Whose territory? The changing culture of territorial acknowledgements

May 15, 2019 | Blog, Governance | 2 comments

A few weeks back I did a two-minute statement about the emergence of territorial acknowledgements over the past few years. The trailblazers have been identifying territory for a bit longer, but this is a new cultural tradition in the long history of our country and province.

Frequently, someone will contact me seeking advice on how to do a territorial acknowledgement properly. What is the right way to pay tribute to the Indigenous territory and people of the local area where you are meeting? It’s an area ripe for philosophical and anthropological reduction. I’ll leave that for someone else – for now. Here are my thoughts on how to deliver a good territorial acknowledgement.

I don’t think it is a bad idea to ground a meeting or event with a little dose of reality. There are serious land questions that have yet to be settled. The most common type of territorial acknowledgement sounds like this: “First, I would like to acknowledge that we are hosting our meeting in the (X) territory of the (X) people, or the (X-language) speaking people.”

Speak from the heart

This wears out quickly and it can become patronizing especially if it is as short as the sentence above. But quantity is less important that quality. It’s painfully obvious when someone cares less by rattling off a benign script because they are bound by duty. Your delivery is important. In my opinion, if you don’t mean it don’t do it.

This is an opportunity to take a moment to speak from the heart. If you know that you are going to be in this situation take some time to think about the place you are working. How does it make you feel? What are you grateful for? If you don’t know anything about the Indigenous people in the area take a moment to learn something about them. And if that is not possible, then just show gratitude toward those people for looking after that place for so many generations before.

For the few first times why not talk about the fact you are nervous, and that this is still new to you. Reflect on how it requires a little discomfort and that there is fear that you might get it wrong and someone might get offended. That’s good, when my kid is up to bat and facing down a starting pitcher throwing heat, I tell him to stand in the batting box and take a swing. Go for it! The more honest and genuine you are the better.

It’s better to try

If you are given a script, personalize it, reflect on it, add value to the discussion. For those of you who are called upon to regularly acknowledge territory, or you’re an elected official then it is time to evolve. We are moving past the basic head nod. You have a great opportunity to advance reconciliation by reflecting on the specific ways you’re affecting change.

Our society is evolving and we are taking positive steps forward to better understanding and greater honesty about our history. Increasingly, these acknowledgements are evolving out of the government and institutional tables and into the community. We are taking the time to reflect deeply on where we have come from and that will hopefully inspire us to be more thoughtful and compassionate about where the relationship with the Indigenous people in Canada and British Columbia goes from here.

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  1. Mark

    Agree with the above.

    I wish there was a response the hosted people could give back, firstly to acknowledge unceded territory and to thank the host for reminding us.

    Maybe “thank you” is enough perhaps there’s is a better response that the First Nations could provide us with that they would prefer.

  2. Bob

    Thanks Adam, good thoughts. I have the opportunity to hear acknowledgements in many provinces. What strikes me as missing is an acknowledgment that our prosperity, livelihoods and privileges as Canadians, derive from the lands and waters that were and are integral to the lives of Indigenous peoples, and that were colonized by our society in ways we now know and acknowledge, were wrong.


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