“Acknowledging traditional territory specifically focuses on First Nations land title and rights, but it is also a means of raising a broader awareness of First Nations, Métis, and Inuit culture and history – specifically by way of our own relationships to the land and water… It is impossible to talk about Indigenous-specific anti-racism without talking about European imperialism and the theft of land…The story of First Nations people in Canada is…through the relationship to the land and water.”First Nations Health Authority
The loss of biodiversity and the climate crisis are intricately enmeshed with colonialism and its malevolent kin, capitalism. The destruction of Indigenous cultures and of their ability to be stewards of the Earth continues to be felt acutely today. Although it is blatantly insufficient as a token event to refuse to celebrate colonialist Columbus Day in the U.S. and to include Indigenous Peoples Day in Canada’s Thanksgiving holiday meditations, we can come closer to embracing Indigenous Earth stewardship. Actions are needed to dismantle and sink the toxic imperialist legacy of Columbus’s ship. Please listen to the podcast Holding the Fire.
Annie Proulx’s book Barkskins tells the multi-century story of the deep divide between the spiritual and ecological consciousness of Indigenous peoples and the genocidal policies of European invaders who destroyed the Indigenous peoples’ culture in tandem with the creeping deforestation of incredibly biodiverse lands, and the pollution of the waterways in New France (Québec), is well documented. And Serge Bouchard’s The Laughing People: A Tribute to my Innu Friends speaks poignantly of the invasion of Indigenous lands. Both books are available at the Lennoxville Library. The effects of this ecocide can be seen all across Southern Québec and into the North as well.
Of course it has been de rigueur for some years to murmur or pen in a sombre and contrite tone, with almost religious fervour, references to Indigenous unceded territory by institutions such as universities, churches, corporations and governments at the beginning of a lecture. Equally reprehensible are articles, sometimes written by lawyers, that endeavour to give credibility to their weak arguments by surreptitiously placating or distracting, or perhaps feebly attempting to assuage the conscience of white audiences by parroting the undisputed fact that lands have been stolen (‘unceded territories’) from Indigenous peoples; by some, it is implied as a consequence that we have forthwith absolved ourselves by faux confession and can now blithely continue on with the show. How unctuous and hypocritical. And indeed, it shows how ethically bankrupt we are when we bare our chests with humility to proclaim our genocidal past and continuous ecological theft… and stride on, as is implied in the First Nations booklet. Let’s be clear: acknowledging unceded territory is only a first step aimed at a reconciliation that must go on to weave actions into tangible and ultimately mutual resolution.
Many might ask themselves, upon coming to a lecture and hearing a prescribed and rote 30-second acknowledgement of the occupation of unceded territory, whether audiences should rise to their feet and scream, “Give the land back! It is never too late. Give back this sacred land to the rightful peoples who honour it!” I for one can feel the audience squirm in their seats each time words are uttered but are divorced from positive actions. What would happen if they did stand up and demand restitution? Most lawyers who represent these institutions and who only uphold and pass on the colonialist mantle would surely refuse, and if flush with money might perhaps hand over with much fanfare a building or two to parade their generously to the vanquished on their unceded territory in order to ‘compensate’ a grotesque injustice.
Historically, to pillage the land in the name of an unknown future is the invader’s raison d’être for most solutions, is even called ‘sustainable development’ by some so-called experts, and is the antithesis of Indigenous peoples’ close connection to the Earth. I recently read one article that mentioned sustainability 20 times. The current invasion of Indigenous lands in British Columbia for the construction of a fossil fuel pipeline is only one of many instances whereby ecocide, tragically fostered by governments and institutions as a pseudo-policy for ‘energy security’, manifests itself, and in Québec there is no shortage of examples.
Done with the equivalence and finesse of a slaughterhouse knife that effectually pars down the existence of biodiverse lands into a newly ‘enhanced’ achievement is something that has always been emulated by corps of engineers throughout the world, and Québec is no different. It’s called ‘expertise’.
It’s time to radically build on and revitalize past Indigenous acknowledgements in our communities that have sadly been reduced by bad faith in some instances and to vigorously take on non-hypocritical action by returning lands to Indigenous peoples. For example, if you are an institution that occupies 100 acres on Indigenous unceded land but have much more land than that, give back the majority of that land. All the rest is a capitalist investment supplanting wisdom by rapacious greed. “As he cut, the wildness of the world receded, the vast invisible web of filaments that connected human life to animals, trees to flesh and bones to grass shivered as each tree fell and one by one the web strands snapped.” ― Annie Proulx, Barkskins
There are of course those who speak with deep humility and truthfulness when they acknowledge Indigenous lands, as it is clearly not their intention to spout words of acknowledgement regarding unceded lands before a church service or a university lecture in the manner that is criticized in the First Nations Health Authority booklet cited in this article. Crucially, what actions will be taken to truly allow for reconciliation and justice? Shredding a landscape, ripping off its topsoil, polluting the land with noise and diesel contamination and then moulding and reformulating the topography like a science experiment is NOT the way to acknowledge unceded lands. This is the festering sore, the long cut road through primeval sacred forests, which started 400 years ago.
There are many people who unreservedly understand the climate and biodiversity crises. The September 29 Climate Action protest in Sherbrooke brought out maybe 300 people, and even though some free bus tickets were distributed, the publicity was at best incomplete and few students attended from Bishop’s and University of Sherbrooke. Most of the protesters were exuberant teenagers, together with a new group of older people who have banded together to fight climate/biodiversity collapse, but there was only a smattering of university students. After a summer of great catastrophe around the world, including the forest fires of Québec that caused so much destruction and pollution, would not more young people be expected to come out? Could not teachers have announced in each class the climate protest and urged their students to attend by creating communities that care? Is that not one part of climate education? Government and educational administrations worldwide, in thrall to climate deniers for 35 years, refused to educate their youth, and now unenfranchised, under-educated and a mostly consumer-obsessed apolitical students populate the campuses of many Canadian universities, with few skills to protect their future. Have adults adequately provided young people with the guidance and straightforward universal science education necessary to counter these crises? Clearly not.
And yet, when I attended a three-hour biodiversity workshop last week, I witnessed a strong resolve on the part of people younger than 35 to move past the slumber, the inertia of older self-complacent generations. Desperate to slake their thirst for knowledge, they seek it outside the bounds of the institutions upon which it is incumbent to provide education in the most pressing issues of our time.