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Traditional Territory Acknowledgment policy in the works for McGill

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The McGill Senate’s Subcommittee for Equity of First Peoples is currently writing a version of the Traditional Territory Acknowledgement policy that will eventually be presented to Senate.Students’ Society of McGill University (SSMU) VP University Affairs Claire Stewart-Kanigan, who is also a member of the Subcommittee, explained that Paige Isaac from the First Peoples’ House will be holding focus groups with indigenous students for feedback on the statement.

“The focus groups are to ensure we have a statement that is the most meaningful for indigenous students that are already here,” said Stewart-Kanigan.

In Fall 2014, a Traditional Territory Acknowledgement policy was approved by SSMU legislative council. The policy functions as a means of acknowledging the traditional Kanien’kehá:ka land upon which McGill was built. It requires a statement that McGill is built on traditional territory at campus events to be added at the end of e-mails sent by SSMU and on the SSMU website.

It was developed by the Senate’s Subcommittee for Equity of First Peoples throughout the 2013-2014 school year in consultation with Indigenous McGill community members, the Kahnawake Cultural Centre, Indigenous Studies scholars, and Offices of Indigenous Affairs at other Canadian universities with similar policies in place.

Stewart-Kanigan explained that there were questions concerning which nation to acknowledge in the policy when it was originall drafted due to the fact that several groups have inhabited the land throughout history.

“While this land is generally acknowledged as Mohawk traditional territory, some groups believe that it should be recognized as Algonquin or Anishinaabe territory,” she said.

Another obstacle that has been encountered are legal issues concerning questions of indigenous land titles. This past July, protesters in Vancouver, British Columbia, claimed that Oppenheimer Park was located on indigenous land.

These protests followed a recent case involving the Supreme Court of Canada, which decided to recognize a specific territory as belonging to the Tsilhqot’in Nation.

Stewart-Kanigan stated that this recent questioning of indigenous land titles has caused McGill administration to be wary of implementing a campus-wide policy.

“We expect that those concerns have caused concern among McGill’s legal team so we are trying to do the work of assuring them that many other universities have taken on the supposed risk of legal difficulties by taking on these territory acknowledgements,” said Stewart- Kanigan.

Kakwiranoron Cook, who is chair of the Subcommittee for Equity for First Peoples and works as the Aboriginal Outreach Administrator at McGill, explained that the group is working with the McGill administration to have the policy formally implemented campus-wide.

“We’ve been in talks with administration and we are still in the process,” Cook said. “It is a lengthy experiment to go through different levels of administration to get the buy-in and the final approval.”

Similar territory acknowledgement policies have been implemented in a number of universities and student unions across Canada, such as the University of British Columbia, the University of Saskatchewan, and the University of Manitoba.

Professor Allan Downey, who teaches Introduction to Indigenous Studies, a part of the newly formed Indigenous Studies minor program, explained the importance of the policy implemented by SSMU.

“When you have the land acknowledgment and the indigenization of the academy, it becomes a more welcoming place for indigenous faculty and staff,” Downey said. “[This] is critical because indigenous peoples are the youngest and fastest growing population in Canada. They should be welcomed because we are on their territory.”

Downey noted that McGill is lacking in the representation of indigenous students, faculty, and culture. He pointed to the recent launch of the undergraduate Indigenous Studies program at McGill in 2014 as an example.

“The first Indigenous Studies program in Trent was in 1968,” he said. “The representation of indigenous students and faculty here is very low.”

Downey continued to commend McGill for taking positive first steps but emphasized the amount of work ahead.

“The land acknowledgement statement is important but only one of the first steps,” Downey said. “It’s about the indigenization of the academy and the community. It is about embracing the richness of indigenous histories. There’s a lot we can learn from indigenous worldviews that we can use to move forward. Why wouldn’t we embrace that?”

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