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Lance Cardinal, an artist and member of the Bigstone Cree Nation, is currently working with the Edmonton Oilers as an Indigenous consultant and designer for the season.Megan Albu/The Globe and Mail

Chief Willie Littlechild was in the stands, with his son and granddaughter, to watch the Battle of Alberta last Saturday night. But before the Edmonton Oilers and the Calgary Flames squared off, Mr. Littlechild appeared in a video on the big screen at Rogers Place. Wearing a headdress, he recited 76 words, broadcasted across the country, to be repeated at the start of every Oilers’ home game.

And then he got a text message from one of the owners of the Calgary Flames. The person liked what he said in the video. Then that owner called him. He thanked Mr. Littlechild for his words. Mr. Littlechild’s phone has been buzzing with calls and messages of support and gratitude since the hockey season started. A grandson’s phone lit up, too.

“When I got home, one of my grandsons came to me right away and said: ‘Musom, look at these messages I’m getting from my friends. Look at this, look at this.’

“He was showing me his phone, with all these text messages he was getting from his buddies, that were noting that they saw his grandpa on the screen at the game.”

Mr. Littlechild’s 76 words is a land acknowledgment done differently. Rather than have an Oiler executive or announcer acknowledge that Rogers Place is on traditional Indigenous land, an Indigenous leader serves as host to the Oilers and hockey fans.

“Tansi, hello to all the people of Turtle Island. As chief, I welcome you here to Treaty 6 territory,” Mr. Littlechild, a global statesman for Indigenous rights and a former member of Parliament, says in the video. “This land has been the traditional region for homelands of the Métis people of Alberta, the Inuit, and ancestral territory of the Cree, Dene, Blackfoot, Saulteaux and Nakota Sioux people since time immemorial.

“The recognition of our history on this land is an act of reconciliation and we honour those who walk with us. Thank you. Kinanaskomitinawaw.”

The Winnipeg Jets in 2016 issued a land acknowledgment, believed to be the first in the National Hockey League. The Vancouver Canucks, Chicago Blackhawks and the newly formed Seattle Kraken are among the teams now making land acknowledgments.

But they can be controversial. They risk morphing into boilerplate that gets tuned out. In Quebec, politicians are sparring over the Montreal Canadiens’ land acknowledgment, which the team launched this season. New Brunswick recently ordered government employees to stop making land acknowledgments as it spars with First Nations over land claims. The Alberta government ditched routine land acknowledgments in 2019.

The Oilers, which has worked closely with Mr. Littlechild for years, brought in Lance Cardinal to serve as an Indigenous consultant to avoid blunders.

Mr. Cardinal is an artist, member of the Bigstone Cree Nation, and lives in Edmonton. He works with companies such as Telus and Ikea as he pushes for more authentic representation of contemporary Indigenous people in the mainstream. Mr. Cardinal shaped the Oilers’ land acknowledgment to give Indigenous people agency over the territory, rather than just passive recipients of recognition. He pitched the Oilers on flipping the script.

“Let’s make it from our voice. Let’s speak about this land acknowledgment from our perspective, as First Nations people,” he said. “Let’s rewrite it in our words, to welcome people to this land.”

The Oilers will play host to an Indigenous night Nov. 1, premiering Indigenous design elements the team created with Mr. Cardinal. The land acknowledgment will be subtitled in Cree and syllabics around the building. There will be a powwow dancer and other slices of Indigenous culture.

Mr. Littlechild, a residential-school survivor who credits hockey for saving his life, said the Oilers have supported Indigenous communities for years. The public and high-profile land acknowledgment is an extension of the team’s relationship-building, he said.

Land acknowledgments can come off as performative – a box to check on the reconciliation to-do list. Mr. Cardinal believes the Oilers’ humanizing approach avoids this pitfall.

“People have tuned it out because it was this required thing,” he said. “That’s the difference between reconciliation provided by the government and reconciliation between us as people.”

Lori Campbell, the associate vice-president of Indigenous Engagement at the University of Regina, said it is important for professional sports teams to use their influence and money to advance reconciliation. And the Oilers’ land acknowledgment, she said, hit the right notes.

“It is important and it is beautiful to see Chief Littlechild up on the big screen. It is actually quite powerful.

“And they are doing that in such a mainstream space, where there are so many people watching.”

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