Acknowledging Traditional Land

This semester, I decided to begin each of my courses with the University of Toronto’s official acknowledgement of traditional land, which reads as follows:

I 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 most recently, the Mississaugas of the Credit River. Today, this meeting place is still the home of many indigenous people from across Turtle Island and we are grateful to have the opportunity to work on this land.

I then asked my students how the acknowledgement relates to the themes of the course. In public management, the consensus was that it is a reminder that the relationship of Canada’s indigenous populations with the rest of our society to our indigenous populations remains conflicted and unresolved, and we haven’t achieved equality in life-chances or outcomes.  In my strategic management seminar, one student referred to the statement as a form of corporate social responsibility. The view was also expressed that one of the key themes of strategic management is positioning, the displacing of competitors from geographic or market space and then occupying it. In the graduate political science seminar on narrative, students noted the reference to the myths of indigenous Canadians (Turtle Island), national origin stories, and the history that leads us to mention, in succession, three indigenous peoples. The acknowledgement gave us a lot to think about.

Making this acknowledgement at the beginning of a course has a number of other meanings. The academy does not exist in a realm of pure thought, rather it takes place in a social context, and this statement constitutes recognition of context. The acknowledgement of traditional land also reminds us that we as a society continue to struggle with issues of injustice, exclusion, and racism. Finally, starting a course with a solemn declaration is a way of affirming that we are embarking on a serious intellectual journey of collective reflection and, hopefully, individual transformation. It seems to me that all of these meanings are valuable and important, and justify beginning with an acknowledgement of traditional land.

I was first introduced to this practice in Australia, and in recent years it has spread to Canada. Recently, at a seminar in Cambridge (Massachusetts) I gave the following acknowledgement of traditional land: “I wish to acknowledge that we are meeting on the ancestral territory of the Wampanoag people.” Most of the audience appeared not to have a clue as to what I was talking about, but at least a few got it.

The writer Angela Flournoy – an African-American woman – discussed the acknowledgements of traditional land that she heard on a visit to Australia and concluded that, in an American context, such a statement “would be complicated and imperfect, as all symbolic gestures are. Given the rise of rhetoric designed to make us feel excluded, the effort would be worth it.” From now on, I’ll make this effort.

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