Realizing the duty to acknowledge

A brief history of recognizing land at Queen’s

A plinth between Ontario Hall and Kingston Hall honours the Indigenous communities on whose land Queen’s was built.

Queen’s was established 58 years after the British Crown acquired present-day Kingston. But that happened centuries after it was first inhabited. 

Early Europeans began to arrive in Kingston in the early 1600s. At the time, the land was occupied by several unique Indigenous groups—including the Huron-Wendat peoples and the Haudenosaunee peoples. 

Among the groups also existed the Anishinaabek, or the “Original People,” notably the Mississauga and Algonquin peoples. 

The Mississauga community was established in the early 1700s.  They were at the forefront of ceding the land in a grand agreement called the Crawford Purchase, named for Captain William Redford Crawford of the King’s Royal Regiment of New York, who facilitated the agreement.

It was settled in October of 1783, with no official treaty document or any records of meetings with the Mississauga and Onondaga chiefs present. All that’s survived since are letters to the Crown detailing the terms of the settlement. 

In return for a broad yet vague claim to territory, the Crown made their payment in the form of blankets, clothing, guns, and ammunition.

The agreement is often termed as the “Gunshot Treaty.” 

When deciding upon the span of the land claim, the Mississaugas recalled the terms were based on how far the sound of a gunshot carried. The survey resulted in the Crown acquiring land from the St. Lawrence River to the Bay of Quinte—over 30 miles of land. 

Today, Kingston maintains a rich Indigenous community that continues to occupy the lands of the Anishinaabe and Haudenosaunee peoples. 

In 2016, Queen’s celebrated 175 years of education and operation while, implicitly, marking 175 years of Indigenous land occupation.

The move to acknowledgement

In a 2011 article for educational journal Times Higher Education, Shelley King—head of the Queen’s English Department—wrote a powerful land acknowledgement. 

Her article focused on the factors that surround attracting and retaining Indigenous students through higher education. Specifically, King discussed the structures in place that pose barriers for Indigenous students and academics. This included a lack of serious engagement with Indigenous knowledge systems, cultural support, and the ongoing presence of colonial language.  

“It was important—indeed necessary—to acknowledge that the very institutions that were so unprepared to support them were in fact located on their ancestors’ lands,” King wrote in an email to The Journal. Her acknowledgement came at a time when Four Directions Indigenous Centre was also looking to spread the message. For Indigenous members of the Queen’s community specifically, the message was impactful. It began a movement towards land acknowledgement that continues more than eight years later—recognizing a centuries-old history. 

Associate Vice-Principal (Indigenous Initiatives and Reconciliation) Kanonhsyonne (Janice Hill) believes that King’s acknowledgement was the first instance of recognition she witnessed at Queen’s.

But the move to land acknowledgements was occurring all around the world—just not at home. 

At the World Indigenous Peoples Conference on Education in Australia in 2009, Kanonhsyonne recalls land acknowledgements were becoming “the norm” in academia. The impact of acknowledging land, families, and ancestors begged an inquiry into why Queen’s was lacking the same progress. 

“Everybody, not only the Indigenous people, but all of the people, settler people, acknowledge the land and relationships,” she told The Journal in an interview. With that knowledge, she returned hoping to begin a conversation on implementing a similar practice among the Queen’s community.  

Slowly after King’s publication, Kanonhsyonne noted that the movement towards acknowledgement began to be piloted by new Indigenous faculty members who came from other institutions, where the practice was upheld. 

Similarly, King began to notice an increased use of land acknowledgments from visiting speakers, job candidates, and during convocation ceremonies and other events on campus. 

Today, the acknowledgement spans campus in several ways. Email sign-offs, publications, and student societies continue to exercise land acknowledgements practices. In October of 2017, the University also contributed a plinth to the campus, including a history and acknowledgement of the traditional lands in English, French, Ojibway, and Mohawk.   

The plinth and ongoing efforts to reconcile Canada’s history with the land’s Indigenous peoples is embodied in a report completed in April of 2017 by the University’s Truth and Reconciliation Commission. It outlines recommendations, curated by staff, faculty, and students, for the University to pursue to maintain its own institutional commitment to recognizing unique Indigenous cultures and land on campus.  

King’s article played a key role in moving efforts forward. Immediately following publication of King’s article, Equity Advisor Heidi Penning told The Journal that she called King “to thank her for its use.” She made a commitment to add a land acknowledgement to her own signature line.

Shortly after, she watched as administration and the Principal began to incorporate it during official email sign-offs and business cards. 

For Penning, acknowledging the land “is an act of reconciliation”—a way to practice allyship, and listen rather than talk. 

“It means learning about the people Indigenous to wherever I am,” she said. 

A meaningful or empty gesture?

While land acknowledgement is an important aspect of the relationship between the land and Queen’s, its meaning depends on intention and personal positioning. 

For Kanonhsyonne, it’s more important for non-Indigenous people to hear and understand the acknowledgement. But for some, measuring the weight of the acknowledgement is the foremost concern.

“There’s a lot of, especially Indigenous people right now, who are concerned that [the acknowledgement] is empty,” she told The Journal

For it to hold weight, she believes it’s integral to position oneself in relation to the land and speak to that meaningful relationship. This means asking what importance the land holds in the context of our lives and the history of its natural stewards. 

For non-Indigenous people, specifically, it includes recognizing that the land on which we’re educated has been inhabited, in Kanonhsyonne’s words, “since time immemorial.” This must also include speaking to an individual commitment to the land and confronting the nature through which we’ve come to occupy it.

Penning shares a similar sentiment, warning the acknowledgement should not become a “token gesture,” scripted for every individual to claim. 

“Each unique student, staff, and faculty member that forms our Queen’s community should acknowledge that we are all Treaty people and therefore have a responsibility in understanding the truth of our history,” she wrote to The Journal. “[…] [S]o that we can honour the past, be aware of the present, and make positive changes for the future.”

An overdue acknowledgement

Until this issue, The Journal has failed to appropriately acknowledge its occupation of traditional Indigenous lands. 

However, in the issues and volumes to follow, The Queen’s Journal will maintain a land acknowledgement in the masthead of every print issue as follows:  

The Journal operates on the traditional lands of the Anishinaabe and Haudenosaunee peoples. 

The members of The Journal’s Editorial Board acknowledge that in this capacity and space, it’s able to produce one of Canada’s oldest continuously publishing student newspapers and pursue its mandate. 

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