Council refers enhanced land acknowledgement proposal back to staff

(Gazette file photo)

OLIVIA TIMM

FOR THE GAZETTE

 

The County of Prince Edward will continue further work on an enhanced traditional land acknowledgement statement as part of County council’s commitment to truth and reconciliation.

At Thursday’s Committee of the Whole meeting, a robust discussion was centred around meaningfulness, intention and understanding of what should be part of an inclusive land statement, which is read at the opening of each council meeting.

Todd Davis, Director of Community Services, Programs and Initiatives, presented council with a staff report proposing revised wording for the land statement, which featured feedback from the Environmental Advisory, Museum Advisory and Heritage Advisory committees.

Prince Edward County Mayor, Steve Ferguson, recognized the vitality of enhanced language. 

“It certainly resonates with me that we as a municipality, we as a municipal government, we as a society, need to recognize the significant contributions of other people that enable us to stay here. It is said respectfully and out of respect because I think it is important to make the statement that we respect that history and that heritage. We are honoured to hold a place here,” he said.

Alison Kelly, Prince Edward County resident and Trustee with the Hastings & Prince Edward District School Board, provided comments to council, referencing her time as a former 99.3 County FM employee.

“I was tasked along with volunteer and retired educator, Pearl Hucal, to create the land acknowledgement you see in your agenda. Pearl and I spent time doing research to fully understand what goes into creating a meaningful land acknowledgement. We shared our draft with my lifelong teacher Troy Maracle for feedback. He made minor tweaks and said, and I quote, ‘It is not my place to tell you how to acknowledge the land,’” she explained.

Through her work, she said she took several key lessons away from the exercise; one of which is to know your audience. 

“Self reflection plays a significant part. I encourage you to think about why you are doing a land acknowledgment. What is the end goal? When are you going to do it? Is this all meetings or just some? Take the time to understand whose land you are on and the history of the land and related treaties. Name the Indigenous peoples from the communities and use the correct pronunciations,” she urged. “Do not white wash the past. Acknowledge the Indigeous peoples of the past, present and future who continue to thrive in our communities despite ongoing colonization.”

She encouraged council to steer away from asking Indigenous people to write the land acknowledgment, saying as settlers, the statement differs “drastically” from Indigenous peoples.

“Looking at the staff report, the draft land acknowledgement pulled together by staff as a starting point for council excludes two key statements. First, acknowledging Inidigineous ancestors of the past, present and future, and second, naming colonialism,” Kelly said. “I appeal to council to create a land acknowledgement that speaks to you. Do not rely on staff to create it for you to reiterate. Do your own research, contribute to its creation and walk away from the experience having a deeper and genuine connection to the words you will be speaking and hearing.”

Coun. Kate MacNaughton agreed with Kelly’s comments, emphasizing the significance of a real and genuine statement. She noted feedback from the MAC on having several options on presenting the land acknowledgement that specifically relates to separate committees and meetings.

MacNaughton said options could be presented to committees or committees could have the choice to adopt, potentially, the first portion of the proposed land statement and add a statement of commitment after that which relates specifically to the meeting at hand.

“I functionally think that imposing it on a group that has not chosen it themselves; chosen to make a commitment themselves to a principle or to mindfulness on some level, that it becomes a very hollow and empty statement,” she shared. “If you are not being specific about it and being intentional about it then it is worse than not having one. I think it does have to have meaning for the group who are reading it or adopting it and I don’t think we should be imposing one on advisory committees. I certainly don’t think that the Audit Committee and the Environmental Advisory Committee have the same goals or have the same relationship to reconciliation that the other committee has. We all could potentially have, to some degree or another, a broader range of goals.”

On the other hand, Coun. Brad Nieman said he does not support having varying statements because it would lose the intention of meaningfulness. 

“I support the land acknowledgement in council because council is the voice of Prince Edward County, not the advisory committees. They are exactly that; advisory committees. Coming from an advisory committee, it is going to mean absolutely nothing. Coming from council at their council meetings, that’s where the meaning is,” he said.

