Opinion: This Canada Day, settler Canadians should think about ‘land back’

Last Canada Day, