Universities in Canada now commonly do “territorial acknowledgements.” For TRU, I currently use a version in the footer of my e-mails that goes like this:
Thompson Rivers University campuses are on the traditional lands of the Tk'emlúps te Secwépemc (Kamloops campus) and the T’exelc (Williams Lake campus) within Secwépemc'ulucw, the traditional and unceded territory of the Secwépemc. The region TRU serves also extends into the territories of the St’át’imc, Nlaka’pamux, Tŝilhqot'in, Nuxalk, and Dakelh, and Métis communities within these territories.
That acknowledgement has evolved as I have learned more about the territories and peoples, and it can change further as my understanding improves. Like others, I can learn and take action based on what I learn. That’s what this blog is about.
So why do universities do acknowledgements like these?
A first, short answer is: respect.
The lands we serve, and on which our campuses lie, have been occupied, managed, and governed since time immemorial by Indigenous people. The history of education here does not go back only to medieval Europe and the first institutions to call themselves universities. There is a history of higher education, knowledge making, teaching and learning here that goes immeasurably farther back. TRU is not the first community of researchers, teachers and learners on these lands — the First Nations within each territory are. It is only right to respect the long histories of learning attached to the places where we have operated for a few short generations.
The territory marker in Old Main
These lands were, relatively recently, colonized by settlers, largely of European background to begin with, and by Canada once Canada was created. The colonial régime and its institutions brought calamities for Indigenous people, from the devastation of smallpox to the unconscionable abuses of residential schools. The process of Truth and Reconciliation aims at renewed relationships based on mutual understanding and respect. Reconciliation is a second reason to be mindful of territorial acknowledgements.
Acknowledgements show respect and pave the way to Reconciliation
When settlers first came, in substantial numbers, to what is now also called the Thompson and Cariboo areas in the early 1860s, they should have started with territorial acknowledgements. But that was not the character of colonization. Doing territorial acknowledgments is about us (settler institutions) starting to do what we should have been doing since a century and a half ago. We are late learning to respect local First Nations and Métis people. The territorial acknowledgement is a significant way to show our respect, and it must be genuine. Doing a territorial acknowledgement is not, by itself, Reconciliation, but without it, we cannot get to Reconciliation.
The pursuit of decolonization, Reconciliation, and the rights of Indigenous peoples are why we need territorial acknowledgement built not only into our procedures, but also into our thinking. To do its job, a university like TRU needs every employee and every student to understand the idea of the acknowledgement, and preferably to be comfortable doing such an acknowledgement themselves.
There is a third reason to care about and pay attention to territory, and it has to do with the word “unceded” that I use in my acknowledgements. The lands that TRU uses and on which we operate were not given away by sovereign Indigenous nations. TRU’s title and use of land are bestowed by Canada, but Canada did not conclude treaties with First Nations in our region. For TRU, it is like we have a contract with our landlord, but our landlord’s title is disputable. This places our university in a situation of some geographical and moral ambiguity.
Acknowledgements support the sovereignty and rights of Indigenous people
The unceded nature of our lands has profound implications. We need to be supporting and advocating for Canada to do the right thing in its relations with the Indigenous peoples of the region in which TRU is located. We as a university need to be good allies with regional First Nations and Métis people who are asserting and reasserting their sovereignty and rights. We need to be mindful of local Indigenous peoples’ interests and needs, especially for the kind of education and scholarship a university like ours provides. And we should be extra mindful that what we do respects Indigenous knowledge and benefits Indigenous communities.
When I refer to local peoples, there is a first relationship that we as a university daily acknowledge: the relationship between the Secwépemc and TRU. The territory marker stone in the northern lobby of Old Main is a physical reminder that our main campus is situated within a particular Nation. There we are on the lands of Tk'emlúps te Secwépemc, what has been shared with me as “The Host House” for the Kamloops campus of TRU within Secwépemc Nation, a nation that has 17 Bands and 32 Fires. We acknowledge therefore that TRU’s campuses are located on unceded land within Secwépemc'ulucw (the land from which the Secwépemc come). TRU is committed to exceptional respect for the Secwépemc world view and belief system.
Given the history of the land and its people, we fulfill our moral imperatives through the integrity of our relationship with Secwépemc Nation; the influence of TRU Elders; and the teaching, research programs, and service of TRU’s faculty and staff. Elders are important members of our university community who connect us to Indigenous experience and wisdom. Many TRU scholars, courses, and research initiatives serve and benefit Indigenous communities in the region TRU serves. Increasingly, TRU is finding ways to embed Indigenous knowledge in the learning and experiences of non-Indigenous students as well. At the institutional level, we formalize our commitments in partnership agreements.
All of this important work flows from and is reflected in the territorial acknowledgements that we do at TRU. Let us work to keep the meanings of those acknowledgements fresh and respectful, and prevent them being reduced only to rote phrases.