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TIFF TIFF 2017: Festival acknowledgement implies the City of Toronto is still Indigenous land

Actor Halle Berry poses for photos as she arrives on the red carpet during the 2017 Toronto International Film Festival in Toronto on Wednesday.

Chris Young/THE CANADIAN PRESS

The Toronto International Film Festival has joined a growing wave of organizations acknowledging the traditional Indigenous territory on which its events take place, but with a provocative difference: All public screenings at this year's festival open with an unusual declaration that some observers say implies the land still belongs to Indigenous peoples.

The statement, which is usually read by a TIFF programmer, announces: "To begin with, we would like to acknowledge the Mississaugas of New Credit, the Haudenosaunee and the Huron-Wendat, the original keepers of this land, for hosting us today, and for hosting TIFF on their land every day."

TIFF appears to be alone in declaring downtown Toronto, where the festival is based, to be "their land," rather than using the more commonplace phrase "traditional territories," which is used by an increasing number of government agencies, cultural and academic institutions and sports teams. Most acknowledgments also do not refer to Indigenous people "hosting" such events.

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And while the man who wrote TIFF's statement says it was not his intention to spur questions about the legitimacy of the treaties through which the British came to hold legal title for Toronto, the move shines the festival's glamorous spotlight on the little-discussed issue.

One Indigenous scholar called TIFF's initiative and wording "very bold."

"There's an assertion that the land is still Indigenous," noted Jesse Thistle, a Métis-Cree PhD history student who added that he was giving his comment from the perspective of an Indigenous person rather than an academic whose work includes research into the fraught history of land treaties in Ontario. (He is a Trudeau-Vanier Scholar at York University.)

Unlike most other acknowledgments he had seen, in TIFF's formulation, "Indigenous people aren't some ahistorical people in the past, from whom the land was taken and now we're just saying, 'Oh, thanks, we got your land,'" Mr. Thistle said. "They're bringing [Indigenous people] right through time and saying they continue to own this land … and they're hosting us."

Territorial acknowledgments have become more common across the country. A number of school boards begin their day with it and some professional sports teams have also adopted the practice. TIFF's acknowledgment earned warm applause at all three public screenings attended by a Globe and Mail reporter during the festival.

Cameron Bailey, TIFF's artistic director, noted that the festival had been using a longer acknowledgment that included a more comprehensive history of Indigenous Toronto, at select events for more than a year, and had been considering for a while how to put it more widely into practice.

"It was important, in our conversations internally here, to acknowledge both the history – in terms of the stewardship that Indigenous nations have had over the land that we're all on – but also just the present reality, the vibrant community, the nations that are thriving and contributing, especially to culture."

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But he demurred when asked by The Globe if the phrase "their land" was intended to have any greater significance. "I'm not steeped enough, or educated enough in the political issues of the precise phrasing, to really determine the deep import of particular words like that," he said.

The senior TIFF programmer who wrote the statement, Jesse Wente, who is Ojibwe, says he wasn't intending it to be controversial, but he recognizes it may make some people uncomfortable.

"I guess for some it might be a provocative statement. I don't see it that way, because I don't think the quote-unquote 'ownership' is being challenged in that legal sense," Mr. Wente said in an interview. "I think what I'm saying is, in a larger sense, none of that actually matters, anyway. And yes, we signed treaties. But I would also say the history of treaty relationships is not good in Canada. And the way a lot of those treaties denote quote-unquote 'ownership' is one of the main disputes, I would suggest, in how we're interpreting those things."

He added that the practice of land acknowledgments "comes from how we introduce ourselves. So, if I visit another nation's territory, I have to name where I'm from, and acknowledge where I'm visiting. And that is all in the active tone."

Mr. Thistle said that, speaking as a scholar, he would note that "this land [of Toronto] is highly, highly contentious," and that it was subject to treaties between the Mississaugas and the British Crown, which have been criticized as illegitimate or illegal.

"The creator gave us land and we don't have the right to sell it, or sell it through treaty, or anything like that," he said.

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"As someone who looked at the treaties, and through a Western Euro-agricultural, British understanding, 'their land' means a relinquishment of land through treaty, and there are paper treaties that show that, in the Toronto area." Still, he added, "If you look at it from the Mississaugas, it was all very suspect."

"I don't think [the Mississaugas] understood that they were selling it. I think they were, if anything, sharing the territory like they had done with the French."

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