photos: Photo courtesy of Greenpeace/Keri Coles

Unceded territory

Megaphone's March cover: Meaningfully acknowledging the Coast Salish peoples

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I’d like to acknowledge that this article was produced on unceded Coast Salish territories.

But what does that mean?

If you’ve attended public events in Vancouver or Victoria in the past few years, you’ve probably heard an acknowledgement like this. Whether spoken at municipal functions, art exhibits or non-profit organizations, it has become an increasingly popular way to open events.

While the specific terminology may vary, the underlying motivation is the same: an admission that the land we stand on belongs to those who lived here before colonization—those who made their homes along the shores and waterways of what we now call the Pacific Northwest.

Acknowledgements that identify and pay respect to the region’s original inhabitants fit well into the reputation that Canada’s West Coast has cultivated. Vancouver and Victoria pride themselves on being progressive, multicultural cities, keenly attuned to environmental concerns and supportive of social justice initiatives.

Arrivals to the Vancouver International Airport will find a large collection of Northwest Coast art, including the Welcome Figures by Nuu-chah-nulth artist Joe David, and the Jade Canoe by Haida artist Bill Reid. The homes of well-to-do residents are often decorated with native carvings of salmon, bear and ravens, and in bohemian enclaves there are dream catchers dangling from Subaru windshields, and bumper stickers extolling the virtues of living according to indigenous wisdom. But despite a reputation for enlightenment, it’s a different story in the streets. Take a walk through certain areas of our cities, and you’ll be confronted with another indisputable fact: disproportionate numbers of indigenous people are marginalized. Homeless people congregate in the doorways of boarded-up businesses in run-down neighbourhoods, in gentrifying areas; sex workers and people with mental illness are targets of police scrutiny. In this context, what does it mean to acknowledge that this is “unceded” land?

We know the original residents were dispossessed—their homes, hunting and fishing grounds stolen by settlers who were sponsored, sanctioned and supported by the colonial system. But what follows from that? How do we reconcile daily life in Vancouver and Victoria—cities named for a British sea captain and a former Queen of England—when their very presence is the result of an imperialist drive that came, saw and conquered?

Faced with this reality, cynics will deride land acknowledgements as merely lip service, meaningless babble born from the belly of liberal guilt. Does saying these words provide a free pass going forward? Is it business as usual—or does admitting past injustices impose obligations? Should homeowners be concerned about their property values—for according to the law colonial sponsors imported, acknowledging theft comes with consequences. Are reparations owed? Or should land acknowledgements be seen as a sign of respect, and a symbol of what a better future might look like?

'History is marching over them'
Grand Chief Stewart Phillip has been involved in the struggle for indigenous recognition for more than 40 years. Phillip, of the Okanagan Nation, has served as a president of the Union of BC Indian Chiefs since 1998. When asked what it’s like to hear official acknowledgements like those from Vancouver city council, he says: “Its encouraging to know we have made that kind of progress. We’ve come a long way from the dark days of racist denial that existed when I first got involved.”

Phillip recalls the 1967 Calder case, when Frank Calder and several Nisga’a elders brought a lawsuit against British Columbia, claiming their land title had been illegally abrogated. Although the judgment wasn’t in the Nisga’a favour, it’s considered a landmark moment for indigenous land rights because the Supreme Court of Canada cited the Royal Proclamation of 1763. Issued by King George III of England, it decreed that aboriginal land title in North America existed and would continue until treaty extinguished it, and forbade settlers from acquiring land from aboriginals, either by purchase or by force.

“For the court to come out and say that aboriginal title wasn’t extinguished when B.C. entered Confederation, that was a landmark decision,” Phillip says. “It’s been a hard-fought campaign since then, right up until Tsilhquot’in.”

On June 26, 2014, the Supreme Court of Canada ruled that the Tsilquot’in First Nation, residing in central British Columbia, did possess clear aboriginal title to around 1800 square kilometres of ancestral land—and that the forestry licences issued to logging companies in the early 1980s had violated the Tsilquot’in right to determine how their lands are used. The case was a triumph for the indigenous rights movement, and has been the yardstick for measuring success going forward.

