In Canada these days, many public events like graduations, awards presentations, lectures, and other functions are prefaced with an official statement acknowledging that the proceedings take place on the unceded ancestral territory of the local Aboriginal group. As well, some Canadian institutions, such as the Ottawa Public Library, plan to install permanent signage expressing similar points to all staff, clients, or students who enter their buildings. Like so much else in Canadian policy towards Indigenous people over the past fifty years, the ritual honoring of Native land is a mostly empty gesture which satisfies the demands of the Native legal lobby, flatters the conscience of the non-Native chattering classes, and does more harm than good for ordinary Native citizens.
First of all, having heard my share of territorial testimonies spoken aloud, I can report that they are usually uttered with all the emotional commitment of a preflight safety demonstration: a perfunctory, dutiful disclaimer before the real experience gets under way. Surely the long, complicated story of pre- and post-colonial Canada warrants more consideration than a secular version of saying grace or a northern version of pledging allegiance? Why reduce a powerful, politically charged message to a mechanical observance?
The formal introductions which announce that university commencements, public readings or academic debates occur on Native land also reinforce unfortunate stereotypes of “primitive” Aboriginals. It’s one thing to note that a strip mine or a strip mall sits on what used to be the unspoiled preserve of such-and-such a First Nation – anyone can appreciate the tragedy of natural wilderness being lost to ugly industrialization. But libraries and schools, where the Aboriginal-land reminders are most often invoked, are sites of knowledge and progress, representing the best of the culture which displaced that of the Aboriginals themselves. The unintended implication of raising Indigenous claims inside grand works of architecture is that Natives merely held the vacant property until outsiders came along and actually built something useful on it. Natives were good at overseeing a lot of empty space, runs the inference; they can’t possibly be responsible for anything that’s since been done to it. Is that what the ceremonial declarations are meant to tell us?
It’s this awkward contrast – between geography and technology, between memory and modernity – which makes these routine mini-sermons so embarrassing. Not only are they cheap words which have little effect on faraway Aboriginal communities ravaged by poverty, addiction, and suicide, but their offhand magnanimity (“Before we begin tonight’s bingo tournament, let us all remember that we are gathered on the traditional sacred home of the Ojibway people…”) underscores the power of the conquerors over the conquered. Unquestionably, Canadians whose ancestors came from Europe or elsewhere to seize and settle on others’ homelands have much to be ashamed of. But Canadians whose ancestors were unable to prevent their homelands being seized and settled on by others have much to be humiliated by, and every patronizing reiteration of that history, however apologetic in tone or respectful in language, adds insult to their injury.