Indigenous land acknowledgements have become a mainstream practice across Canada in different sectors of society, from private entertainment events to the public service to public ceremonies.
While meant as a sign of respect for First Nations, such acknowledgements recently ran up against some stumbling blocks involving potential legal issues and the interpretation of history. It comes at a time when the “Land Back” campaign, a movement by indigenous groups in the United States and Canada to regain control of federally held or Crown land, is being discussed at the top of the national leadership.
In mid-October, New Brunswick Attorney General Ted Flemming advised government staff to stop issuing land or title acknowledgements in “meetings and events, in documents, and in email signatures,” the CBC reported, citing a leaked memo.
Flemming noted in the memo that the N.B. government is currently involved in a number of legal actions against the province initiated “by certain First Nations,” and in light of that, legal counsel for his office and the government advised that staff “not make or issue territorial or title acknowledgements.”
In Quebec, the recent decision of the Montreal Canadiens hockey team to start acknowledging unceded territory of the Mohawk Nation before home games drew some fire, with media commentators and academia weighing in. Indigenous Affairs Minister Ian Lafrenière sounded a word of caution.
“It’s important to recognize that the First Nations were here before us and that we now live together, but we’re getting into a debate where historians disagree, so maybe it was a mistake,” Lafrenière told reporters on Oct. 20.
Tom Flanagan, a retired political science professor at the University of Calgary, believes this desire to be respectful is not without consequences.
“The people that make these land acknowledgments are probably just thinking they’re trying to be nice, recognizing as a gesture of goodwill, but it creates a mood in which governments become less willing to assert their sovereignty over the land,” he told The Epoch Times.
Flanagan says the Land Back movement overlaps with the “general trend” toward weakening Canadian sovereignty, which he describes as a “very dangerous thing.”
“I’ve been trying to combat that now for many decades in my writings, but I seem to be losing,” he says.
“I think a lot of these people who want to give the land back are perhaps more confused than anything else. They may not fully realize what they’re dealing with.”
Although the land acknowledgements are merely oral pronouncements, they are not uncommon and could point to a changing mood in the Canadian public.
The Assembly of First Nations (AFN) said in late August that its internal polling showed the Canadian electorate being “more engaged and supportive of our priorities than ever before.”
The AFN released a document at that time, three weeks before the federal election, titled “Healing Path Forward,” which set out a series of First Nations priorities for the next government.
One of these priorities stated, “As part of reparations for First Nations, at the very least, return crown lands to First Nations.”
The Epoch Times contacted the AFN for comments but didn’t hear back.
AFN National Chief RoseAnne Archibald discussed the issue when interviewed by CTV’s Evan Solomon in late August. Solomon asked if the AFN is essentially seeking to have 89 percent of the lands in Canada returned to First Nations.
“Well, it is a movement and it is called Land Back, and it is a part of reparations,” Archibald said.
“Land Back is really about making sure that First Nations can benefit from the land that the Creator gave them, that they’ve been placed on, and that they can certainly have an input and manage the resources of that land. So it’s a complicated issue. And I just don’t want people to think that it’s about fee simple and land ownership in the traditional sense of how Westerners see land ownership.”
Fee simple refers to a type of land ownership that has no limitations or conditions, where the land interest lasts beyond the owner’s lifetime and extends to the heirs.
Last November, author and activist Naomi Klein and indigenous activist Kanahus Manuel penned an opinion piece for The Globe and Mail on the Land Back phenomenon.
They wrote that the indigenous pipeline protests and railway blockades in February 2020 were “united by a common philosophy and shared goal, one summed up in the slogan that is rapidly gaining force in Indigenous movements across this continent. Land Back.”
“‘Land Back’ means precisely what it sounds like: taking land back under Indigenous control and protection that was never legally ceded in the first place,” they wrote.
The authors describe “the Land Back protests” as breaking with the indigenous establishment and the notion of compromise, and they say the growing support for the movement is similar to that of the “Black Lives Matter uprisings.”
Ryerson University’s indigenous-run Yellowhead Institute produced a “Red Paper” in 2019 titled “Land Back” opining that despite the “supposed era of reconciliation” and an appearance of progress, it doesn’t go far enough, “because there is a stubborn insistence by Canada, the provinces and territories, that they own the land.”
While addressing the land dilemma, the authors also tie in several other related issues, such as anti-capitalism, social justice, climate change, and LGBTQ+ rights.
“Land theft is currently driven by an unsustainable, undemocratic, and fatal rush toward mass extinction through extraction, development, and capitalist imperatives,” the paper says.
The Epoch Times contacted Hayden King, executive director at Yellowhead and one of the authors of the paper, but didn’t hear back.
Brian Giesbrecht, a retired judge and senior fellow with the Frontier Centre for Public Policy, says the Land Back movement “is a new approach with Marxist terminology, but I suggest that it is just the post-modernist interpretation of the same ‘share the land’ campaign that began many years ago.”
“In short, ‘land back,’ like ‘share the land’ and land acknowledgements, are about keeping the privileged wealthy while the indigenous underclass live lives of quiet desperation,” Giesbrecht said in an interview.
Flanagan says the fact that the AFN’s Chief Archibald discussed the concept doesn’t mean it’s broadly accepted across the country, noting that First Nations are fragmented. While all First Nations share a sense of grievance, “ideologically it takes a lot of different manifestations, and the most radical exponents don’t necessarily speak for very many.”
As for the possibility of Canada giving land back, he doesn’t see it happening on a large scale.
“There are so many different legal situations. You get all these little local battles about particular areas,” he said. “I don’t think there’s going to be any kind of major national transfer.”