You’ve probably seen it if you’ve taken the time to attend an official community function on Vancouver Island in recent years.
Mayor so-and-so at a podium — clutching a staff report, scissors, shovel or oversize cheque — saying “I would like to acknowledge we are on the traditional territory of (insert local First Nation here)” before proceeding with whatever is the matter at hand.
First Nations roots run deep across Vancouver Island and acknowledging the territories of the first people is a practice most — but not all — Vancouver Island city councils do before city meetings and other official events.
But have you ever wondered why?
According to the chair of the First Nations Studies Department at Vancouver Island University, it’s simply good manners on two different fronts.
Acknowledging territory is part of a longstanding protocol on Vancouver Island. It is a formal historic practice that has continued among Indigenous communities for hundreds of year.
And it also makes formal acknowledgement of the need for reconciliation. It is a statement that recognizes the traditional territory of the Indigenous people who called the land home before the arrival of settlers.
“Recognizing the land and the communities informs people of the colonial history of our region, specifically, that treaty processes/land surrenders have not yet taken place,” said Laurie Meijer Drees. “The land is what hosts us all, it is a precious resource that holds all our lives. Acknowledging where we are is good for our souls and it keeps us humble and grateful.”
Meijer Drees added that acknowledging the land or territory in formal government meetings is a sign of understanding Canadian society to be made up of multiple nations and settler communities.
“It is thus good diplomacy to acknowledge nation-to-nation conversations,” she said.
The Alberni-Clayoquot Regional District sits within the traditional territories of 10 First Nations, and acknowledges the territories in which it holds its meetings—on Hupacasath and Tseshaht territories.
“It’s always the case that a regional district meeting, no matter where you are in B.C., takes place on traditional territory of one or more First Nations, and so doing that acknowledges the historic relationship that Canada and its predecessors had with First Nations,” said ACRD board chair John Jack.
Jack, who was the first Indigenous person representing a First Nation to be elected as board chair of a regional district in B.C., said there’s a difference between acknowledging “traditional territories” and “unceded territories.”
“If you say traditional territory…you’re on lands that are subject to a treaty,” Jack said. “If there’s no treaty there, you’re better off saying unceded territory or just territory.”
“It really pays for any organization, especially governmental ones, to acknowledge that, because it’s best practice to assume that a First Nation has a right.”
Qualicum Beach is one of a handful of Island communities that does not acknowledge First Nations before government meetings. Town councillor Barry Avis wants to change that.
“I introduced a motion of notice in late November to recognize the First Nation territory,” Avis said. “We have good relations here in Qualicum Beach with our (First Nations) bands and Mike Recalma is our chief and he’s always very supportive of our town and involved with most of the things we do.”
He’s still waiting for a response
“I’ve asked a couple times when it’s going to come out of being deferred but our mayor has passed it on to our top staff person to work with the First Nations to see what we can do,” Avis said. “The First Nations chief has said he would like us to do it. We haven’t come to a vote yet because at our meeting after I made the notice of motion, our mayor just deferred it. That means until it comes back out it stays in that position. It’s kind of frustrating for me but that’s the status.”
Avis said that during Vancouver Island Regional Library board meetings, that he chairs, and museum board meetings, they acknowledge First Nations territories before beginning. He said it is important
“I think it’s important to me because of the territories that we’re on and the relationship with our First Nations,” he said.
Courtenay is another Island city currently not making the acknowledgement. Rebecca Lennox Courtenay city councillor, recently put in a resolution to acknowledge First Nation territories at their city meetings. Historically, Courtenay has not done an acknowledgement.
“It will be on our March 19 agenda to start that practice,” she said. “I assume that it will pass.”
Lennox, who was elected in 2014, said she was inspired to propose a motion after the Comox Valley Regional District recently began acknowledging First Nations territories at their meetings and from a growing relationship with the K’ómoks Fist Nation.
“[Courtenay city council] just recently had the good fortune of going to K’ómoks for a half day and working with the K’ómoks chief and council to learn more about their history and just how we can work together more,” Lennox said.
She said bringing forward the motion is a bit overdue, but “better late than never.”
“There seems to be a lot more hope for the future as a team than there used to be,” she said.
A partial list of Island city councils that acknowledge First Nations territories before council meetings: