Land acknowledgments: Canada’s moral exhibitionism
The performative nature of land acknowledgments must be addressed.

People have finally started criticizing the traditional “small talk”  that takes place during the first week on campus. As a third-year student, I’ve considered handing out a business card to avoid any more introductory conversations.

And yet, there is one “talk” that bothers me most:

“I (we) wish to acknowledge this land on which the University of Toronto operates. For thousands of years, it has been the traditional land of the Huron-Wendat, the Seneca, and the Mississaugas of the Credit. Today, this meeting place is still the home to many Indigenous people from across Turtle Island and we are grateful to have the opportunity to work on this land.”

Land acknowledgments—the performance preceding official events where administrators name the Indigenous Peoples whose genocide bared the land on which our institutes sit—have become ubiquitous and hollow. Often, land acknowledgments are routinised. They are performed without the intention of returning the land—receipts of theft, documentations of an ethnic cleanse.

This summer, I witnessed the most insulting examples of land acknowledgments at a high school graduation. The acknowledgment preceded the Canadian national anthem. An anthem written by settlers, for settlers, claiming their “indigeneity” to a land that they had confessed to be stolen only seconds prior. 

The issue with land acknowledgments rests in their nature. They are used by settlers to avoid threatening their existence on stolen land. A means of momentarily managing “white guilt” until their next official event. A cycle of moral exhibitionism and performative activism. Land acknowledgements should be practiced, not performed. They must be followed by action. 

When we perform land acknowledgements without action, we paint the colonialism of Indigenous Peoples as a mere thing of the past, something that happened and for which nothing can be done. Land acknowledgements are the first step in recognizing the ongoing colonialism in this country, but they remain just that—a first step. It is a shame that land acknowledgements, the brief and bureaucratic mention of Indigenous communities, has become a point of victory for the dispossessed.

Land acknowledgments create a poor standard for activism. When our institutes continue to perform the bare minimum, while simultaneously echoing the practices of their preceding colonial government, it produces a level of normality within our communities. It is inappropriate to call the slightest of actions an effort of reconciliation.

Our school, an institute and product of colonialism, has a focal role in the next steps for reconciliation. It should necessitate courses, taught by Indigenous professors, about Indigenous communities—and not restrict such courses to historical material. Transparency about the Indigenous communities on our campuses should be mandatory. Funds must be dedicated to the Indigenous communities, whose land currently acts as a mere allocation granted by a thriving colonial government. Research on the Indigenous Peoples needs to evolve beyond a past-time hobby for students. 

It is time we gain true consciousness—time to criticize the performance of land acknowledgements in Canada.


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