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New resource for university teachers demonstrates how to acknowledge Indigenous territory

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The relationship between Aboriginal people and the Canadian schooling system has historically been a tumultuous one. In a step towards reconciliation the Canadian Association of University Teachers (CAUT) recently released the Guide to Acknowledging Traditional Territory to recognize the Indigenous nations whose land we learn and work on. It includes territorial acknowledgements for each region where they have member associations, from St. John's, Newfoundland to Victoria, British Columbia. 

Marie Battiste, the Aboriginal Representative-at-Large on the CAUT's Executive Committee and a professor in the Department of Educational Foundations at the University of Saskatchewan, says the idea for the guide came from the Aboriginal Post-Secondary Education Working Group. 

"We've had a forum every two years with Aboriginal faculty and during those forums that we've had, wherever we meet we would found out what is the territory on which we were meeting and established that as an ongoing thing that we were doing," she says.

Out of that practice, CAUT staff began consulting with Aboriginal faculty and researching university websites to develop the guide. CAUT council has voted to accept the document as procedure and to acknowledge territory every time they meet. 

Battiste, who is also a member of the Mik'maw First Nation, says acknowledging territory has been a customary practice among many Indigenous communities. She says the Mik'maw people carried wampum, purple beads made from shells, when travelling on other people’s territory. 

"Wampum was an acknowledgement of your purpose across someone's land," she explains. "It would be a way for you to pass on where you're going, what you're doing, and so the protocols of recognizing whose land you are on is an important, old and very customary tradition that Indigenous people always have had."

These acknowledgements are also an important part of working towards reconciliation. It was not until the 1950s that Aboriginal students began attending provincial institutions, with the last Indian residential school closing in 1996. 

"The main thing I think that’s really important is it's bringing to people's attention a history which until fairly recently has not been a part of most people’s thinking," says Linc Kesler, Director of the First Nation House of Learning at UBC and of Oglala Lakota ancestry. "I think it gives people at least an entrée into thinking about a much longer history of cultures in these areas."

As centres of learning university campuses are important places for these acknowledgements to take place. Canada is also host to many international students who may not be familiar with the country's Indigenous history.

"People go to universities to get the training they need to be in different kinds of employment and often that's employment which has quite a bit of social power," says Kesler. "If they leave here without the knowledge to act in an informed way about a lot of the issues that have to do with Indigenous people, and I think people are recognizing that that's a bigger list than we used to think it was, then we're not really providing the leadership we need and skills for those places where important decisions get made."

While there has been a lot of positive reaction to the CAUT guide, there has also been some criticism about how it could be improved. Battiste notes there has been some question over whether it is inclusive enough.

Bruce Miller is a professor of Anthrolopology at UBC whose work concerns Indigenous people and their relations with the state. He says one issue is who's missing from these acknowledgments. 

"In Canada there’s a large number of non-acknowledged Indigenous communities," he explains. "It's just another form of non-acknowledgement, it's painful for those people. They're Aboriginal people and they're not going to be showing up in this."

Miller works with many of these unofficially recognized communities, including the Hwlitsum people, who are recognized individually as status Indians but not as a community. They left their ancestral village in B.C. after it was shelled by the British Navy in the 1860's and have since been fighting to reclaim their land.

Some also argue that territorial acknowledgements can become empty token statements, like this op-ed from Ubyssey News Editor Moira Warburton. There are similar arguments against mandatory post-secondary courses about Indigenous history. Rauna Kuokkanen writes that they are a shallow solution opposed to deeply addressing academic practices. 

However Kesler says, "I think it's a small thing in some respects because it's just an acknowledgement of a territory and even when it's done in a way which seems very nominal or token it's still bringing attention to the fact that there is a history there and that's of value."

Kesler says that UBC has worked on not only getting people accustomed to land acknowledgement but also thinking deeper about what it means. He notes that there are many other ways of acknowledging. This April UBC, installed a Musqueam house post carved by Brent Sparrow Jr., prominently displayed near the new Alumni Centre. There are also plaques with information about the post, artist and Musqueam people.

"I never go by that place now without seeing people reading it," he says. "I think it's a way for people to not only see a kind of cultural presence but to think about the fact that it's indicating something much more extensive than that. And I think that’s what those acknowledgements should point to."

While the guide may be a small and imperfect gesture, it still has value for Canada's institutions. These are political statements that acknowledge the historical and current presence of Indigenous people in Canada.

"Our times are such interesting times because the larger picture is the relationship between mainstream and the state and Aboriginal people is changing very rapidly," says Miller. "Maybe that's the real value of this is that it just signals that the relationships are transforming, independent of the actual content of any of these messages."

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