Health care must acknowledge Indigenous lands—but that alone is not enough
Boozhoo, Kwe Kwe Semaa-Kwe ndishnikaaz Teme-Auguama Anishnaabe.
I have just introduced myself in my Anishnaabe language, telling you who I am and where I come from. In many Indigenous communities, we understand our relationship to one another through these introductions. We also typically acknowledge the people of the land we are occupying. I have heard similar introductions around the world at many events and conferences I have attended, and have come to understand their importance in reclaiming culture, tradition and identities. They are also about asserting self-determination.
About 10 years ago, I started introducing myself in my own language at public events in my role as the senior lead of Indigenous initiatives at Laurentian University. It wasn’t long before I heard other Indigenous peoples at our institution following suit. I started having conversations with Indigenous peoples about territorial land acknowledgements, including with members of the Laurentian University Native Education Council (LUNEC), which is comprised of regional Indigenous communities as well as Elders. I also spoke with the university’s executive team to create awareness and understanding of the importance of land acknowledgements. There was resistance in those early conversations—it was new, people had questions about the meaning, why it mattered and who to acknowledge. After much discussion, it was taken up by our university as a regular practice at formal events as well as at convocation.
When the Truth and Reconciliation Commission released its 94 Calls to Action in 2015, many universities also introduced the practice of acknowledging Indigenous lands at public events and gatherings. Today, other systems have started to incorporate land acknowledgements, including health organizations. There are several things to consider in developing a land acknowledgement that is meaningful, heartfelt and moves toward reconciliation. I do not profess to have all the answers, but share these thoughts as starting points. I would recommend asking some critical questions around intent, relationships, building respect and then identifying actionable steps.
First, it is important to consider why you are incorporating a land acknowledgement. What does it mean to you? What does it mean to your organization? In some instances, the way a land acknowledgement is rhymed off feels like it has become a mechanical gesture. What I mean by this is that it is important that land acknowledgements do not become tokenistic. Rather, I would encourage institutions to reflect more deeply about the Indigenous people of the land, the history and the current context. For example, there are often stories that tell us more about the landscape and the traditional names of a particular place. Sudbury, Ontario, is also known to the Anishinaabek as N’Swakamok, which means where the three roads meet. If you have some notion of how people traversed lands and waterways, you would also have a sense of why that name makes sense.
The second aspect to think about is the importance of building relationships with the Indigenous peoples and communities who live in the area. This is a critical step in supporting reconciliation, and it provides a much deeper appreciation of the importance of land acknowledgment. For example, Dominic Giroux, CEO of Health Sciences North in Sudbury, was recently asked why he has been including a welcoming in the local Indigenous language as well as a land acknowledgement at public events. His response: “From my perspective, [a land acknowledgement] needs to be part of the organizational culture, a genuine desire to make Indigenous colleagues or attendees feel welcomed, as opposed to a ‘check box item.’” As an Indigenous person, it is particularly good to hear the local Indigenous language used in the acknowledgement. It shows me the person has gone further in his/her understanding of the land around us, the original people of the land, and the historical and current relationships Indigenous peoples have to the area.
Third, while land acknowledgements are important, I believe that any organization wanting to step up and be more inclusive needs to also find other ways to engage Indigenous peoples. For instance, at a recent conference I attended, the land acknowledgement included recognition of colonization and the violence against Indigenous peoples. The conference organizers placed Indigenous presentations at the forefront of each session. These are small acts that move us toward reconciliation. When people develop their own unique understanding of Indigenous peoples it shows a greater degree of respect.
In health it is important to consider that a land acknowledgement is a first step in creating a sense of belonging, and that in order to increase access to health, longer-term strategies to engage Indigenous peoples need to be explored. As Dominic Giroux points out, “A hospital needs to engage Indigenous partners, make explicit efforts to recruit senior leaders and front-line staff who self-identify as First Nation or Métis, and change the physical environment to reflect First Nation or Métis perspectives.” These are small actions that support broader reconciliatory efforts that every public institution should now be doing.
Regardless of whether or not you feel uncomfortable, it is important to begin asking questions about the lands we occupy, who the people of the lands are, and what the history is here. This is especially important for leaders to take on. They often set examples that encourage others to ask questions, and reflect on their own understanding and knowledge of Indigenous peoples.
Health systems, like education, still have a lot of work to do to ensure equitable access for Indigenous peoples. This means that health organizations like hospitals and public health units need to be reaching out to Indigenous communities and forming partnerships that are based on mutual respect and support self-determination. Acknowledging Indigenous peoples’ presence is one small action toward building better relationships.
Dr. Sheila Cote-Meek is the Associate Vice-President, Academic and Indigenous Programs and Professor in the School of Rural and Northern Health. She is Anishnaabe and has extensive experience working with Indigenous communities regionally as well as nationally.