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Opinion A prescription for reconciliation: Start with a land acknowledgment

Before the Winnipeg Jets’ playoff game , as fans stood for the national anthem, there was a solemn announcement that the arena is “located on Treaty 1 land, which consists of original territories of Anishinaabeg, Cree, Oji-Cree, Dakota and Dene peoples, and the homeland of the Métis Nation.”

This sort of land acknowledgment has become commonplace across Canada – in schools, universities, at sporting events, concerts, conferences, meetings, religious services and other public gatherings.

But when the governing council of the Ontario Medical Association (OMA) recently voted down a motion to open its meetings with an acknowledgment they were gathered on traditional territories, it thrust a discussion of the practice into the public eye. The OMA has offered up various explanations/excuses for its (in)action, from saying the motion was unexpected to feeling the acknowledgment is a token gesture and, as the outcry grew, offering up a half-hearted apology that it is “deeply sorry for the hurt we have caused any Indigenous communities” but insisting the group’s position “should not reflect negatively” on doctors.

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Well, it does reflect badly on doctors – or at least the organization that represents them in Ontario.

It makes the OMA look glib, wallowing in their privilege and, worst of all, indifferent to the all-important issue of reconciliation.

Indigenous physicians, in particular, must be sickened by this slight.

The purpose of a land acknowledgment is to show a little respect for the people who have lived on these lands since time immemorial and some recognition of our colonial history.

It is only a token gesture if it is done thoughtlessly and by rote.

Ideally though, land acknowledgments should trigger a moment of reflection and even some discomfort.

Prior to first contact with Europeans, there were tens of millions of Indigenous people living on Turtle Island (the Americas), including as many as two million in the territory we now call Canada.

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Over four centuries, the Indigenous population plummeted to as low as 100,000.

Every action taken by colonial governments, by settlers – land grabs, transmission of infectious disease, distribution of alcohol, outright slaughter, the Indian Act, residential schools, the Sixties Scoop, etc. – was designed to marginalize, to strip Indigenous peoples of their languages, culture, identity and their connection to the land and their history.

Today, there are roughly 1.5 million Indigenous people in Canada who have survived these genocidal policies – still fewer than precontact.

Is a land acknowledgment, a little recognition of our shameful history, really too much to ask of doctors – or anyone else for that matter?

One explanation offered up by the OMA is that delegates felt a simple acknowledgment was not enough, that they wanted to do more.

A gesture of reconciliation should be a stepping stone to action; it should imply expectations and obligations. But the OMA’s defensiveness does not betray a desire to do more; quite the contrary.

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Ontario’s doctors should take a lesson from their counterparts in British Columbia. Doctors of B.C. embraced land acknowledgments years ago. They (and many other health organizations) have also signed on to a Declaration of Commitment on Cultural Safety and Humility in Health Services, an express commitment to foster a climate for change and to implement change.

Faculties of medicine (and nursing) have also acknowledged the recommendations of the Truth and Reconciliation Commission, specifically recommendation 24, which calls for courses on Indigenous health that include the impacts of colonialism. It looks like practising physicians, not just students, need that education.

There are those who will say the doctors are being unfairly maligned, that acknowledging the history of the lands has nothing to do with health.

But the fact is that reconciliation – working to correct historical injustices inflicted on Indigenous peoples – is good for our nation’s health.

It’s good for our health because inequality and injustice are bad for our health. Inequality is a recipe for social dysfunction. It makes for a society that is not only less fair, but less safe and less productive.

The single most powerful symbol of inequality in Canada is the yawning gap between the health of Indigenous people and non-Indigenous people.

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Doctors should know that because they see the impacts of the social determinants of health every day in their practices.

Physicians should be using their power and privilege to help the most vulnerable.

They should not be wearing it as a cloak of indifference.

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