Editor’s note: This article is part of a series of reflections on the 2017 Canadian History and Environment Summer School. You can find all the articles here.
CHESS 2017 felt like a tour of the Indigenous land acknowledgement for the Greater Toronto Area. In many ways, we learned the full meaning of that acknowledgement.
If you attended the 2017 annual meeting of the Canadian Historical Association, you likely heard this acknowledgement several times at the start of panels and presentations. In fact, I read such an acknowledgement at a panel at that conference and at the opening of CHESS this year:
We would like to begin by acknowledging that the land on which we gather is the traditional territory of the Wendat, Haudenosaunee, and the Mississaugas of the New Credit First Nation. The territory was the subject of the Dish With One Spoon Wampum Belt Covenant, an agreement between the Iroquois Confederacy and the Anishinaabe and allied nations to peaceably share and care for the resources around the Great Lakes.
As our CHESS 2017 keynote speaker Bonnie Devine noted in her remarks, the land acknowledgement is at risk of becoming perfunctory, a rote exercise without meaning. Deborah McGregor made a similar argument in her remarks at the Mississaugas of the New Credit First Nation community centre on the third day of CHESS.
I find great value in Indigenous land acknowledgements. In spite of its occasionally awkward delivery, the Indigenous land acknowledgement is a profound political act that compels regular engagement (however limited it may be, at times) with issues of settler colonialism that too often go unnoticed in Canada. Devine and McGregor, however, were correct in their criticisms and called for more engagement with the meaning of these short pieces of text. In many ways, CHESS 2017 was that sort of engagement.
Over the course of two and a half days, CHESS 2017 participants toured the traditional territories of the Wendat, Haudenosaunee, and the Mississaugas of the New Credit. We walked in some of the landscapes of these territories and we learned from some of the people.
Bonnie Devine opened this year’s summer school with a wide-ranging keynote address that focused on these questions of Indigenous land and the ongoing history of colonialism in Toronto. Her remarks provided a thorough annotation to her brilliant installation, Battle for the Woodlands, at the Art Gallery of Ontario.
Her survey of the confusion of the Toronto Purchase and the subsequent settler encroachments on the lands of the Mississaugas of the New Credit perfectly foreshadowed the remaining events of the summer school.
The next day, we departed for the Crawford Lake Conservation area where we gathered in one of the reconstructed Wendat longhouses. These extraordinary structures provided a physical re-creation of landscapes now lost. We hiked around part of the nearby lake and learned about the land and resources that fed the hundreds of Wendat women, men, and children who once lived in the village above the lake. Before lunch, we heard from editors Tom Peace and Kathryn Labelle about a fascinating new edited collection from University of Oklahoma Press, From Huronia to Wendakes: Adversity, Migration, and Resilience, 1650-1900. The book showcases the longevity and resiliency of the Wendat people.
On the final day, we visited the Mississaugas of the New Credit First Nation reserve, just south of Six Nations, where we learned from elders about the history of the Mississauga people, their encounters with French and British people and their subsequent displacement from the Toronto area. This visit filled in the story that Devine shared in her keynote.
The next time I read an Indigenous land acknowledgement in Toronto, I’ll think about that mural, that school, and those children. I’ll think about the Wendat families who ate meals in the longhouses at Crawford Lake. And I’ll remember the many Indigenous children who found ways to survive at the Mohawk Institute and whose children now work to retain the history of the Indian residential school system in Canada.
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