When asked if the City of Vancouver’s 2014 bylaw acknowledging unceded Coast Salish territory should worry the city’s property owners, Phillip is quick to reject that line of thinking. “I certainly don’t see it that way. I welcome it as an expression of acknowledgement and respect. No one I know looks at it any other way. For those people that are so regressive and so backward, that they will lose sleep over a greeting, a protocol that speaks to respect … well, history is marching over them.”

Today, Phillip says, he is filled with optimism. Part of that comes from recognizing just how much the attitude of governments has changed with regards to First Nations people. “I take great comfort from the fact that we have a Prime Minister who is not adverse or hostile to our constitutional and recognized rights—rather he embraces them and says we need to move forward together.”

But his greatest optimism comes from watching the next generation grow up. “I’m 66 now,” he says, “and for me to go to an event and hear elders speaking to us in our language, and to watch our children and grandchildren perform our dances and sing our songs…when I see that, I know we are going to be OK.”

‘Pretty but empty words’
Audrey Siegl (ancestral name sχɬemtəna:t) a First Nations activist from Musqueam, sees things a little differently. These types of acknowledgments are “just tokenism, pretty but empty words, spoken so we will be pacified for at least a little bit longer,” she said. “Why is the City of Vancouver not consulting with Musqueam on every single property sale, on land that they have admitted is unceded?” she asks. “To me, it looks like the city opened itself up to a legitimate legal challenge in their own courts, of whose land this is, and what rights do you have if it is stolen and unceded?”

Any sense of optimism that might have come from the declaration was quashed, Siegl says, when it became clear nothing substantial would change about how the city operates. “Almost immediately after they made the declaration,” she says, “it was followed up with an assurance to business partners here and around the world, to say: don’t worry, it’s still business as usual.”

The City’s lofty rhetoric can’t cover up the facts on the ground, she says. In her mind, there’s no sharper contrast than seeing multimillion-dollar homes sitting on lease land along southwest Marine Drive, while the overcrowded and impoverished Musqueam reserve struggles to provide basic, safe housing for its own people. Siegl is seen as radical by the Vancouver establishment—she condemns the city’s vast wealth gap, advocates for social programs for affordable housing and health care, and speaks openly of what she terms aboriginal sovereignty.

Today, what gives Siegl hope is the number of people she believes are ready to lend their support to reconciliation efforts. “I believe most people here want to be part of the healing, and connect with First Nations,” she says “They define themselves as allies, because they realize they are on someone else’s land.”

Word choices
For Vancouver Coun. Andrea Reimer, the decision to put forward a motion on June 24, 2014, titled “Protocol to Acknowledge First Nations Unceded Traditional Territory,” wasn’t about playing politics—it was about being honest.

“This land belonged to the Musqueam, Squamish and Tsleil-Waututh First Nations, that’s a fact,” she says. “Whether or not we say it out loud, it doesn’t change the reality of the situation. Conversely, by not saying it, by not acknowledging the truth, I believe we are creating a lot of harm.”

According to Reimer, the motion had three goals: to give First Nations people a space to speak about the harms they suffered as a result of colonization, land expropriation and residential schools; to give the non-indigenous community the chance to listen to these stories; and to unite Vancouverites around a shared goal of moving forward. “It became much less about an intellectual argument, and much more about feeling that wrongs had been done, and that there was a moral obligation to address it,” she says.

Reimer notes the implications of admitting that the land Vancouver sits on was “never ceded through treaty, war, or surrender” in an official motion. Does acknowledging the land was unceded impose obligations on the city’s residents? “There was some nervousness, for sure,” she says, “but like I said, whether or not we write it down on paper, it’s still true.”

Coincidentally, the day after city council voted on the motion, the Supreme Court of Canada ruled on the Tsilhquot’in case. “It said basically the same thing,” Reimer explains, “that there is an undeniable aboriginal title to specific lands in B.C., and as a result there are rights that must be respected. So in that sense, the courts went even further than we did.”

Reimer’s sentiment about the need to acknowledge the truth about the origins of the land is echoed by Victoria Mayor Lisa Helps.

“It’s simple, really—it is their territory,” she tells me by phone. “At the beginning of every official council meeting, we say that we are gathered in Victoria City Hall on the traditional territories of the Songhees and Esquimalt people.”

