What are the land acknowledgements for

Due to an impending cold, I had to leave the TSO’s Britten Requiem today barely 20 min in, but I did stay long enough to hear the conductor read a land acknowledgement before saying a few words about the piece we were about to hear.

I have never heard a land acknowledgement from the TSO podium before. Will all visiting TSO conductors now have to rattle it off, be they Japanese, Hispanic, East European or Canadian?

The acknowledgements that we are on “traditional lands” of this or that First Nation or a mix of Nations is spreading among Toronto’s arts organizations faster than you can say “performative wokeness”. It’s already obligatory in the public school system and in many corners of higher education. I haven’t been to many party political events lately, but I expect they’re heard there as well.

I am, on principle, against the mandatory “land acknowledgements” before arts events, because:

  • it’s an empty gesture that produces a lot of warm and fuzzy feelings in a whole lot of people, but does not improve material conditions of life of a single Native person. I suspect it’s getting so extremely popular because it makes the acknowledger look good while costing them precisely nothing, and meaning as much. Disproportionate poverty among Native Canadians? Inadequate infrastructure such as water supply? Access to education, broadband and medical care? Access to parliamentary representation? Facility of travel? Unsustainable resource extraction next to or on the majority Native territories? Reserve governance? Nevermind all that. What’s more pressing is that we ceremoniously utter certain words about who was first on the “lands”.
  • it’s historically inaccurate in that glosses over, well, the history of contentious claims over the territory among First Nations themselves. For denser locales with layers of history, like say Toronto, things get complicated. As a York U historian put it in this look at the L.A. by Stephen Marche for TNY, “Haudenosaunee people, some of them, don’t want to recognize that the Anishnabe took control and were here historically. Some Anishnabe people will not recognize that the Haudenosaunee people were here. And both those people sometimes want to erase the Wendat.” We also seem to forget that the this or that nation of the First Nations formed alliances with the French and the British in the course of the country’s settling history, and that the story of the omnipotent colonizer and the powerless colonized is far from neat and linear.
  • it’s historically, anthropologically and politically inaccurate in that no race, no people, has a pure and primordial relation to the land in this Canada of ours, AD 2018 (nor ever, really; but that’s a longer essay). We are all modern, we are all of 2018. We are all affected by the capital and the global communications and technology and medical developments and the bloody unavoidable Americans. All races (an unscientific concept that the left, it seems, now insists on as much as the right) and all ethnicities jostling north of 49th are equally close or equally far from the “land”. And yes, that means the Inuit too, who hunt seal for sustenance and send representatives to advocate before international bodies and use social media for mobilization. To presume that somehow the Native component of the hodge-podge that is Canada retains some sort of special contact to the land and nature is an ideology that’s had some unfortunate consequences in other historical periods around the world. No blood and belonging, please.
  • it’s politically naive in that while pretending to address an issue (of cultural inclusion of Native cultures into the Canadiana) it in fact masks many more. How many nations are we, one or multiple? What is the we in the Canadian project? Are its first nations and later waves of nations including today’s very new comers to forever remain separate quantities? What is the chance in hell that some of us who came here in, say, 1999, will ever belong? Will First Nations end up fully developing their own legal and medical systems? Is it possible to imagine this country whole, rather than a bunch of component parts? More than 50 percent of Torontonians were born in another country. I’m sure I’m not the only immigrant who’s ever thought Hang on a sec, if we are now to understand the life of this country as an ongoing settling and colonization, maybe I shouldn’t have come over and joined in the horror show? How do we indeed propose to wed this notion of indigeneity with the waves of immigration into Canada?

I grew up in a communist country where every public event had to include the prominently placed images of the Yugoslav leader Tito and (all or combination of) Marx, Engels and Lenin. There were also concepts that the officials, while speechifying for this or that occasion, had to give a nod to (for ex the people’s liberation struggle, the proletariat, the brotherhood and the unity, and post-1974 the self-government). Now I do love much about my old, now unfortunately non-existent country, and I miss it, but this kind of compelled speech during public events, and the other side of the same coin, the forbidden speech, is not something I miss. Is there any kind of compelled speech circulating about in the high income, free speech country like Canada? Is wearing poppies around Nov 11 it? Can you say no to reading a land acknowledgment–as an individual or as an organization? I sincerely hope my apprehension is baseless and my parallel exaggerated. And that those who’re not entirely sure about this public wokeness ritual that the LA is becoming can choose to skip it.

3 thoughts on “What are the land acknowledgements for

  1. I agree (as a citizen of the world) and, as an immigrant, I of course specifically adhere to your last paragraph. Generally speaking, I think it’s healthier for anyone to expand rather than narrow the list of items that they chose to include when they consider their identity.

    Coming to the UK from a country where colonialism isn’t part of our “national mindset”, it’s been very interesting to observe how this mindset has trickled down to even “the little people” (check out any heated convo about Brexit and you will immediately spot it), though obviously this type of colonialism is different than the one you have over there. Anyway, I love tokenism 😉

  2. The bloody unavoidable Americans could use a few more boilerplate statements from our own podiums, frankly, because some of the mouthiest anti-immigration crowd down here have zero knowledge of history overall and a Native present is not even a blip on their mental radar.

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