Ottawa Citizen: How an acknowledgement of "unceded Algonquin Territory" became ubiquitous

From the Ottawa Citizen January 9, 2019

“We acknowledge that we are standing on unceded Algonquin, Anishinabek territory.”

It’s a statement that seems ubiquitous at public events in Ottawa, from Parliament Hill to concert halls to school classrooms.

Protests over the RCMP’s removal of a blockade on unceded Wet’suwet’en Nation territory in northern B.C. erupted across Canada Tuesday, including in Ottawa where demonstrators disrupted a talk by Prime Minister Justin Trudeau.

Even the owner of Gongfu Bao on Bank Street acknowledges it with a sign in his window, noting his restaurant is on unceded territory.

“It’s important to us to acknowledge this as a business because it’s in line with us operating a socially responsible business model,” said owner Tarek Hassan, who came to Canada 22 years ago.

“In building my idea of what Canadian identity means to me, a very important part is identifying as a treaty person who takes on the state’s responsibilities towards its treaties with the Indigenous people of this land.”

But what does that mean, exactly, and what is the significance of acknowledging “unceded Algonquin, Anishinabek territory”?

It’s a simple answer for Verna McGregor, an Algonquin elder from Kitigan Zibi near Maniwaki, Que.

“It’s acknowledging that we’re still here,” said McGregor, who is frequently called upon to offer a traditional Algonquin greeting and opening at events in and around Ottawa. “The acknowledgement is important — that we’re worthy of being on our own lands.”

The Algonquin are part of the Anishinabek Nation, a confederacy of about a half a dozen culturally related Indigenous Peoples in eastern North America. The use of the term “unceded” is no accident. Go back more than 250 years and you’ll find it above the signature of King George III in his Royal Proclamation of 1763, which claimed North America for Britain after the Seven Years’ War.

“And whereas it is just and reasonable, and essential to our Interest, and the Security of our Colonies, that the several Nations or Tribes of Indians with whom We are connected, and who live under our Protection, should not be molested or disturbed in the Possession of such Parts of Our Dominions and Territories as, not having been ceded to or purchased by Us, are reserved to them, or any of them, as their Hunting Grounds.”

In the centuries since then, treaties and land purchases have cleared up land title for much of Canada, whether fair or not (The Crawford Purchase of 1783, for example, secured the shoreline of Lake Ontario and the St. Lawrence River between Brockville and the Bay of Quinte for some muskets, ammunition and “enough red cloth to make 12 coats”).

The exceptions are most of British Columbia and a large portion of Eastern Ontario and Quebec that is the traditional land of the Algonquin. The Algonquins, centred in Kitigan Zibi and Pikwàkanagàn First Nation, near Golden Lake, Ont., 150 kilometres west of Ottawa, have never signed a treaty with the government.

It appears that’s about to change with the massive 36,000-square-kilometre Algonquin Land Claim, currently being negotiated with the federal and Ontario governments. The claim covers a huge area following the Ottawa River from North Bay to Hawkesbury, turning southwest along the St. Lawrence valley to Gananoque, then cutting northwest along a jagged line that includes nearly all of Algonquin Park.

An agreement in principle was reached in 2016 that includes a $300-million payout and a transfer of about 48,000 hectares to Algonquin control, or about 1.3 per cent of the total area in the claim. The Algonquin claim is one of the largest in Canadian history and encompasses 1.1 million people in 86 municipalities, including Ottawa.

What it doesn’t include, however, is the Algonquin territory on the other side of the Ottawa River in Quebec. That’s a sticking point with many who oppose the claim. Dividing the Algonquin along the Ottawa River is throwback to the division of Upper and Lower Canada by the British in 1791 and will split Algonquin nation in half, said Veldon Coburn, an Algonquin from Pikwàkanagàn who teaches about Indigenous issues at Carleton University.

 “We get our backs up in Canada when we hear about sovereignty or separation,” he said. “Now the Algonquins on the Ontario side are essentially voting to secede from the Algonquin nation and be annexed by the British Crown … The United Nations frowns upon partition.”

 Still, complications of treaty negotiations aside, Coburn said he’s encouraged to hear public acknowledgment that Ottawa sits on unceded territory, even if he’s not sure everyone fully understands what it means.

“In some ways it might just be lip service. It’s not really dealing with anything, but I do respect it at the same time. Acknowledging that can be quite powerful for someone like me, an Algonquin man who grew up here on this territory.”

“Nobody in the Algonquins is asking anyone to ditch their houses and go back to where they came from. It’s more about living in community with one another. How to understand the just arrangements.”

But the statement has its critics. In an Oct. 27 op-ed in the Ottawa Citizen, teacher Patrick Mascoe challenged the ubiquitous repetition of the acknowledgment he hears every day in his school — and thinks few people understand.

“(This) has now become our national pledge of allegiance (simply insert Indigenous name) and if we say these magical words enough, everything will be all right. These very words will have the power to erase white guilt and restore Indigenous pride,” he wrote.

“I don’t believe that I personally owe anyone an apology, nor have I ever taken anyone’s land. I do know, however, that saying sorry and not meaning it can only make matters worse.”

“Land acknowledgments are neither meaningless nor patronizing if they embody Indigenous legal traditions,” Anishinaabe legal student Ashley Courchene wrote in a rebuttal a few days later.

The Ottawa-Carleton District School Board begins each board meeting with an acknowledgment that it’s taking place on unceded Indigenous land, but has not developed a specific policy on the matter, said spokeswoman Sharlene Hunter. The decision on whether to say an acknowledgement is left up to individual schools, but “the vast majority” of them do, she said.

Last February, Ottawa City council adopted a Reconciliation Action Plan in response to the recommendations of the Truth and Reconciliation Commission’s 2015 report into Canada’s residential school system. The plan, which was developed in partnership with Métis, Inuit and First Nations, doesn’t specifically mention land claims, but does affirm the city’s commitment to reconciliation.

The acknowledgment of unceded land is an important part of that, said Somerset Coun. Catherine McKenney.

“It’s part of speaking truth and reconciling our history. It’s important for people to understand that this is unceded, unsurrendered land that we’re on. And the goal of that is that it leads to real action. It doesn’t cost anything to say it, but it has to be followed by action.”

Proper housing is just one example of the action that’s needed, she said, since Indigenous people are “grossly overrepresented” among Ottawa’s homeless.

“It all reaches back to the land,” McKenney said.

“I think the acknowledgment has helped people understand that there is a greater issue than what is going on today. It helps remind people that we are going back centuries in terms of what we’ve done to the Indigenous people — from the reserve system, the residential schools, to today with Indigenous children still being removed from their families at a greater rate than the rest of the population,” she said.

“The acknowledgment puts what’s happening today into a greater perspective to understand historical wrongs and how that’s manifested today,” McKenney said.

“Part of reconciliation is truth and honesty,” said McGregor. “And truth and honesty is that we never signed away the lands here. So what is reconciliation? Reconciliation is not throwing a little bit of money at us then saying, ‘Go away.’

“Our language, our spirituality are tied to the land here. Our ancestors stand with us. We have a long connection to this earth, this land we stand on. That’s what unceded means. We still have our connection to the land. We didn’t give it up to a settler coming here and claiming the land.”

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