Our local acknowledgement: “I would like to acknowledge that this school is situated upon traditional territories. The territories include the Wendat (wen-dat), Anishinabek (ah-nish-nah-bek) Nation, the Haudenosaunee (ho-den-oh-sho-nee) Confederacy, the Mississaugas of the New Credit First Nations, and the Métis (may-tee) Nation.
The treaty that was signed for this particular parcel of land is collectively referred to as the Toronto Purchase and applies to lands east of Brown’s Line to Woodbine Avenue and north towards Newmarket. I also recognize the enduring presence of Aboriginal peoples on this land.”
Every student in the Toronto District School Board (TDSB) begins their day in the same way, with announcements and the national anthem. It’s an enduring ritual that creates a connection amongst diversity. But this year, that ritual has been updated to reflect a modern act of redress; from September forward, students have also acknowledged that the land on which they study forms part of the Ancestral Lands of Aboriginal peoples.
“Indigenous people gave settlers the most beautiful gift, which was an unblemished continent,” said Dr. Duke Redbird, an Aboriginal elder, who is also the TDSB’s curator advisor for Indigenous culture and a consultant to the board’s Aboriginal Advisory Committee. “It was given but never acknowledged. How could someone get a beautiful gift and never acknowledge it? This is the first step towards the future of the Indigenous and non-Indigenous relationship.”
The acknowledgement is the result of a motion unanimously passed last summer by TDSB trustees, who directed the board’s 588 schools to make it part of their daily opening exercises, said prior to the playing of the national anthem.
“It’s the first step to decolonize our schools,” said Dr. Suzanne Stewart, special advisor to the dean on Aboriginal education at OISE and coordinator of the Indigenous Education Initiative. “It creates a conscious importance of Indigenous land and expresses appreciation to the indigeneity as a traditional matter that settlers must honour.”
The larger goal of the land acknowledgement is to make students aware of which traditional territory their school was built on, and to teach them of the territories that are in close proximity to their school. By doing this, students will have access to information about their local history and where they are situated in Canadian history.
“It is important to understand the long history, and for each student to understand that place in our history,” explained Stewart. “But, the acknowledgement is not about the past, it’s about what’s going on right now and building a relationship now with Indigenous people.”
It’s also in line with the many education-related calls to action that informed the final report of the Truth and Reconciliation Commission of Canada, mandated with memorializing the lasting impact Indian Residential Schools have had on the nation’s Indigenous population.
“Many students and Canadians haven’t really learned about privilege,” said Stewart. “Teachers often feel threatened by Indigenous teachings because they think it reflects on them personally, [but] we need indigenous pedagogy in the curriculum. People need to stop personalizing the problem and realize these issues go beyond them.”
That’s why the Ontario Ministry of Education has developed recommendations for including Indigenous teachings in all subject areas from social sciences and history to math, the arts, and more in elementary and middle school. The curriculum is an essential tool for restructuring the way in which non-Indigenous people view Indigenous livelihood, and it teaches students about the history of colonization and oppression.
Incorporating Indigenous teachings into the curriculum is particularly important as it helps Indigenous students feel like they belong.
Although Toronto has the third largest urban Indigenous population in Canada, Indigenous students — who report feeling isolated and invisible in the TDSB — have a lower attendance rate than non-Indigenous students, and have less chance of graduating from secondary school.
Stewart said that most Aboriginal students she has talked to say they have experienced racism in the classroom from peers and teachers, especially in higher levels of education. Acknowledging the long local history of Aboriginal peoples may start to create a new atmosphere for learning across the board, even if it is but the first step in Indigenizing the school landscape.
According to Dr. Redbird, representatives and teachers from schools across Ontario believe the protocol should be implemented in schools throughout the province.
“The TDSB needs to be applauded for how well developed and progressive they are,” said Stewart. “It’s time for others to come on board.”