Beginning in September 2020, Ever Active Schools began to question our practice of territory land acknowledgements. The tipping point for some staff could be expressed in the words of Kay Ho: “Oftentimes, when non-Indigenous organizers make a territory acknowledgement, it is done hastily, and then discarded.” (2014, An Introduction to Settler Colonialism: Part Three) This led to a pause in our practice and discussions with colleagues: Should this be done differently? How could we do it differently? What interest do we, collectively, have in doing this differently?
A crucial aspect of the learning experience, which we initially overlooked, was spending time as a team with an Elder. We asked, “how do we go about this?” and “what is the proper protocol?”
Gathering with Elder Russell Auger (Heatwave Buffalo Child) provided an opportunity to meaningfully pause and listen to him speak about the importance of Land (askîy ᐊᐢᑮᕀ). This time also offered a safe place to reflect on the meaning and importance of acknowledging the land, and to share among one another that we do not know. The discussions and teachings with Elder Russ served as a reminder and encouragement to continue to learn and practice.
It has been important to invite our colleagues into this learning and weave our learning about land acknowledgements across the organization so that these conversations are not separate from our work, but rather central to it. The intention is to embed this learning into the organization, prioritize decolonizing and Indigenizing the systems we work within, and how we take up comprehensive school health in our communities. We continue to share our learning across the Ever Active Schools team and have created some internal resources that will continue to support us in walking this journey together.
We thought it would be valuable to share some of our reflections about this process, including where we started from and where we still have to go. Read on to learn the experiences of five of our staff members: Adrian Xavier, Andrea Dion, Cassie Flett, Jamie Anderson and Katie Mahon.
WHAT WAS YOUR PREVIOUS KNOWLEDGE AROUND OR EXPERIENCE WITH LAND ACKNOWLEDGEMENT?
Adrian: My beginnings with land acknowledgement started when I was teaching with the Toronto District School Board. A land acknowledgement was read daily during the morning announcements, and this sparked a personal curiosity to learn how the land acknowledgements differed depending on the location of schools across Toronto. What also strikes me as I look back on the experience was how some students would challenge themselves to recite the acknowledgment from memory. At the time, I didn’t (and still don’t) know what to make of it – the students were listening and engaging, yet doing so in a rote way. Is it meaningful if there is a disconnect between the words being spoken and who and where we are speaking of?
Jamie: The first territorial acknowledgement that I witnessed was at an LGBTQ2S+ Pride event in Vancouver, about a decade ago, and I think that this formed some of my early conceptions (and misconceptions) about land acknowledgements. Given the nature of the event, I remember interpreting the acknowledgement as an act of resistance to ongoing colonial violence, specifically that which took place in Vancouver leading up to the 2010 Winter Olympic Games. The non-Indigenous speaker shared a quote from Lilla Watson, a Murri (Indigenous Australian) activist, which I continue to hear at pride events: “If you have come here to help me, you are wasting your time. But if you have come because your liberation is bound up with mine, then let us work together.” A significant learning from this experience was the recognition that colonial violence is interconnected with other forms of violence and oppression, like homophobia. That said, I think that my early understanding of land acknowledgements was limited, thinking that the acknowledgement itself was enough in terms of resisting colonial violence. Additionally, I attributed it as a responsibility of non-Indigenous people, failing to learn about and recognize the histories and traditions of land acknowledgement within Indigenous communities.
Andrea: When I first heard a land acknowledgement provided I was so proud of my Indigenous heritage and identity. As it became more of a common practice, my hope for acknowledging lands tied to culture and history increased. It’s important for organizations and communities to remember and honour the land and its original inhabitants. The calls to action in the Truth and Reconciliation Commission were developed as a pathway to reconciliation with contemporary societies and the Indigenous lives that are from these lands. My connection to the land acknowledgements are based on pride of my culture and ties to the land through ceremony and I hope that all our paths forward pay homage to the Indigenous peoples for generations to come.
SHARE ONE IMPACTFUL TAKEAWAY FROM THIS EXPERIENCE THUS FAR.
