Why We Need Treaty Acknowledgements

I attended a conference in the field of child and youth care at MacEwan University this spring. Prior to opening comments, the emcee addressed the crowd. His initial words were somewhere along the lines of “before we begin, I would like to acknowledge that we are on Treaty 6 land”.  Because this was the first time I had heard this acknowledgment, my initial reaction was that it was neat to hear; however, I assumed it was said because there were many people in the room that were First Nations, and many employees of agencies who serve First Nations people (myself being in both categories). Furthermore, I assumed this acknowledgement was directed more particularly to the First Nations individuals in attendance, as a thank-you-for-giving-up-your-historical-land sort of thing. It was fitting and appropriate and I’m sure that most in the audience accepted and understood the acknowledgment.

Now, I wonder how accurate these assumptions were. Did all the attendees understand the reasons behind recognizing treaties? Do I? Given that I come from a lineage that means I am both colonizer and colonized, it is a topic I better be clear on.

So, what is a treaty? On a basic level, it is an agreement between the Government of Canada and First Nations people whereby tribes gave land to the government in exchange for certain “privileges”, such as pockets of land and hunting/fishing “rights”. At least…that’s how the Government explains them. Accounts from the other side, however, tell us that these treaties were coercive and forced upon First Nations tribes while settlers started moving into these lands and encroaching onto the food supply. First Nations signed the agreements, and many accounts indicate that this was done primarily because agreeing to the treaties was necessary for survival. In total there are 11 treaties signed.

My city, Edmonton,  is within Treaty 6, but I can’t help but wonder how it came to be that the land underneath this city does not remain that of First Nations people? The answer seems to be that Treaty agreements meant that land was to be shared between settlers and First Nations, and the way of life of each was to be respected and maintained. However, as time went on, Indigenous people were pushed onto small pieces of land within the Treaty territories, called reserves, which was part of the overall colonial project to erode their connection to the land and their way of life. The widely diverse and rich cultural practices of Indigenous peoples were lost. Or, like the land, stolen.

Why should we acknowledge this? Because this land is both stolen and shared – stolen from the Indigenous people who lived here long ago and now shared between those with lineages that settled here and those with First Nations lineage who remain. In my case, I embody both. Yes, now shared, although most of us would never know this and shared in way that does not maintain or respect the Indigenous ways of life found here, as was promised. In fact, what we see today is the continued segregation of First Nations people,  spatially and socially.

“The ground on which we walk is sacred ground. It is the blood of our ancestors”

– Chief Plenty Coups

So, what do treaty acknowledgements do? Treaty acknowledgements serve as a reminder that this land is shared imperfectly, and that we have real commitments to fulfill towards one another. They also remind us of the historical treatment of First Nations people in Canada, and how we are or ought to be working toward reconciliation as a society.

Fast-forward to this fall, where I was a part of a performance. I don’t believe it was attended by many First Nations individuals, yet the organizers still acknowledged Treaty 6 territory. This time I better understood the importance of the acknowledgment, and that it not only serves to remind that the land was taken from First Nations people, but it moves us away from segregation, towards an imperative of sharing the land and experiences, while appreciating and embracing cultural differences. It is a small gesture with profound impact. This time, when I heard that acknowledgement, I recognized that I am both settler and indigenous, privileged and segregated, oppressor and oppressed, colonizer and colonized, and I continue to work through those divisions within me, represented by the land I walk upon and the society I participate in.


erinErin Newman, M.Ed. is a mental health therapist specializing in the treatment of youth in both private practice and in the public sector. She is also passionate about feminist issues, Indigenous rights, and advocacy for children and youth. Academically, Erin was the recipient of the Indspire Scholarship and the Metis Bursary Award for social services. She hopes to pursue further graduate studies exploring how movement, dance and therapy can assist in healing trauma. Erin uses gardening, nature, and animal therapy for her own personal growth, is a dancer with the integrated and political performing group, CRIPSIE, and spends the rest of her spare time chasing after a toddler.

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