Susan Blight is Anishinaabe from Couchiching First Nation. She is an interdisciplinary artist and works at the University of Toronto's First Nations House. Hayden King is Anishinaabe from Beausoleil First Nation on Gchi'mnissing in Huronia, Ont. He teaches in the School of Public Policy at Carleton University in Ottawa.
It is not uncommon to attend an event at a university, community gathering or even a Speech from the Throne at the Ontario Legislature, and hear the words: "We would like to thank [X or Y] First Nation for hosting us." This month, the Toronto District School Board asked all schools in the district to begin every day, before O Canada, with the acknowledgment.
The land acknowledgment is meant to recognize indigenous presence, which has of course been neglected. Indeed, the TDSB protocol is restorative, considering that this refrain is happening in one corner of an institution – the Canadian education system – that has done so much harm for First Nation, Métis and Inuit students.
Coinciding with the TDSB announcement was the unveiling of four new Toronto street signs with added Anishinaabe place names. The initiative was led by the Dupont Business Improvement Area in response to the activism of the Ogimaa Mikana Project. This project, which we founded in early 2013, unofficially changed street signs in the city to Anishinaabe versions. When we replaced Dupont with Gete-Onigamig and Spadina with the original Ishpadinaa, the BIA took up the process of an official change.
The reaction has been overwhelmingly positive. Both efforts contribute to reinserting indigenous peoples into a landscape historically intent on their erasure. They are important. But at this moment of constructive dialogue, there are risks to consider too.
While symbols matter, they also have a tendency to become superficial. In our work, we've drawn attention to the original, or possible, Anishinaabemowin places names in Toronto. But even place names that originate from indigenous languages can be void of authentic connections to the roots of that place. Those in the Greater Toronto Area may know that Mississauga, Toronto, Mimico and Etobicoke have their origins in indigenous languages, but know nothing of the history and meaning of those words.
The name for today's Spadina Avenue comes from the word "ishpadinaa": It means "hill or sudden rise in the land." In the mid-18th century, the Anishinaabeg camped in the area of Toronto in order to trade with the French at Fort Rouillé. They used the site where Casa Loma is now located to watch over the area for any activity, the sudden rise in the land – ishpadinaa – a sort of jurisdictional vantage point. The word is embedded in a material reality.
The TDSB land acknowledgment can likewise be deepened. Currently, it acknowledges that "this school is situated upon traditional territories of the Wendat, Anishinaabek Nation, the Haudenosaunee," among others.
But the word "traditional" denotes a post-presence, while those nations endure. It is not traditional territory, just territory. To be effective, the acknowledgment should encourage self-awareness, but also understanding of specific indigenous history and how we all fit in this ongoing relationship.
There are a hundred similar examples: The change in government terminology from aboriginal to indigenous, invitations for chiefs to meet with English royalty, an Inukshuk sculpture in every other southern city square, and so on.
There is a danger that these gestures become mere performance rather than actively helping to repatriate indigenous land and life, as Eve Tuck and K. Wayne Yang would say.
When we started the Ogimaa Mikana Project in January, 2013, the first sign replaced was on Queen Street, to honour the women galvanizing the Idle No More movement. For the past few weeks, Sylvia McAdam Saysewahum – Nēhiyaw lawyer and writer central to that critical moment of Canadian history – has been "illegally" camping on her family's territory central Saskatchewan trying to prevent ongoing clear-cut logging, the desecration of her ancestor's graves, and to uphold Treaty #6.
Ms. Saysewahum is not alone. Communities, families, whole nations are struggling against Canada and Canadians for fairness and justice. We're not sure that recognizing indigenous territory helps. Despite our sincere appreciation and respect for the efforts of the Dupont BIA and TDSB, they are not enough.
We need those listening in class every morning, and those finding their way through the city, to stop and actually consider how we can translate words into action.
The Anishinaabe are the people of the good heart. We strive to act with respect and generosity toward all beings. From Canadians, we see the shape of reciprocity forming. But the lives of First Nation people, Métis and Inuit depend on more in a present still defined by dispossession.
Mii nininendamin niinawind. That's what we think, us.
Aaniin giin enendaman. What do you think?