The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

Canada pays tribute to indigenous people before hockey games, school days. Some complain it rings hollow.

Students of All Saints Indian Residential School in Saskatchewan pose beside a garden. At some schools, land acknowledgments are now spoken before class. (Geological Survey of Canada collection/Library and Archives Canada)

COLLINGWOOD, Ontario — The day at Admiral Collingwood Elementary School here on the banks of Georgian Bay begins not with Canada’s national anthem, but with a reminder of the country’s dark colonial history.

“Simcoe District School Board acknowledges that we are situated on the traditional land of the Anishnaabeg people,” a voice intones each morning over the school’s intercom system. “We acknowledge the enduring presence of First Nation, Metis and Inuit people on this land, and are committed to moving forward in the spirit of reconciliation and respect.”

Such statements, known as land acknowledgments, have grown familiar in Canada, where they are spoken before NHL games, ballet performances and meetings of Parliament, among other venues. With roots in the traditional practices of some indigenous groups, they are supposed to honor the peoples who lived on the territory before European settlers arrived — and in some cases, still do.

As they have become commonplace, they have also drawn a backlash — and not only from conservative Canadians fretting about political correctness run amok (though there is some of that). Indigenous people themselves are increasingly expressing concerns about the practice, worrying it has become an empty and perfunctory gesture, a way to feign support for their communities without addressing their concerns or doing the more difficult work of building meaningful relationships with them.

“I wouldn’t say stop doing land acknowledgments,” said Lynn Gehl, an Algonquin Anishinaabe-kwe author from the Ottawa River Valley, “but I’m not naive enough to think that it’s a great and wonderful step toward reconciliation.”

Canadian government inquiry assails ‘genocide’ of indigenous women, girls

The statements appear to have spread organically after the 2015 report of Canada’s Truth and Reconciliation Commission. After seven years of study, the commission found the country’s century-long policy of forcibly removing indigenous children from their homes and educating them at government-funded, church-run residential schools constituted a “cultural genocide.”

The election that year of Prime Minister Justin Trudeau, who made “nation-to-nation” reconciliation with indigenous people a key plank of his campaign, helped accelerate their use, said Linc Kesler, a professor of First Nations and indigenous studies at the University of British Columbia.

Not everyone has embraced them.

Alberta’s new United Conservative government has stopped opening its events with land acknowledgments, leaving it up to the “personal preference” of lawmakers instead.

In March, the city council in Richmond Hill, Ontario, a suburb outside Toronto, rejected calls to open meetings with them.

Joe DiPaola, the city’s deputy mayor, said at a public meeting that he feared the city was “treading down a course of political correctness that’s going to be difficult to rein in,” and wondered why immigrant groups were not also being acknowledged.

For some, the pushback is not surprising.

“Land acknowledgments are about making legible truths that have been displaced and erased, and that’s very uncomfortable for some people,” said Daniel Heath Justice, a Cherokee professor of First Nations and indigenous studies at the University of British Columbia. “Settler fragility is a real and powerful force in this country.”

Sheila Cote-Meek, an Anishinaabe scholar at Laurentian University in Ontario, remembers the first time she heard a land acknowledgment in the workplace.

Finally, she thought, people are starting to recognize there were indigenous peoples here.

Since then, she said, she has watched what she believes is a valuable practice become a pro forma exercise in ticking a box. Speakers often rush through land acknowledgments, she said, mispronouncing the names of indigenous groups and repeating factual errors.

The latest front in Canada’s effort to reconcile with indigenous Canadians: Language

Such concerns spurred the creation of a mobile app called Whose Land, which maps out treaties and traditional territories in Canada to improve the accuracy of acknowledgments.

Figuring out whose land one is on is not always straightforward. In some parts of Canada, conflicting land claims remain unresolved. In others, parcels of land might have changed hands among indigenous groups many times in exchanges that were never recorded.

Mitch Holmes, a Mohawk researcher for Whose Land, reviewed several land acknowledgments while he and his team were creating the app — and found errors in roughly half of them.

He is conflicted about the practice.

Many non-indigenous people fail to consult with indigenous groups when writing them, he said.

They are viewed “as something they can do that makes them feel good,” he said, when actual reconciliation “takes a lot more work.”

He is “not sure” whether the practice should continue.

“I think it depends on what space you’re in and who is doing it,” Holmes said.

There are also the awkward acknowledgments. The organizers of the Pride Toronto festival apologized last month after an acknowledgment had one major flaw: It failed to acknowledge anyone.

“Take a moment to connect with the land,” the acknowledgment said. “No matter what part of Mother Earth our family originates from, we all have a relationship to the land. Let’s build a healthy relationship together.”

Gehl struggles with her feelings about land acknowledgments.

“I find them patronizing because I know that Canada isn’t meeting us on a nation-to-nation basis,” she said. “But at the same time, they are important, and we should continue to do them.”

Kesler, who has helped write acknowledgments in British Colombia, said he understands the concerns about them being disingenuous, but he’s not ready to give up on them.

“Of course it can be used badly. Of course it can be done nominally. Of course it can done in a way that is alienating to the people it is designed to address,” he said. “But used properly, I think it’s really of significant benefit.”

‘Third World conditions’: Many of Canada’s indigenous people can’t drink the water at home

Thousands of Canada’s indigenous children died in church-run boarding schools. Where are they buried?

The mystery of 1,000 missing and murdered indigenous women in Canada

Today’s coverage from Post correspondents around the world

Like Washington Post World on Facebook and stay updated on foreign news