Whose Land is it Anyway?

rooster with barn backdrop

I would be remiss in my work to not bring up the elephant in the room – land repatriation.

The work of reconciliation and decolonization must include a land component, or else it will be missing a huge piece of the trauma that has unfolded through colonization. The concept of ownership of land is what has led to so many people being/feeling displaced, including through colonialism. Ultimately, ownership and exploitation of resources has led to the anthropocene, highlighting the importance of a shift away from ownership, control, and even stewardship (versus kinship – see blog post ‘Stewardship vs. Kinship’). In order for reconciliation and resurgence to unfold, many people point to the need for giving back – or repatriating some of the stolen lands in our country. This concept is often a showstopper for some Canadians. I urge you, if this concept makes you uncomfortable or angry, please read on today, and continue reading and discussing this concept. Much like with any seemingly controversial ideas, I have heard all kinds of fear-based responses to this concept, including the outlandish idea that repatriation means ‘all people of European ancestry must return to their ancestor’s lands.’ In spite of this fear, I have never heard this idea actually proposed by any Indigenous people I know. Just like our original treaty agreement between Indigenous and settler people, the Two Row Wampum, we are supposed to travel along the river together, in our separate ships.

The concept of repatriation has recently been starting to be applied in the museum world, where long-held artefacts are being returned to the lands they were taken from. The concept of land repatriation is one step further. This idea relates to returning land to the people who lived on them pre-contact. While settlers are here to stay, we should do so in relationship with Indigenous people, and on their terms. Leanne Simpson recounts one recent land settlement on Williams Treaty territory and what it means for her family and community:

There are very few places left where we can be Nishnaabeg on our own terms. The federal and provincial governments, after years of court battles, have finally recognized hunting and fishing rights for the Williams Treaty communities. This is a tremendous victory for us, as we have very few places we can hunt. Giving these places back is an excellent start to an ongoing process of reconciliation that is more than just apologies and superficial changes (Simpson, 2016).

Like with this example, one simple, tangible way of renewing relationships with Indigenous communities would be to restore rights on all treaty territory and unceded land (lands without formal treaties). These are rights we agreed to originally, but have not been upheld to date. This should be done immediately for any communities who have not yet had their day in court. Even using the provincial or federal judicial system to settle these land disputes is imposing a colonial system onto Indigenous people who didn’t agree to this. Turning over control of any Crown Lands not already controlled by Indigenous people to Indigenous nations should be simple, but is actually not, due to the legacy of structures set up during colonialism to limit land ownership by Indigenous people. Crown land is an archaic, overtly colonial concept, and seems a logical place to lay the groundwork for a new way forward. Another way this could happen is through the ‘land trust’ model. Although this would be an interim solution, since it’s based in the Western legal tradition that “isn’t reflective of traditional Indigenous laws and governance patterns. While it might be something we can do now, we need to be thinking longer term about how we can try to facilitate the re-emergence of traditional laws and governance patterns for relating to land” (Braganza, 2018). For more about transferring lands to Indigenous people, see this TVO article.

If land trusts, which are growing in size and number across the country, could hold land in the spirit of reconciliation, and engage Indigenous voices in stewardship models until a time when new ways to work meaningfully with Indigenous people emerge, this would be one step toward trying to live side-by-side in peace, everlasting friendship and with good minds.

Land is an important conversation for Indigenous peoples and Canada to have because land is at the root of our conflicts. Far from asking settler Canadians to pack up and leave, it is critical that we think about how we can better share land, and give power back to the original people of the land. That’s a conversation we’re not having, except when conflict escalates to the level it did last summer on Pigeon Lake (when cottagers started a campaign to ‘Save Pigeon Lake’ from the spread of wild rice, which is a sustainable food source for Anishnaabe people in the area). For a fictional, humorous account of this story, see local Anishnaabe author, Drew Hayden Taylor’s Cottagers and Indians.

As much as we like to think of Canada as a toned-down version of our neighbours to the south, racism against Indigenous people is extremely prevalent, and I think much of this stems from settlers who are afraid of giving up control, as they’ve never stopped to think about that that might actually look like. When asked, “What do you [Indigenous] people want anyway?” Simpson says:

I want my great-grandchildren to be able to fall in love with every piece of our territory. I want their bodies to carry with them every story, every song, every piece of poetry hidden in our Nishnaabeg language. I want them to be able to dance through their lives with joy. I want them to live without fear because they know respect, because they know in their bones what respect feels like. I want them to live without fear because they have a pristine environment with clean waterways that will provide them with the physical and emotional sustenance to uphold their responsibilities to the land, their families, their communities, and their nations. I want them to be valued, heard, and cherished by our communities and by Canada no matter their skin colour, their physical and mental abilities, their sexual orientation, or their gender orientation.

“I want my great-great-grandchildren and their great-great-grandchildren to be able to live as Mississauga Nishnaabeg unharassed and undeterred in our homeland (2016)

Is that really too much to ask? As educators, we must spend time grappling with topics like land ownership, treaty relationships, repatriation, and supporting Indigenous sovereignty. Even if we are unsure about challenging and potentially controversial subjects like this, by introducing complex issues to children, or responding when they ask challenging questions, we support the development of critical thinking. As we move forward through the anthropocene in Canada, the next generation will have to be prepared to address complex situations related to land and natural resources, and find new, more respectful ways to coexist peacefully with Indigenous, non-Indigenous, and the more-than-human world.


For more on this topic please see: Whose Land is it Anyway? A Manual for Decolonization