Mayor Ferguson echoed Nieman’s view of having one consistent message, while also taking into consideration the input of members of advisory committees.

“I got us into this back in 2018 because I thought it was the right thing to do, particularly given truth and reconciliation and trying to foster a more meaningful relationship with our neighbours which has subsequently occurred. At the time, a lot of work went into it and I recognize times change, but I think it is still an important part of what should be included in council proceedings, spoken by the head of council,” Ferguson shared. “I am not in favour of multiple versions of the land acknowledgement statement. I think it is something that needs to be stated solely with the decision makers of the municipality. I do not think it is appropriate to expand it to other groups. Otherwise, it loses much of what it is intended for.”

MacNaughton argued that one statement is not enough.

Ameliasburgh Councillor Andreas Bolik (Jason Parks/Gazette Staff)

“With all due respect, I absolutely disagree that one statement across the board is one-size-fits-all. It definitely is not. That is where that risk of absolute meaning is and as far as reconciliation goes, it is our job to begin reconciliatory undertaking and this is as easy as it gets,” she said. “I would trust our volunteer committees to adopt something ‘meaningful to them’ land statement or statement of intent. We should be trusting and investing in our volunteer committees and understanding that making a commitment to be thoughtful about something that is relevant today for any particular committee.”

Coun. Andreas Bolik said he felt that the proposed wordings for the land statement are “formulaic.”

“What are we trying to achieve at this point? I think that is the question we have to ask ourselves. I caution us to avoid empty words or even misleading words. I spoke to this when we originally brought the land statement in because words do matter. Are we trying to alleviate some people’s guilt or what are we truly trying to do? We must avoid patronizing words and actions and we cannot oversimplify a complex, inter-relationship of peoples and cultures,” he said. “I think what we have to look at is our shared heritage of many groups and acknowledge both the good and the bad to be an inclusive community that shows respect and dignity for all. To do that, we have to be prospective and not retrospective.”

Bolik suggested sitting with neighbouring councils in Quinte West and Belleville to express shared thoughts or concerns to turn words into action.

Coun. Janice Maynard articulated that council members struggling to agree on the right way to move forward is a good thing because it shows they are trying to get it right.

Chief Administrative Officer (CAO) Marcia Wallace noted all council members are currently taking training related to Indigenous awareness and reconciliation. 

“Clearly you all are thinking about this in a really thoughtful and personal way,” she said. “I am not very comfortable taking what we have drafted and handing it to the Mohawks of the Bay of Quinte, as our neighbours, and asking for them to tell us if this is right. I think we are premature here, but this has been a very helpful conversation.”

Following Wallace’s direction, council referred the motion back to municipal staff for further consultation.

Municipal staff are set to have a meeting with the Mohawks of the Bay of Quinte in July and CAO Wallace said she anticipates the discussion to return to a council meeting in August 2021.

The current land statement reads: “We will begin this Council meeting by acknowledging that the County of Prince Edward is on traditional land that has been inhabited by Indigenous peoples from the beginning. We thank all the generations of people who have taken care of this land for thousands of years. We recognize and deeply appreciate their historic connection to this land. Today, the County of Prince Edward is still home to many First Nations and Metis people, and we are grateful to have an opportunity to meet here, work and continue stewardship on this land.”

The proposed statement provided by the Museum Advisory Committee (MAC) reads: I (We) would like to begin this gathering by acknowledging that the land on which we gather is the traditional territory of the Wendat, Anishnaabeg, and Haudenosaunee Peoples which is home today to a diverse assembly of First Nations people. As representatives of the Prince Edward Museum Advisory Committee, we are committed to making space for their stories in our museums that speak to our inclusive regional history.

The proposed statement provided by the Environmental Advisory Committee reads: “We begin by acknowledging that the land on which we gather is the traditional territory of the Huron-Wendat, Anishnaabeg and Haudenosaunee Peoples. As members of the Environmental Advisory Committee we respect the environmental stewardship of our First Nations neighbours and commit to learn and work together to honour and protect the land, the air and the water we are grateful to share.