Halton student trustee Arianne Chau is hoping to revitalize the way land acknowledgements are carried out. Michael Swan

Going beyond words to reconciliation’s heart

  • January 21, 2023

Boring, pro-forma, rote recitations of land acknowledgements before every school board meeting, at the start of every school day and at every event just annoy Arriane Chua. 

So the Halton Catholic District School Board student trustee has done something about it.

At the Dec. 20 HCDSB school board meeting, Chua — a Grade 11 student at St. Francis Xavier Catholic Secondary Student in Milton, Ont. — managed to persuade her board to adopt a program to ensure its land acknowledgements are grounded in a solid grasp of history and aimed at the heart of reconciliation.

“It’s to make sure that people understand that a land acknowledgement is not just a check-box item,” she said.

Chua’s motion sets up training for school chaplaincy leaders, who generally present land acknowledgements as part of morning prayers. Trustees and senior board administrators will also receive training from the HCDSB Indigenous education advisor, Sherry Saevil, in the significance of land acknowledgements and ways of making the statements more meaningful.

“I applaud her for that,” said Concordia University theology professor Christine Jamieson. “We need to move to a much deeper acknowledgement than just words.”

Jamieson is a member of the Nlaka’pamux Nation Tribal Council in the Fraser Canyon who teaches Christian ethics and Indigenous spirituality at the Montreal university. She believes fine tuning land acknowledgements is important for Canadians and important for Christians.

“I’ve been in places where they’ve had land acknowledgements and people have been annoyed by this. They say ‘Oh, here we go again with this land acknowledgment. Why do we have to have this everywhere?’ ” said Jamieson. “Whether it brings up negative reactions or positive reactions, it brings to mind — you use that word anamnesis — it brings to mind something from our past, a memory, a recalling or remembrance in a sense, that this land we’re standing on was here long before we came here, and it was inhabited by people long before we came here, long before European settlers came here.”

Chua’s motion came to the board with the overwhelming support of students, thanks to her persistent campaigning. The 80-person HCDSB student senate voted 95 per cent in favour of the motion. The student politician has since been talking to student trustees at both Catholic and public boards across the province. She hopes to see similar motions come before boards province-wide. She has also taken her campaign to municipal politicians in Milton.

Chua is hoping to hear land acknowledgements creatively interpreted and adjusted to fit the occasion. She understood that land acknowledgements should not be bureaucratic exercises after speaking with Mississaugas of the new Credit First Nation Chief Stacey LaForme.

“We should be expanding more and they (land acknowledgements) should be changing every day. Our lands are changing every day, so why isn’t our land acknowledgement?”

The land acknowledgement should ground students in their own Canadian history, Chua said.

“What land are you learning on? What land do you live on?” she asks. “I want our students and staff to be responsible for reconciliation.”

Though not specifically asked for in the 94 Calls to Action of the Truth and Reconciliation Commission of Canada’s 2015 final report, land acknowledgements have blossomed since then as a gesture of reconciliation.

“It’s about relationship — first of all acknowledging and honouring the relationship of the Indigenous peoples to the land,” Jamieson said. “The land for them is a being. They are already in relationship with it in the same way they’re in relationship with other beings and other human beings. So, there’s something very sacred and very valuable about land and acknowledging land and acknowledging our relationship to land.”

But it isn’t just about Indigenous spirituality and culture, the theologian said. Spelling out our relationship to the land is also important for Christians in an era of climate change and ecological degradation.

“We’re living in a time now when we’re seeing a lot of destruction because of our relationship to land — our non-relationship, really,” she said.

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