Adrian: A territory/land acknowledgement is not something to be recited. It is an intentional moment in time to reflect on and consider your relationship with the land and how your connection with the land is meaningful to you personally, professionally and in relation with others. It’s dynamic. How we think, feel and act towards the land is unique in every moment we consider it. Who we are today is different from who we will be in a month’s time, so when we share our acknowledgement with others it evolves and can be somewhat ever-changing because of what is happening within and around us.
Katie: As a non-Indigenous person enculturated in the Western world, which values fast and busy, I am continually learning the lesson to slow down; I am learning this lesson across my personal life, within my work and specifically my work in partnership with Indigenous peoples and communities. Taking action is important; we won’t achieve healing and reconciliation through dialogue alone. However, meaningful action can only be taken from a place of understanding, which requires listening first. Our team identified the opportunity to evolve our understanding and our practice around offering Land Acknowledgements with enthusiasm and, invariably, speed. I am grateful for Elder Russ’ gentle guidance to slow down and embrace the learning journey with respect and care; I am grateful for an organization that supports the speed of this important work.”
Cassie: It is extremely hard to pick just one take away from such a powerful experience. This work around land acknowledgement has been very valuable and extremely humbling. The biggest lesson for myself was that the learning will never stop and that we will continue to learn about important processes like this everyday. This is not just reading a land acknowledgement and you have done your part; it goes deeper than that, and how to take what you know and apply it to your everyday life. An extremely important lesson was that it is okay to say, “I don’t know;” but it’s important to nurture your understanding and not stay in that place of not knowing.
WHERE DO YOU ENVISION THIS GOING WITHIN EVER ACTIVE SCHOOLS?
Katie: Ever Active Schools has long valued equity as a core priority of our work; our organization was founded on the principle that all children deserve to belong to healthy school communities. As we’ve grown and evolved, we’ve dedicated time and effort to advancing the priorities of equity, access and inclusion not only for the communities we serve but also within our internal practices and communication. Over the last few years we’ve grown further still by formally naming this work across our organization, creating dedicated portfolios and committing team time and people power to advancing efforts towards equity, access and inclusion. I am deeply moved and motivated by our work on creating meaningful Land Acknowledgements as an intentional piece of this broader puzzle and as a commitment to action to advance truth and reconciliation. As an organization, we will only continue to grow, to learn and build understanding, to challenge biases and to advance issues of equity and justice for all.
Cassie: As an organization we have come a long way in this process, and it wasn’t quick and easy. Challenging your own understanding is probably one of the toughest tasks out there and learning to slow down to really think through this work requires patience. We operate in a fast-paced world of quick fixes and easy solutions, and what I envision our work around Land Acknowledgement is sharing how our process has been impactful for individuals.
Jamie: I think there is a lot of learning and growth ahead to continually weave and braid this learning into our day-to-day work so that we can nurture our relationships with the land and with each other. I think it’s also important to reflect on, for me at least, what it means to have privilege to share in this learning as a white settler and that keeping this notion of relationship in the abstract, or in conversation and learning alone, is problematic. I think the path forward involves living these relationships in a better way and living that responsibility to others in real and tangible ways every day.
Andrea: I am excited for the meaningful work that we as a team have accomplished in bringing a respectful path to learn together; I envision our team continuing to respect traditions yet strive to improve understanding of equity for all the students and people we interact with. I highly encourage school communities to take meaningful steps to engage local Indigenous knowledge keepers to assist them in implementing land acknowledgement in the culture of their communities. This work is so crucial to connecting people to the lands as we are all rooted in places tied to experiences and history.
A land acknowledgement is a deeply personal step towards reconciliation. In bringing our experiences to our wider team, we asked everyone to find a photo that helps them feel connected to the land. Each person had a personal story or feeling to accompany their chosen photo. We nudged everyone to channel those stories and feelings into their land acknowledgements, to create them from the heart and dig deep to understand the importance of the land for all who have been and will be a part of it: past, present, and future. We encourage you to reflect on and further your own knowledge so that you can deliver honest and grounding land acknowledgements, and so that we may all move together towards reconciliation.