Land acknowledgements are almost part and parcel nowadays for Canadian society. Most if not all city events and meetings are prefaced by these statements. However, it does run the risk of being no more than a performative act. A box to be checked, rather than translated to policy.
Waterloo region’s land acknowledgement, which can be found hidden deep on its website, goes as follows:
Waterloo Region, including the three cities and four townships, is located on the traditional territories of the Neutral (Attawandaron), Anishnaabe (pronounced Ah-nish-naw-bay) and Haudenosaunee (pronounced Ho-den-noh-show-nee) peoples. Waterloo Region is part of The Haldimand Tract, which encompasses six miles on either side of the Grand River from the mouth near Dundalk to where it empties into Lake Erie at Port Maitland also referred to as the One Dish/One Spoon Treaty territory.
Back in April, the Haudenosaunee Confederacy Chiefs Council (HCCC) announced a moratorium on development on the Haldimand Tract, which includes, amongst other municipalities, the Region of Waterloo
The Indigenous leaders say any construction cannot proceed without their peoples’ consent. Any development would have to be authorized by their Haudenosaunee Development Institute. insideWaterloo reached out to city leaders and the region for comment. The Region of Waterloo responded, but didn’t acknowledge the moratorium in their statement:
The Region of Waterloo values the ongoing relationship with Indigenous communities. We look forward to continued collaboration on items such as environmental assessments, archaeological assessments and the development of the Region’s official plan.
According to Courtney Sky, one of the authors of the moratorium, the HCCC sent the region a copy of their announcement back in April, but haven’t heard from any Waterloo Region officials since.
Protect the Tract
Meanwhile, a Six Nations-led group recently completed their canoe trip down the Grand River, in a bid to raise awareness around the moratorium. The Hamilton Spec reported that the group was also collecting water samples along the way to assess the effects of development on the reserve’s drinking water.
“You could tell by the smell, the colour. And as Haudenosaunee people, we could kind of feel that the water was sick,” Donna Silversmith of Six Nations told the Spec. She co-organized the canoe trip, which was sponsored by Protect the Tract, an advocacy group that supports the moratorium.
They began their journey in Elora, where the water was clean, the area was full of life, and little in terms of development. Each stop along the way, the group would collect a mason jar of water. The waters in Elora were clean, full of life and little development.
Serena Mendizabal, a student from Western University who joined the trip, described a correlation between the amount of development along the river, and the water quality getting worse. As they got further away from Elora and began entering the Waterloo, Kitchener and Cambridge area, the water fogged up. There were fewer aquatic animals and a smell of sulfur by the time they stopped in Cambridge. Years of development had taken its toll on the river, and the most responsible thing to do was to hit pause.
The history behind the Haldimand Tract dates back to 1784, when it was granted to the Haudenosaunee by the British Crown for their support in the American Revolution. Around half a century later, the Crown pressured the Haudenosaunee to surrender the land, as more settlers came into the area. Later the Crown obtained surrender documents.
The Federal and Provincial Governments say it was legit, but HCCC say otherwise. The Six Nations reserve shrank down to less than five per cent its original size. Numerous land claims were filed since the 1970s, with formal negotiations breaking down and the disputes sent before the courts. The biggest source of conflict at the moment concerns a planned subdivision near Caledonia.
Indigenous activists took hold of the McKenzie Meadows project area and established 1492 Land Back Lane, preventing further development, and calling on the province to negotiate. Skylar Williams, the spokesman for the camp, recalled the first day he and others established their camp and how, in the first hour, Ontario Provincial Police rolled in asking questions.
“One of the questions that they asked was, ‘how long is it you guys expect to be here?’ And I kind of laughed and I said, you know, our people who have been here for the last 10,000 years, we’re expecting to be here for the next 10,000 more.”
Through a freedom of information request, APTN News reported that OPP spent $16.3 million in just half a year in policing 1492 Land Back Lane. Numerous arrests were made, and a permanent injunction was put into place as well for what Williams described as “20-30 people singing Kumbaya around a fire.”
While land claims against the Government of Ontario are expected to be heard by the courts in 2022, development around the land has backed off. The Canadian Press reported that Losani Homes, a developer behind the McKenzie Meadows project, would be returning deposits in full to home-buyers.
The company vice-president cited lack of government response and the occupation – nearly a year now – led to this decision.
Land back, Indigenous hub?
Members of both 1492 Land Back Lane and the canoe paddlers visited Land Back Camp in Waterloo’s Laurel Creek Conservation Area. The camp is also in support of the moratorium. They and other Indigenous community members were observing National Indigenous Peoples Day. The camp was also hosting the canoe paddlers for the night before they headed off on the next leg of their journey.
Despite now operating as a summer camp for Indigenous and queer youth, their goal has remained the same. It’s right there in the name. On that same day, Land Back Camp along with Reallocate WR*, released statements in support of creating an Indigenous Hub at the former Charles Street Bus Terminal. Their calling on the Region of Waterloo:
- To support and lead alongside the Indigenous community in advocating for an Indigenous community hub in the heart of Kitchener.
- To publicly share how much of the $15 million designated for Black and Indigenous initiatives is earmarked for the Indigenous community.
- To use that earmarked funding in the creation of an Indigenous community hub.
