“‘Give it back’ means to restore the livelihood, demonstrate respect for what is shared – the land by making things right through compensation, restoration of freedom, dignity, and livelihood.”

Sylvia McAdam Saysewahum

Do you know whose land you’re on?

Because, if you live in the Americas and you aren’t Indigenous, it isn’t yours.

June is National Indigenous History Month. And, according to Assembly of First Nations National Chief Perry Bellegarde, this time “…gives Canadians an opportunity to learn about their Indigenous neighbours and build a new relationship that is based on understanding and a mutual desire for a positive future.”

In other words, if you don’t know whose land you’re on, right now is the time to learn.

Humber College and the University of Guelph-Humber operate on the traditional and treaty lands of the Mississaugas of the Credit First Nation. They are also on the Haudenosaunee Confederacy‘s, Anishinabek Nation‘s, Huron-Wendat Nation‘s and Tionontati people’s lands.

If you didn’t know whose land you’re on, do you know why you didn’t know?

The Land Back Movement

The settler colonial state of Canada is built on violence. Examples of this violence include, as Niigaanwewidam James Sinclair outlines, “…broken treaty promises, patriarchy, and draconian laws and policies like the Royal Proclamation of 1763, the British North America Act, the Indian Act, and residential schools.”

The ways colonial violence presents in the land called Canada today are all-encompassing and multifaceted. And, says Dr. Hayden King of the Yellowhead Institute, “…they all, sort of, go back to the same place – which is back to the theft of land and the dispossession of Indigenous people from the land.”

So, the Land Back Movement seeks to redress colonial violence at this root: it reasserts Indigenous jurisdiction over the land. This term is broad, however. And, it can also describe the many ways Indigenous peoples of Turtle Island organize to regain sovereignty.

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But didn’t Canada legally acquire this land?

In short, no.

“There’s this long history of Canada and Canadians…mythologizing the emergence of the country,” says Dr. King. “The story that Indigenous people know is settlers coming and tricking Indigenous people…and, there hasn’t really been an effort by Canadians to grapple with this deceit.”

As researcher Dr. Karine Duhamel writes, “The intent of Treaties at the time of their negotiation was the protection and retention of rights to languages, ways of life, and existing belief systems. This undertaking is part of the original understanding of Treaty processes as ongoing relationships that are dynamic and adaptable.”

In practice, settler governments have purposely used vague wording to deny Indigenous peoples rights, failed to renegotiate agreements and blatantly broken promises.

Dr. Duhamel continues, “At the time the Treaties were signed, as now, First Nations did not consider land to be a static entity to be bought or sold. It could not be distributed, parcelled out, and held individually in the sense of ownership.”

So, even if the Treaties hadn’t been broken or misinterpreted on purpose, they never granted anyone “ownership” of land.

Plus, “legal” doesn’t always mean “right.”

Canada’s legal claim over this land is based on principles such as terra nullius and the Doctrine of Discovery. These assert any land not occupied by European Christians is technically unoccupied. And, therefore, they claim European Christians are free to dominate it. Colonization in Africa, Australia, New Zealand, Canada and the United States has been justified using these principles.

Of course, Terra nullius and the Doctrine of Discovery are false and racist. And, they were perfectly legal.

But isn’t land dispossession a thing of the past?

This is a lie used to make the Land Back Movement seem obsolete or hopeless.

“I think that there’s this, sort of, naturalization that the land is ‘already gone’ and there’s nothing that can be done about it,” says Dr. King. “And we know that that’s not true. Historically, we know that our ancestors fought for the land, we know that people in our communities are fighting for the land.”

So, the Yellowhead Institute’s 2019 Red Paper outlines major instances of Indigenous Nations fighting for – and reclaiming – jurisdiction over their stolen land.

For example, earlier this month, TC Energy cancelled the Keystone XL Pipeline Project. And, its termination followed more than a decade of Indigenous-led land defense.

The Land Back Movement is not a lost cause. But, if you’ve been made to think it is, that’s so you won’t fight for it.

How can I help?

You can start by reading the Yellowhead Institute’s Red Papers. Then, educate yourself on current violations of Indigenous sovereignty, such as Wet’suwet’en Strong.

Moreover, in an article about how non-Indigenous allies can support this movement, organizer Ronald Gamblin lists the following:

Gamblin closes saying, “Please do not react out of guilt, anger or fragility. Observe and support when possible, but do not burden Indigenous folks with the emotions of your processing.”

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However you do it, supporting the Land Back Movement constitutes a crucial continuous commitment to Indigenous justice. And, you should uphold this commitment long past National Indigenous History Month.

Get involved on campus

For more ways to fuel this commitment, get involved with Indigenous Education and Engagement (IE&E). This Humber organization “works in partnership with regional Indigenous communities to ensure Indigenous students are supported and connected to their learning environment – academically, culturally and socially.”

IE&E is your on-campus asset for reconciling with the original inhabitants of the land you study on. Its members support Indigenous students year-round and they welcome all students eager to connect through Indigenous perspectives.

You can keep up with everything going on at IE&E on Instagram, Facebook and Twitter. Coming up this month on Tuesday, June 22 and Tuesday, June 29, IE&E and the LGBTQ+ Resource Centre are hosting a free beading workshop. Register through Google Forms to claim your spot!

And, remember, as Dr. Hayden King contends,

“There are alternatives to what Canada tells us is possible.”

Advocacy starts with understanding. So, here’s why National Indigenous History Month is so important.

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