Jan. 2021 – The Territorial Acknowledgement – a Foundational Act of Reconciliation

As someone who chairs and/or leads business meetings on a regular basis, I have been encouraged and challenged to begin meetings with a First Nations Territorial Acknowledgement. It’s been a fascinating, earnest & unexpected  journey of self-awareness and personal reconciliation. I have sought guidance and understanding from regional First Nations leaders and have recorded these discussions via podcasts (https://www.northernconversations.com/) to help broaden the dialogue & conversation amongst business community colleagues.

The process of understanding and generating a Territorial Acknowledgement script started with asking myself many questions. Why should a meeting start with a Territorial Acknowledgement? What should I say? Should I adapt the Territorial Acknowledgement to a digital, ZOOM based meeting environment? After conversations (recorded as podcasts) with regional First Nations leaders speaking to the origins, meaning and interpretations of the Territorial Acknowledgement, I was able to answer those initial questions and have summarized excerpts from those conversations in this article. The podcast conversations were held with Mavis Underwood, teacher, elder, advocate, spiritual leader and community representative from the Peninsula based Tsawout Nation, Christina Clarke, CEO of the Songhees Development Corporation and Adam Olsen, MLA Saanich North & the Islands & member of the Tsartlip Nation in Brentwood Bay (direct quotes italicized).

So what exactly are we acknowledging in the Territorial Acknowledgement statement?

We acknowledge the territories of the Indigenous people. The “Territorial Acknowledgement is a political statement encouraging primarily non-Indigenous people to recognize that they’re on Indigenous land and hopefully do something about it – (Hayden King, an Anishinaabe writer, educator and academic).”  The Territorial Acknowledgement is collectively considered the first real act of reconciliation and sends a message to Indigenous people that there will be a different approach than what we’ve done in the past. “There are still serious land questions that have yet to be settled. The territory and lands that we are on are not as sorted out as we assumed that they were at this point in time – (Adam Olsen).”

We are acknowledging history. A history that is fraught with dis-trust, racism and indifference. The reconciliation journey has been a conflict based and strife ridden process that only within the last several years has demonstrated signs of healing and improvement. For decades Caucasian based communities have generally been indifferent and uninformed to Indigenous culture and communities. That broken societal relationship of the past is gradually evolving to one of reconciliation and understanding. The Territorial Acknowledgement statement gives consideration to this historical injustice by engaging in an accountability process that endeavours toward meaningful reconciliation.

We are acknowledging wrongful behaviour. Oppression, bullying and disinformation must be acknowledged and confronted. It is difficult and challenging for First Nations young people to deal with these negative attributes and stereotypes. They need support and encouragement from family, community members and leaders to mitigate the negativity. The spirit and intent of the Territorial Acknowledgement implies collective community support and encouragement and helps to buffer the negativity.

We acknowledge the Indigenous communities cultural, spiritual and physical connections to the land. By engaging in a respectful and reflective Territorial Acknowledgement, “one is acknowledging the First Nations relationship to the land, one which is also economic, social and spiritual – (Christina Clarke).” The relationship to the land has formed an integral component to First Nations culture and how they lived. The land provided food, medicine and spiritual health. The community relationship to the land provided a “strength of purpose for our people. We don’t need to rely on institutions to stay healthy and prosper. There are many things that we can do on our own – (Mavis Underwood).”

  • Indigenous communities used to be a very independent people. COVID has forced non-Indigenous people to start respecting the land in the same way that they do, i.e., specific to food, water and self-sustainability. It’s important for all communities to know how to use the land to remain strong and healthy.
  • We must get over the stereotypes of working with the First Nations communities and learn to respect their relationship to the “strength of land & earth. We cannot continually be dis-placed off the land, the water and from good jobs – (Mavis Underwood).”
  • The Territorial Acknowledgement is a key component to recognizing the integral relationship to the land for Indigenous communities. The statement that “we are on Indigenous lands signifies that the First peoples of this country were here before us – (Christina Clarke).”

We acknowledge the presence and respect of First Nations ancestral stewardship of the land, water and culture.

  • The Territorial Acknowledgement acknowledges the First Nations presence in the room and is the foundational  understanding for genuine reconciliation – (Christina Clarke).”
  • “True reconciliation must show growth and progress in this community relationship. This understanding now allows us to strive for new objectives and understanding. The process of understanding the reasons and rational to the Territorial Acknowledgement is very positive and is a great grounding and learning exercise – (Christina Clarke).”
  • “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 – (Adam Olsen).”

Often we ask ourselves “what should I say and how should I say it?”. Christina and I chatted specifically about these questions and accompanying anxiety during our podcast chat (https://www.northernconversations.com/e/a-conversation-with-songhees-development-corporation-ceo-christina-clarke-about-the-pre-meeting-territorial-acknowledgement/).

  • “How you state the Territorial Acknowledgement can cause a lot of angst for people.”  Not sure how to pronounce names & communities? Not sure where the communities are located? Have I listed the correct Territories? It is considered positive and encouraging to ask these questions. Consider calling the Nations you’re engaged with and ask these questions honestly and respectfully. The learning involved in “getting it exactly right is not as important as the intention of doing it.”
  • Sometimes you can acknowledge several Nations and maybe those Nations don’t agree on territorial boundaries, “that’s OK”, but consider calling the Nations if you’re unsure.
  • the fact that you tried is showing that you want to understand & is positive.”
  • “at the risk of embarrassment, people will avoid saying the Territorial Acknowledgement…they are scared of making a mistake. However, speak from the heart when doing a Territorial Acknowledgement, you’ll never insult a community by being honest.”
  • Researching the Territorial Acknowledgement will spark further learning. “This learning exercise is the beginning of reconciliation.”

I am involved with a provincial and federal government funded Labour Market Partnership to collaborate with Lower Vancouver Island businesses, community organizations, and First Nation communities to implement a set of strategies that will increase the participation of First Nation peoples in the local workforce. These strategies are intended to address high unemployment levels experienced by First Nations band members and the skilled and unskilled worker shortages of local companies and improve workforce diversity. Building trust, relationships, cultural understanding & awareness is an important step in addressing the on-going high unemployment issues faced by First Nations communities and the skill shortage issues experienced by local businesses. Understanding the origins, reasons and context of the Territorial Acknowledgement is an essential component towards reaching this goal.