A starting point for reconciliation
Featuring Cara Wehkamp, M.Sc. 2004, PhD 2010
Each of us has a unique relationship with land. Some of us farm it, some protect it; we all live on it, enjoy it and sustain life from it.
Our relationships with land also provide a unique opportunity for reflection toward reconciliation with Indigenous peoples—the original peoples and their descendants—in the form of land acknowledgments.
You may have heard a land acknowledgment spoken at the beginning of an event or read one on a website. These statements can take many forms and have multiple purposes, but in their most basic form they are statements recognizing the relationship that exists between Indigenous peoples who have occupied the lands since time immemorial, and the land on which you reside, work or gather.
“These lands were not ‘terra nullius,’” explains Dr. Cara Wehkamp, a two-time graduate of OAC. “The lands that now form Canada weren’t uninhabited. Indigenous peoples with distinct and complex societies were displaced in order for others to develop their relationships with the land.”
Wehkamp received her M.Sc. and PhD in environmental biology, but the University inspired a different direction for her career. Today, she is the University of Guelph’s assistant vice-president for Indigenous initiatives.
“During my undergraduate degree, there was no representation for First Nations, Inuit or Métis students,” she says. “During my master’s, a number of Indigenous students came together, and we formed the Aboriginal Student Association.”
What started as a club of five students evolved into the University’s robust Indigenous Student Centre and Indigenous Student Society. Cara’s career evolved alongside, and she became manager of the centre in 2011.
In 2020, she moved to the U of G president’s office to focus on the implementation of “Bi-Naagwad | It Comes Into View,” the campus Indigenous Initiatives Strategy.
Among her responsibilities, Cara has helped the campus community to understand, deliver and institutionalize land acknowledgments.
“I think land acknowledgments are an important opportunity for us to consider our relationships with the land today but also how our relationships with the land were able to come to be,” she says. “Land acknowledgments matter when we start really considering Indigenous peoples, the shifts and displacement that occurred in their lives in order for us to have our current relationships with the land.
“I think land acknowledgments help people start to reconceptualize things.”
Cara explains there has been an evolution over the last 15 years in Ontario. “I think initially there was this real focus on, ‘I want to get it right,’” says Cara. This caused land acknowledgments to become static placeholders.
This evolution now puts focus on going beyond the history and including personal reflection on an individual’s or organization’s relationship with the land and local Indigenous peoples. Land acknowledgments should also include actions taken to support Indigenous peoples and rebuild relationships, she says.
“They should acknowledge that it’s relational. And just like other relationships, we have to work on it, and they evolve with time. And within that, you have commitments to the land and to the Indigenous peoples of those lands. It’s an important aspect whether they’re treaty partners or it’s unceded land.”
As people and institutions learn about land acknowledgments, they may initially aim for perfection. That can be stifling, says Cara. She recommends instead starting from an informed and authentic place and being open to hearing others’ perspectives and feedback.
“I think we have to think about the process being as important as the outcome, and that it’s important to start in an informed way. A big piece is that the intention is there, the openness to learn and to change and to grow throughout the process. That is more important than being 100-per-cent correct the first time.”
She suggests that land acknowledgments require statements of commitment and action. These statements can start with a basic commitment to learning more about the history and current understandings of the land you are on. Then they might include a reflection of your own relationship to land. “But that might take time for you to understand as an individual or as an organization,” she says. As relationships develop, your actions can evolve.
Many resources provided by Indigenous scholars, researchers and organizations can help in developing a land acknowledgment.
For example, a video called Land Acknowledgments and Why They Matter. The video was directed by Ryan Matheson, who completed his M.Sc. in rural planning and development in 2022. Working under the guidance of Dr. Sheri Longboat and in collaboration with more than 20 Indigenous and non-Indigenous community members, Ryan sought to bring meaning to land acknowledgments.
Land Acknowledgments and Why They Matter was created “to raise awareness and be locally informed and guided by the University of Guelph community,” says Sheri. “Ryan’s work emanated from his own frustration with the lack of meaning, and feeling a sense of tokenism after hearing land acknowledgments read.”
Sheri helped channel his frustration into what would become Ryan’s major research project: investigating the meaning of land acknowledgments and creating a tool to help others learn and make meaning. The project also received guidance from local Knowledge Keepers, including Jan Sherman and Bruce Weaver.
“As land acknowledgments are living documents, context-specific and personal, even the video Ryan created is just one resource of many available,” says Sheri. “A lot of work has already been done by others to draw upon.” She recommends the resources of the Native Governance Centre at nativegov.org.
“I love these because they emphasize starting with personal reflection and focus on actions,” she says. “The organization is U.S.-based, but thinking from an Indigenous perspective, it’s Turtle Island [North America] and globally applicable.”
Some Terms Explained
Cara says there are several terms that can get confused, but each is unique and distinctly important. Here are a few terms explained in her words:
Reconciliation requires acknowledging that wrongs have been done, and then action toward righting those wrongs. You have to acknowledge the truth that harm has been done and it’s an ongoing process to rebuild relationships or build new relationships in a good way.
Indigenization means bringing Indigenous peoples, cultures, ways of knowing and being into spaces. That might be bringing it into coursework or everyday policies and practices. But really, it’s about, intentionally, and meaningfully bringing those aspects forward into the work.
Decolonization is looking at all the aspects of colonization, dismantling systemic barriers and shifting power from Eurocentric norms. Some would say true decolonization of a university is almost impossible. Probably. But along the way, we can be actively addressing the structures and systems that have continued to perpetuate harms.
Resurgence goes hand-in-hand with reconciliation. Some will see reconciliation as being the work of non-Indigenous people. They’re reconciling, and Indigenous peoples are coming up at the same time in a resurgence of our cultural practices, languages and governance. It’s about opening spaces for Indigenous peoples to inhabit and to flourish in what they see as their needs and priorities.
This article was originally published in the LIBRANNI 2023 / Vol. 5