CHESS 2017 Reflections: Acknowledging People and the Land

"Kiinwi Dabaadjmowin" mural at Lloyd S. King Elementary School.

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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.

Battle for the Woodlands by Bonnie Devine at 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.

In the afternoon, we travelled further west to the Woodland Cultural Centre, located on the Six Nations reserve. Here, we learned about the history of Haudenosaunee relocation and resettlement on one of the largest reserves in Canada. We learned about Wampum belts and the Dish with One Spoon Convenant, which brought peace to this territory long before British occupation and resettlement. We learned from survivors of the Mohawk Institute, one of Canada’s notorious Indian residential schools. More than just a historical landmark for Six Nations people, Indigenous children from many parts of Ontario and Quebec lived within the walls of this building and suffered from the violence, neglect, and indifference of Canada’s assimilationist policies of the nineteenth and twentieth centuries. The most staggering experience came when we walked the perimeter of the building and saw the names of survivors etched into the bricks.

Names of survivors etched into the bricks of the Mohawk Institute.
Names of survivors etched into the bricks of the Mohawk Institute.

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.

Our hosts generously invited us to view a spectacular new mural in the reserve school, Lloyd S. King Elementary School. “Kiinwi Dabaadjmowin” or “Our Story” tells the history of the Mississaugas of the New Credit First Nation. It is beautiful. And it was a fitting conclusion to this year’s summer school. After walking the grounds of the Mohawk Institute and learning about its horrific history, it was a hopeful end to our time walking the halls of a new school devoted to humanely treating children with love and care.

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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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Sean Kheraj

Associate Professor and Vice-Provost Academic at Toronto Metropolitan University
Sean Kheraj is a member of the executive committee of the Network in Canadian History and Environment. He's an associate professor in the Department of History and Vice-Provost Academic at Toronto Metropolitan University. His research and teaching focuses on environmental and Canadian history. He is also the host and producer of Nature's Past, NiCHE's audio podcast series and he blogs at


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