. The Ontario Provincial Police fired tear gas and rubber bullets at the Land Defenders.
Six Nations people, however, say they need the land for their own growing population. They have renamed the tract “1492 Land Back Lane.” They say the band council does not represent them. The land is part of an ongoing dispute, which is complex and builds on 500 years of colonization.
Land rights and land acknowledgements
Everyone in Canada has heard or said a land acknowledgement at some point. Many institutions say a land acknowledgement at the opening of their event: from schools to sports leagues to the office of the prime minister of Canada. And they are becoming increasingly widespread in the United States.
What is the point of Canadians saying land acknowledgements ad infinitum if Indigenous Peoples’ land is still being taken from them?
They are everywhere, but don’t mean anything.
The disputes between Haldimand County, Ontario and Haudenosaunee Six Nations activists highlight these land acknowledgements. How effective are they to remind citizens of Canada’s colonial history and of the history of Indigenous-settler relations?
Land rights and history
My research examines how Canadians learn citizenship and how newcomers are taught citizenship in ways that erase Indigenous rights.
Canada and the United States are both built on a continent taken from its people by coercive theft, genocide and forcible sale. Indigenous Peoples have been living on this land for thousands of years. They are not part of the past but are living in the present. The Indigenous Peoples living today are survivors of colonization.
The main point of land acknowledgements is to teach us that this land is theirs, and non-Indigenous people have responsibilities in sharing it.
Land acknowledgement teachings
Our relationship with Canada as a nation has at least three layers: the stories we associate with Canada, the symbols that represent Canada and the practices we view as normal to a Canadian. Land acknowledgements teach us different lessons about all three.
Land acknowledgements remind Canadians that we have been taught deadly untruths. The long-standing official history and stories of Canada have been told as if the place was an empty land that John Cabot “discovered” and pioneers populated.
Many Canadian symbols still revere colonial settler violence that continues to cost lives. John A. Macdonald, the first prime minister of Canada, intentionally starved Indigenous people and founded Indian residential schools, but was featured on Canada’s $10 bill up until 2018.
Schools named after him and statues of him still abound across Canada. One such statue was recently pulled down at an anti-racist protest.
Land acknowledgements remind us that our practices on this land cannot continue to be settler business as usual, which has been an incessant taking of land for development through the means of Canadian law.
Instead, we need land restitution. We need to draw on Indigenous knowledge to restore the environmental balance.
Land acknowledgements carry teachings of a different story of Canada. With this more accurate story of Canada, Canadian imagination, symbols and practices cannot remain the same.
Colonialism is in the present
Many Canadians point to reconciliation and land acknowledgements as ways of assuaging the conflict they feel about Canada’s origins. But reconciliation has become another version of colonial control, saying the words but not doing the actions.
Some Indigenous thinkers characterize the current land acknowledgements as patronizing, box-checking exercises.
Land acknowledgements have become useful alibis for some who think the work of reconciliation and rebuilding relationships with Indigenous people is being done. The 1492 Land Defenders in Caledonia are letting everyone know that land dispossession is still happening right now.
Land Defenders spokesperson Skylar Williams is being criminalized. The Six Nations Land Defenders are up against “the rule of law,” a structure that has been set up in Canada as “one everyone needs to respect.”
However, it was the same Canadian rule of law that usurped the land. With clockwork regularity, Canadian law still rules that Indigenous rights to their lands are secondary to oil and gas development.
A Yellowhead Institute paper on land dispossession says:
The Canadian legal system has consistently dispossessed, starved and supported violence towards Indigenous people for several hundred years.
We are past the point of uttering a land acknowledgement and thinking that it’s the end of our responsibilities towards the people on whose land we live. It is time for all Canadians to step up and put into action the teachings of land acknowledgements.
This is a corrected version of a story originally published on Sept. 9, 2020. The original story made reference to a 42.3-acre parcel of land. That land was acquired by Six Nations in an agreement and not purchased by the developer as the original story indicated. The earlier story also said Caledonia was north of Toronto, but it is south of Toronto.