- To support Indigenous leaders and organizations as they design and craft a plan for the space.
- To explicitly keep any police-led organizations, inclusive of Wellbeing Waterloo Region, from leading these engagements.
- We call on Regional Council to reallocate and prioritize in the 2022 Budget the funding of:
- Indigenous-led Community Care Services
- Indigenous-led Inclusive and Accessible Housing and Supportive Housing
- The creation and sustainability of an Indigenous Community Hub
Land Back Co-founder Amy Smoke hails from Mohawk Nation Turtle Clan Six Nations of the Grand River. They said the location was perfect for the Indigenous hub. It is conveniently near bus routes and the LRT, not to mention its proximity to Victoria Park. An area that, historically, was a gathering spot from many Indigenous nations in the area.
“We know that it’s a high-priority need. All of the [other] Indigenous spaces are cramped,” Smoke said. Healing of the Seven Generations and KW Urban Native Wigwam Project were in one family homes. White Owl Native Ancestry Association was located on the other side of town. The Indigenous post-secondaries spaces weren’t always as accessible for those outside the schools.
In the previous year, the camp was set up in Victoria Park and Waterloo Park, raising awareness around the lack of Indigenous spaces in the region, and demanding change. The land defenders have made progress since then.
Fees for Indigenous events in public spaces have been waived by the cities; Indigenous positions on anti-racism committees have been created; and most recently, ceremonial spaces are being created in Victoria Park and Waterloo Park. Though not without controversy.
“They said it was in response to the TRC,” said Smoke. “That wasn’t a response to the TRC. They’ve had five years to do that, and they didn’t do it. It was because of the tipi in the park; it’s because of our hyper visibility of being in that space. It was one of our demands.”
“It erases everything that we’ve done, like all the work that we’ve done when they made a statement like that,” said Shawn Johnston, of the Anishinaabe First Nations, the other Land Back co-founder. The two of them and others quickly stepped in to correct the record. The initiative was being led by Indigenous people, while the cities gave them support.
And while the ceremonial spaces are a start, the community needed something more substantial. The two still hadn’t even had a proper meeting with the Regional Chair about Indigenous issues in the community.
Land Back Camp organizers still intend to work with the cities, but were feeling underappreciated for their efforts. Smoke is still part of the region’s Anti-Racism Taskforce; despite being ticketed under the Reopening Ontario Act for attending an anti-racism rally. Meantime, the City of Waterloo announced the Director for their Anti-racism team, to which Johnston gave feedback on the job posting, but was never granted an interview.
“These kind gestures that they make in the news still are just, it’s just so…,” Johnston said.
“Performative,” Amy said.
“It’s so done. We’re so done with it,” Johnston said.
The former bus terminal is currently being used as a COVID-19 test facility. Public consultations around the site’s future are expected to get underway this fall. A decision won’t be made until at least mid-2022.
Queen Victoria statue to follow SJAM?
On July 1st, Canada Day, Kitchener’s Queen Victoria statue was vandalized. Red paint was poured down the front of the statue and pedestal in Victoria Park. It comes at a time where Canada’s national identity is under scrutiny. More and more unmarked graves of Indigenous children were being found at former Indian Residential Schools, which the government played a hand in alongside the church.
Many were calling for Canada Day to be canceled, which several cities did. Others called for a day of reflection and learning about the treatment of Indigenous people in Canada. Still others went on celebrating regardless of Canada’s history.
Police were called in to investigate; journalists went around asking for comments.; editorials were written about the rule of law, and how vandalism couldn’t be tolerated, but symbols of colonialism could.
It echoes a similar incident from last year, where the Sir John A. Macdonald statue in Baden was also doused in red paint. Being one of the prime architects behind the residential school system, the statue was doused another two times in the following days. People began to question why they even bothered with the statue in the first place, and others began to dig their heels in to keep it. Protestors gathered and called for the removal and discontinuation of the Prime Minister’s Path project.
After much back and forth, Wilmot Council elected to place the SJAM statue into storage, until they knew what the best course of action would be. An Indigenous advisory group was hired to find an answer. After much consultations with the community, the First Peoples Group released their report. Their recommendation was to “Consider immediately removing existing statues related to the Prime Ministers Path and to discontinue any future expansion or investment in the Prime Ministers Path as it exists today.”
Essentially, the report echoed the calls to action by local Indigenous activists like Cheyanne Thorpe, except it comes with a bill footed by the taxpayers. On July 5, Wilmot Council unanimously voted in favour of the recommendations.
Could we see a similar process play out with the Queen Victoria statue? She reigned from 1837 until her death in 1901, and was largely a figurehead of the British Empire. While she couldn’t dictate government policy, she nonetheless reaped the benefits, and was a symbol of British colonialism.
It may be time to place the queen’s statue into storage.
*Our co-founder Teneile Warren is a member of ReallocateWR.
If you are experiencing pain or distress resulting from residential schools, or are in need of support, you can call:
Indian Residential School Survivors and Family Hotline: 1-866-925-4419
Crisis Services Canada: 1-833-456-4566 or text 45645
Kids Help Phone: 1-800-668-6868
First Nations and Inuit Hope for Wellness Help Line: 1-855-242-3310
Native Youth Crisis Hotline: 1-877-209-1266