Beginning a service or other gathering with an Indigenous territorial acknowledgment can serve as an important gesture of reconciliation because, when done well, it not only publicly recognizes past injustice but also expresses hope for a better shared future, some Canadian Indigenous Anglican leaders say.
“I’m so blown away when I go somewhere else and I hear it,” says Valerie Kerr, archdeacon for truth, reconciliation and Indigenous ministry for the diocese of Niagara and rector of St. John the Evangelist Anglican Church in Niagara Falls, Ont. “To me, it’s just a sign of respect…For years, the powers that be tried to get rid of my ancestors or assimilate them, never mind acknowledging that they were the people who were here when the first settlers arrived.”
Travis Enright, archdeacon for Indigenous ministry for the diocese of Edmonton and rector of the Anglican Parish of St. Faith’s, Edmonton, says a territorial acknowledgment is an act of restoration—a first step in bringing Indigenous and non-Indigenous people back to a common ground that could serve as a basis for friendship.
In recent years—especially, Kerr and Enright say, since the Truth and Reconciliation Commission of Canada was established in 2008—it has become increasingly common for gatherings in Canada to begin with acknowledgments of the Indigenous history of the land on which the meeting is taking place.
Such practices are important because they question easy assumptions about the ownership of the land, Kerr says. “For me personally, for the parish even, it’s important to recognize that we’re occupying space on land that was inhabited before.”
Even where land was ceded by treaty between Canadian Indigenous peoples and the colonizing powers, the treaties have not always been observed, she says, so that some Indigenous communities today are left with less land than they should have under treaty; and in any case, territory that Indigenous peoples agreed to give to the newcomers by treaty was still taken from them under duress.
“Of course, it was pretty much force—‘We can agree to this, or we can just take it,’” she says.
Still, Kerr says, the point of acknowledgment is not to antagonize, but to show respect and to spur meaningful conversations and greater understanding. Newcomers to her church, she says, are full of questions the first time they hear her acknowledge, before a service, the names of Indigenous groups who walked the land on which the church stands for thousands of years before the arrival of Europeans.
The idea of relationship
For Enright, the ultimate goal of acknowledgments is not to get caught up in questions about to whom the land really belongs, but rather to recognize that both peoples are now on it, and to express a hope that each may help the other to heal and flourish.
Thus, he says, it’s important that acknowledgments mention the relevant treaties, because these treaties contain the idea of relationship.
“You start off where there was some kind of accord—not necessarily a great one, but it still starts somewhere: ‘We’re on this land, we came together,’ ” he says.
“Aboriginal people came into the relationship very, very differently from how the Europeans came into the relationship. We thought, ‘We’re bringing new brothers and sisters into our fold,’ and you thought, ‘We’re getting new land.’ So we came with different agendas,” he says. “But if you get stuck on the agenda, then there’s no more opportunity for relationship.”
For the same reason, Enright says the acknowledgments he makes mention not only Indigenous peoples, but also the settlers and their descendants who have lived on the land as well.
The most important thing about an acknowledgment is that it’s genuine, Enright says.
“People say, ‘Can you write it down for me?’ I say, ‘No—then it becomes my words, not your words.’ The best kind of acknowledgment is one that actually is sincere.”
Instead of worrying that their acknowledgment will be amiss in some formal way, people should try to focus instead on making it in a good spirit—one that sees the acknowledgment as not just a formality or sufficient in itself, but as one step in an ongoing process.
Some acknowledgments he’s heard, he says, have left him with the impression that the person making it felt uncomfortable, perhaps because of a belief—incorrect, Enright says—that an Indigenous territorial acknowledgment should not mention other historically mistreated or vulnerable groups.
“I’ve heard people who…did it with their teeth grinding, because what they wanted to say is, ‘What about all these other people?’” he says. “They could have done that as part of their acknowledgment…but they were so caught up in doing it in the ‘right’ way.”
‘A change in consciousness’
Kerr believes acknowledgments should also express the relationship Indigenous peoples had—and, she adds, continue to have—with the land, the idea of the land as lying at the heart of their lives and spirituality.
“It’s not just a place to live, or a place to build on; it’s a place that keeps us grounded,” she says.
National Indigenous Anglican Bishop Mark MacDonald says he’s greatly encouraged that the territorial acknowledgment is spreading in Canada.
“I think it indicates a change in consciousness on the part of people who are promoting it,” he says. “I’m hoping that it will have an impact on people’s thinking and action in the future—more than just a ritual or a form, but that it will actually influence the way people think about Canada, and the way they think about their life and their role in Canada.”
Including territorial acknowledgments in worship services was one of four means of reconciliation recommended in 2016 by the Primate’s Commission on Discovery, Reconciliation and Justice, tasked with addressing reconciliation and injustices against Indigenous people in Canada.