I have been reading a lot of Indigenous writing lately. Fiction, non-fiction, journalism and poetry. The more I read, the more I realize how little I know. Learning our country’s history has been uncomfortable and even startling.
One book I read is Listening to Indigenous Voices: A Dialogue Guide on Justice and Right Relationships. It’s framed as a guide for discussion groups, but I savoured it alone last July, on the dock at our family cottage in Quebec.
One page in particular jumped out: a map of Canada showing areas covered by treaties and those that remain unceded. My eyes zeroed in on the spot where I sat: no question, it was unceded. Large swaths of Quebec, British Columbia, and Newfoundland and Labrador are on unceded territory.
It gave me pause to consider that the land where I go to unwind, swim, build campfires and connect with family was stolen. Hundreds of years ago, colonizers grabbed this land for themselves and for their descendants. For people like me.
Maya Angelou said, “Do the best you can until you know better. Then when you know better, do better.” But what to do? Acknowledge it? Leave? Give it back? Is it even possible to undo centuries of colonization?
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My search for insight led me to an episode of CBC Radio’s The Doc Project called “Whose Condo Is It, Anyway?” In it, Craig Desson, a CBC producer, buys a condo in Montreal, realizes it (and the whole city) is on unceded land and sets out to answer the question of whether he can legitimately call himself a property owner. He traces the site of his condo through the previous property owners — all the way back to 1534, when Jacques Cartier planted a cross at the Gaspé Peninsula, claiming the land for France under the Doctrine of Discovery.
Desson goes on to speak with Serge Otsi Simon, then grand chief of the Mohawk Council of Kanesatake, home of the Kanien’kehá:ka Nation. They’re part of the Haudenosaunee Confederacy, whose territory includes southern Quebec, eastern Ontario, Upstate New York and Vermont. Simon tells Desson his condo ownership is “artificial title” and that courts have ruled that the Aboriginal title to the land exists and “cannot be extinguished.”
He also says that the responsibility for this situation doesn’t lie with individual property owners, but with government leaders. Simon adds: “We’re not there to displace you. We’re not going to be as cruel to your people as you were to mine.…Aboriginal title is not something to fear. It’s a certain context that we can all work towards peace and finally an equitable justice for both societies.”
Simon’s words may take some weight off individuals’ shoulders, but they also call those of us who are settlers to learn our shared history and to understand how we wound up in this situation. Maybe you’ve already begun this work. Or maybe you’ll find your start with our feature “Reconciliation 101.” As settlers, let’s lean in to the startling discomfort that often comes with listening to Indigenous voices and use that energy to propel our work toward justice for all.
Jocelyn Bell is the editor/publisher of Broadview.
This editorial first appeared in Broadview’s January/February 2022 issue with the title “Essential lessons.”
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