Editorial, Opinion

Land acknowledgements are not political, but should be accompanied by political action

On Oct. 16, a Montreal Canadiens announcer read a land acknowledgement aloud ahead of the team’s home opener at the Bell Centre, with the Canadiens having declared earlier that day that it will now be a permanent addition to their home games. On Oct. 20, Quebec’s non-Indigenous Indigenous Affairs minister, Ian Lafrenière, responded by saying, “it’s important to recognize that the First Nations were here before us and that we now live together, but we’re getting into a debate between historians who don’t agree with each other. I think it might be a mistake.” Lafrenière also questioned why a sports team had decided to participate in “political” affairs. Land acknowledgements signal a recognition of the land on which settlers gather, and are themselves only the beginning, not the end, of reconciliation. Lafrenière’s comments showed that the Quebec government is unwilling to accept even the most symbolic action in support of Indigenous Peoples. 

Lafrenière cloaked his disagreement with the Habs’ land acknowledgement in arguments about the historical obscurity of which Indigenous group(s) were the original inhabitants of Tiohtià:ke (Montreal). This critique could have been a legitimate one in theory, but instead reads as an attempt to discredit the Canadiens’ efforts at moving toward reconciliation—a move that was applauded by the Mohawk Council of Kahnawà:ke. If Lafrenière’s genuine concern was historical accuracy, his comments would have been accompanied by some kind of praise for the action or recommendation on how to improve it, as opposed to challenging the Habs’ decision altogether. But this is old news: Lafrenière is a minister under an administration that refuses to believe systemic racism exists in its province, let alone officially recognize the National Day for Truth and Reconciliation.

The idea that the world of sports is apolitical terrain is simply untrue: Systemic oppression infiltrates all facets of life, and sports have a long history of activism. Lafreniere’s questioning of the Canadiens’ decision is an affront to every fan and player who has dealt with systemic oppression, not to mention those players who are themselves Indigenous, like Habs goaltender Carey Price. The nationalism associated with sports teams also plays into the anti-woke rhetoric employed by Lafrenière and his ilk, which purports to protect Quebecois culture by ignoring the voices of marginalized peoples. 

The widespread use of land acknowledgements is a relatively novel phenomenon. Their purpose is straightforward, asking settlers to take a moment to reflect upon the history of the land they are gathered on and recognize its traditional stewards. This can be a meaningful process, but some Indigenous activists and commentators have become critical of individuals, businesses, or organizations who instrumentalize land acknowledgements to position themselves as allies without taking any meaningful steps toward reconciliation. To make matters worse, many larger institutions recycle the same vague land acknowledgements, limiting opportunities for meaningful reflection. What is meant to be powerful is eventually reduced to a ticked checkbox on a list, a facade of allyship without substantive advocacy for Indigenous communities. 

Take McGill as an example––the university’s website lists a land acknowledgement, but the administration has consistently failed to respond to demands from its Indigenous students. For instance, it took multiple vandalizations for the James McGill statue to finally be removed from its spot on campus following over a year of controversy, with no promise that the removal would be permanent. Perhaps McGill’s land acknowledgement would be more meaningful if it engaged with the university’s own entanglement in settler-colonialism and enslavement. But instead, it exists separately from the university’s brief acknowledgement that James McGill enslaved Black and Indigenous people. 

Land acknowledgements are a mere first step in the process of unlearning and relearning history, and must above all be coupled with genuine efforts in support of Indigenous communities to have any true impact. In the McGill context, students holding events can lead by example and listen to suggestions from Indigenous activists on how to make land acknowledgements more meaningful. As well, the minister of Indigenous Affairs should recognize the demands of his constituency instead of wasting time disputing the wording of a land acknowledgement. 

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  1. Pingback: Hockey culture must be dismantled from the bottom up - The McGill Tribune

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