Reconciliation on campus: Land acknowledgments at the start of classes are still performative

Actions speak louder than words

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Indigenous statue pole in the AQ
Land acknowledgments are just the beginning of the work. Photo: Adam Madojemu / The Peak

By Maya Beninteso, Peak Associate

Content warning: mentions of graphic violence towards Indigenous peoples

As another semester dawns upon us, it means enduring another semester of empty words and abysmal attempts at reconciliation. The use of land acknowledgments, whether at the beginning or throughout the semester, lacks a key component: action. 

While important, land acknowledgments are the bare minimum and at the end of the day. In a world where Indigenous peoples lack clean drinking water, continue to end up missing or murdered, were confined and killed in residential schools, and comprise a disproportionate percentage of the foster care system, words uttered in a monotone fashion are purely performative. This chapter in Canada’s “dark history” is not closed — nor has it ever been — and SFU can do much better to act on Canada’s ongoing genocide

It seems as if Canada’s “engaged university” continues to lack engagement with respect to reconciliation. In my experience, land acknowledgments are met with a sigh by some faculty members — as if acknowledging we are indeed on stolen land is a waste of their breath. The attitude towards land acknowledgments may be a contributing factor to why Indigenous peoples see these utterings as superficial. In the words of the Algonquin elder Claudette Commanda, land acknowledgements are simply “a brownie point on [the] Truth and Reconciliation Commission report card.

Notably, the education system continually fails to address its colonial curriculum at every level. Education must expand its horizons beyond textbooks written by white cisgender heterosexual men with a Western lens. It often lacks Indigenous histories and perspectives but has been reinforced as “education.” 

Students, like the rest of our society, should be learning from an Indigenous lens within post-secondary institutions. They would gain invaluable knowledge from people who can share history from their own experience, instead of a colonial perspective. On top of that, this would fulfill Call to Action 63, which suggests education should integrate Indigenous knowledge and history into its curriculum. Faculty members need to be provided with the proper education in order to teach students on Indigenous ways of learning and knowledge. For instance, Indigenous knowledge has been recently consulted for matters pertaining to environmental protection. Faculty members can also invite Indigenous leaders and experts to share knowledge while retaining the integrity of their roots and paying them for their labour. Incorporating Indigenous knowledge, along with sincere land acknowledgments, is the bare minimum.  

The world of academia has historically been, and continues to be, composed of cisgender white men and SFU is no exception. There is a white bias towards white men that exists in the world of academia, wherein these candidates seeking research opportunities receive a response at significantly higher rates than any other intersectional identity. This reinforces systemic barriers that marginalized communities face. One way to combat this discrepancy is to add more diversity to educational institutions. In the Final Report of SFU’s Diversity Meter, a mere 3.7% of SFU’s faculty identified as Indigenous — a statistic which SFU claims is “proportionate” to the general population. However, according to the Government of Canada, 4.9% of Canada’s population identified as Indigenous as of 2020. 

SFU’s inaction doesn’t mean you cannot participate in reconciliation. Though I’m not an Indigenous person, there are a myriad of ways in which one may support reconciliation and Indigenous peoples. Namely, you can start by educating yourself on Indigenous history, culture, languages, and ways of learning. If you truly want to make a significant impact, you may further organize a fundraising event for a charity that supports Indigenous peoples.

Reconciliation doesn’t end with teaching Indigenous ways of learning and acknowledging we’re on stolen land. It means removing systemic barriers that Indigenous peoples face, listening to them,  and platforming their voices.