Though Helps shares Reimer’s sentiment about the importance of land acknowledgments, the wording her council uses differs. “We say the ‘traditional’ territories, not the ‘unceded’ territories,” Helps explains, “so depending on how much people are paying attention to language, it is a difference.”

Though the words used by the City of Victoria might be softer than Vancouver’s, Helps says she believes in backing up words with actions. Victoria has taken tangible steps towards reconciliation, she says, most notably by repatriating land on Beacon Hill for the Esquimalt and Songhees to construct a longhouse. “That’s a really strong ‘more than words’ outcome,” she says.

One foot in each world
For Dr. Sarah Hunt, assistant professor of critical indigenous geographies in the department of First Nations and Indigenous Studies at the University of British Columbia, conversations about land acknowledgement aren’t just an academic question—they are also deeply personal. As a Kwagiulth person with ancestry from Tsaxis (what we know as northern Vancouver Island), Hunt begins our interview by pointing out that she herself is a guest on Musqueam land.

“As a coastal person myself, recognizing the territory you are on and where you are from is the way we begin every event, any gathering,” she says. “It’s an important aspect of protocol, so for me the starting point is to think about these acknowledgements as a way to respect the laws of the territories we are on.”

When asked about her thoughts over the types of land acknowledgements and broad recognitions about “Coast Salish territory” that sometimes precede public events, she says: “The tricky part for me is that some of those recognitions can be empty. For myself, I think they are only meaningful if people bother to know whose land they are on precisely.”

According to Dr. Hunt, without a connection to a specific place—and to a specific people—the acknowledgement can’t be meaningful. And that’s the problem with using generalized labels like “Coast Salish territories” as a catch-all term, Hunt explains—it reproduces the colonial categorization system, undermining the ability of the people being labeled to self determine how they want to be named.

“Coast Salish is an imposed term,” she says. “It came out of the anthropological tradition, and it’s not a way that people here would describe themselves.”

History is littered with examples of governments who labelled indigenous groups in order to classify them for administrative purposes, she explains, removing their agency in the process.

By that analysis, both Vancouver and Victoria have at least done their homework. The City of Vancouver motion specifically mentions the Musqueam, Squamish and Tsleil-Waututh First Nations, and the City of Victoria names the Songhees and Esquimalt First Nations. Although the Esquimalt and Songhees refer to themselves as Lekwungen, the two were originally one community.

Dr. Hunt notes the different terminology used extends beyond the two cities’ choices of words, as some Musqueam elders refer to it as “occupied.”

“A lot of times people will say ‘traditional,’ as though it’s in the past. Here on Musqueam land, we have elders who use the term ‘occupied’ to refer to Vancouver, to denote that this issue is still occurring today,” she explains. “So using the word ‘unceded’ is a way to recognize the ongoing nature of the illegitimacy of Canada.”

Looking through this lens, it would be difficult to argue with this assessment— especially here in B.C., where explorers and prospectors pushed aside and deliberately marginalized indigenous people as they rushed into the interior in a quest for resources. But for Hunt, focusing solely on the historical legacy keeps the discussion in the past, and thus misses the bigger issue we confront today, which is: how do settlers on this land figure out what their responsibilities are? What are the obligations to the people who first inhabited this land?

“Maybe people can start thinking about it, not as just a legal recognition, but about how I can be a good guest here?” she says. “We haven’t been invited here, but here we are—so how can we bring meaning to the fact that we are on unceded territory? Maybe there are things that Musqueam people are doing for which they’re seeking public support. So can you support existing local struggles? And how can we support indigenous self determination in the longer term?”

Connecting the recognition of indigenous land rights to the ongoing struggles of First Nations against unsustainable resource development is something Grand Chief Stewart Phillip supports wholeheartedly. “In the indigenous world view,” he says, “we believe that the land, the water, the environment is what sustains all life. We simply can’t continue with rampant exploitation of the land, because there are consequences—global warming, climate change.

“I absolutely believe that embracing indigenous people and indigenous values is going to serve all of us in the long run, in terms of developing a sustainable approach to resource development, which we desperately need.”

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