UBC professors discuss importance of territory acknowledgements

“When we start with a [territory] acknowledgement, it is immediately saying there is a history here, there is a contested history, and there is a deeper history that goes well beyond UBC,” said Daniel Heath Justice, professor and chair of First Nations and Indigenous Studies at UBC.

Territory acknowledgements, commonly given before events held on UBC’s Point Grey Campus, recognize that the university sits on the traditional, ancestral, and unceded territory of the Musqueam people. As part of the Classroom Climate series, UBC professors discussed the meaning and importance of territory and land acknowledgements, their broader cultural meaning, and how to meaningfully incorporate them into the classroom.

Remembering the past

When UBC was first established, the land was taken over with no compensation to the Musqueam Nation, explained Linc Kesler, the director of UBC’s First Nations House of Learning and former chair of First Nations and Indigenous Studies. For the first several decades, very few Indigenous people had access to education at UBC.

Justice added that the education Indigenous people did receive in Canada was that of assimilation. In the Indian residential school system, children were removed from their families, cultures, and traditions. For many years, obtaining a university degree also meant losing one’s Indian status.

“What I think we’re doing with this acknowledgement,” Kesler said, “is beginning to restore a bit more balance, in which the functional space of the university is a place where we can have discussions based in mutuality and respect. There’s a lot in these simple words of acknowledgement.”

Giving an acknowledgement

Rima Wilkes, a Sociology professor at UBC, joined the panel during the Q&A portion and recounted her first experiences with territory acknowledgements. “Everyone would go around and acknowledge Musqueam territory, so I would acknowledge Musqueam territory,” she said. “I didn’t really understand it, and I didn’t know if I should be doing it or not.”

Wilkes’ experience is not uncommon—a concern brought up during the workshop is that when the significance of an acknowledgement is not understood, there is the risk that it becomes a formulaic gesture void of meaning.

To learn more about acknowledgements of Indigenous lands, Wilkes began documenting acknowledgement practices at nearly 100 universities across Canada. Wilkes explained that acknowledgements are unique throughout different regions, and there are no templates or scripts that can easily encompass all acknowledgements.

Instead, Kesler suggested considering what is at the root of any territory or land acknowledgement. “The simplest thing we’re doing with an acknowledgement is just acknowledging history is here and happened, that there are still people here, that we have a relationship with them, and that we’re not going to erase that and be silent about it,” he said.

Justice encouraged people to think about acknowledgements in terms of entering someone’s home. “Most of us are not invited guests,” he said. “We are visitors; maybe we are invaders. A lot of people want to do the acknowledgement because they are grateful, because they want to be respectful. Let that gratitude shape the acknowledgement. Let it live in the acknowledgement.”

He noted that if acknowledgements are treated as a formulaic expectation, they become that. Rather, he suggested thinking about why an acknowledgement is being given and what it does for society and the ongoing relationship with Musqueam and other communities going forward.

“It’s a way to acknowledge our relationships—not just our relationships as academics with Indigenous communities, but our larger relationships and responsibilities we have in engaging with one another in more ethical, more responsible, and more respectful ways,” Justice said.

Moving forward

More professors at UBC are looking for new ways to meaningfully include and discuss territory acknowledgements in their courses. In the Department of Occupational Science and Occupational Therapy, all course syllabi now include a territory acknowledgement.

“We decided to put it in the section where we talk about respectful classroom behaviour, which is right on the front page,” said Liisa Holsti, an associate professor in the department, who made the suggestion that acknowledgements be included in syllabi. “We review it with the students, so we’re trying to address this issue of lip service. I use the acknowledgement in my talks and our introductory sections this fall,” she added.

Further resources on Aboriginal history and presence will also be available at the Indian Residential School History and Dialogue Centre, currently being built at UBC. The Centre will provide public information about Indigenous history, records from the Truth and Reconciliation Commission, and documentation around the experiences of those that were in residential schools.

Territory acknowledgements, Justice noted, are just the start to conversations about Aboriginal history and the relationship between UBC and Musqueam. “An important task [we have] as educators is to make visible those histories and those ongoing relationships,” he said.

For more information and resources about Territory Acknowledgements: