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Implementing Diversity through Aboriginal Territory Acknowledgements

Posted by Madeline Knicke...
8 October 2012 - 1:16pm

“I would like to acknowledge that we are meeting today on the unceded territory of the Musqueam, Squamish, Stó:lõ, and Tsleil-Waututh First Nations.” This is how I began my first tutorial session when I began work as a Teaching Assistant this fall.

In preparing my lesson plans for the first week, I couldn’t help but remember a back-to-school season less than a decade ago, when I was a first-year undergrad. Then, as a high school liberal arts keener, I had arrived at university able to debate the ethics of an unelected federal senate, explain in detail the workings of the seigneurial system, and discuss what events like the Komagata Maru incident and the internment of Japanese Canadians demonstrated about the Canadian state. But (through no fault of my teachers, who I know did a lot with very little) I had never heard of the 1969 White Paper, knew nothing of the significance of Bill C-31, and had no idea that BC was largely not treatied.

Though it seems incredulous that a young adult could not know the history of colonialism in their own country, I have consistently found this to be a common experience. Many other people, young and old, have also told me that they did not know about the lack of treaties in BC. In fact, while Aboriginal peoples and representatives of the colonial state signed treaties in most of the rest of Canada, Aboriginal title was never relinquished in most of BC, and only since the late twentieth century have governments begun to negotiate treaties with Aboriginal peoples in parts of the Yukon, the Northwest Territories, Nunavut, Quebec, and Labrador. Other Aboriginal people, like the Lubicon Cree, were entirely left out of treaty negotiations in their territories. In the face of these situations, some people believe that acknowledging the ongoing settler occupation of unceded territory is an important practice, while still others argue that it is not enough.

The first time I heard someone make this acknowledgement was at an Indigenous Studies conference at the University of British Columbia. I found it disquieting, but as I began reading about the BC government’s refusal to negotiate treaties with First Nations between 1899 and 1992, I experienced a growing sense of anger that this significant part of the history of the place where I grew up had never been shared with me before. I had taken Social Studies throughout high school, and History and Comparative Civilizations in Grade 12 – how could I have missed this? My high school was a ten-minute drive away from the Tsleil-Waututh First Nation reserve – why did I not know anything about how the reserve had been created, and how Tsleil-Waututh and other BC Aboriginal lands had been appropriated?

The answers to these questions might not be easy to come to, nor easy to face once arrived at, especially when we consider that Canadians are also taught that our country embraces diversity and multiculturalism. Teaching our students that Canada welcomes new immigrants and celebrates Aboriginal cultures means that we have to also discuss historical moments when these things did not occur. Avoiding discussion of the oppression of the First Peoples or the prohibitions on immigration to Canada means, in effect, a re-writing of the past.

Though of course these are not always comfortable conversations, that does not mean they are not worth having. Paulette Regan, who has recently introduced the concept of “unsettling the settler within,” argues that telling the truth about history is a crucial step towards an improved shared future for Aboriginal and non-Aboriginal peoples. Acknowledging our presence on unceded Aboriginal territory in non-treatied areas, and the historic and ongoing connections between Aboriginal peoples and lands in treatied regions, can figure as an important pedagogical moment when we talk about diversity and the history of this country.

Thomas King concluded each of his Massey Lectures by telling his audience that they could take the story he just told them and do what they wanted to with it; it was theirs, they could turn it into a play, put it online, tell their friends and families about it, but they couldn’t pretend that they didn’t know the story anymore. “…[D]on’t say in the years to come that you would have lived your life differently if only you had heard this story. You’ve heard it now.” The same is true for you. Now that you know more about the history of treaties and Aboriginal rights in Canada, and a process for acknowledging Aboriginal title even when the government has not. It is up to you whether, and how, you choose to act on that knowledge.

What responsibility do history educators have to acknowledge Aboriginal title in their classrooms and communities?



King, Thomas. The Truth About Stories: A Native Narrative. CBC Massey Lectures 2003. Toronto: House of Anansi Press, 2003.

Miller, J. R. Compact, Contract, Covenant: Aboriginal Treaty-making in Canada. Toronto: University of Toronto Press, 2009.

Regan, Paulette. Unsettling the Settler Within: Indian Residential Schools, Truth Telling, and Reconciliation in Canada. Vancouver: UBC Press, 2010.