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.

The latest annual report on life expectancy from Alberta Health was published earlier this week and the massive drop in the projected lifespan of Alberta’s indigenous people is startling. The report states that “in comparison to Alberta’s total population, the First Nations populations experience an infant mortality rate that is more than one and a half times higher, a suicide rate that is five to seven times higher, a higher rate of diabetes and significantly higher rates of arthritis, asthma, heart disease and high blood pressure.” While non-indigenous Albertans are expected to live to the ripe old age of 81.87 years, the indigenous life expectancy currently sits at only 70.36 years. That’s almost a dozen years less than everyone around them. A dozen less years to live, laugh and love in relative health like the rest of us.

It is critical to realize that these statistics are only an alarm bell sounding for the rest of us living next to or among our indigenous neighbours. These numbers do not tell First Nations stories: tragic stories of children lost prematurely, stories of loved ones lost to suicide and to the social isolation of addiction and mental illness. They do not tell of the loss of an entire way of life and the effect that this has had on a community’s eroded sense of self and access to healthy, life-giving foods and exercise.

The fact that these preventable tragedies are happening in different communities occupying the same geographic space is unacceptable, and it is not only the imperative of our government to take action: as a Muslim convert born in Alberta, I am not only religiously implored to treat my neighbours well, care for them and cooperate with them, I am also forbidden from harming them and allowing others to harm or neglect them as well. Islam teaches us that it is incumbent upon everyone to ensure that our neighbours do not go hungry as we eat our fill – no matter who those neighbours might be. And an extension of this is that we simultaneously cannot accept our own privileged access to health foods and services, while our brothers and sisters are neglected. Food bank usage among non-indigenous Albertans alone increased more than 23% between 2014 and 2015: if we are going to be a strong Alberta, we are our strongest together and this starts by helping protect our most vulnerable populations.

Empty stomachs and subpar nutrition have vast social consequences, particularly for communities that are already vulnerable through inherited historical trauma and continuing marginalization. The first question to enter one’s mind when faced with what Health Minister Sarah Hoffmann is calling “a troubling situation” should be: how can I help?

The most practical and immediate action you can take is to support local agencies that are trying to make change. Municipal food banks help serve indigenous peoples in cities while Alberta Food Banks is the provincial association of food banks with a mission to advance the vital role, capacity and voice of Alberta’s food banks through advocacy, educational and networking opportunities. While they have yet to form a similar initiative as the Regional Food Distribution Association (of Northwestern Ontario) which feeds indigenous communities specifically, there is no reason such a critical project could not be initiated here. And putting our dollars and donations where our mouths are helps such projects gain momentum. Further, while it is critical that the government of Alberta take action to improve access to health services, better infrastructure and healthier foods, we cannot forget that these people are our elected representatives. Contact your MLA to ensure they are doing everything they can to answer the call to action and are following through on partnerships with indigenous leaders to address the issue through purposeful action.

At the very least, raise awareness with the intention of taking action and remember that while these news stories and reports may fall off our radar within a couple of days on being shared on a newsfeed, these troubling statistics are life stories of the indigenous people around us: lives cut short, potential diminished, and injustice allowed to continue in our midst. I, for one, cannot accept that reality and neither should you.

Nakita Valerio is the owner and head writer for The Drawing Board.


Update: I have called the Alberta Food Banks to ask for an update on any projects that deliver to reserves specifically and will follow-up with how to donate or initiate such a project depending on their response.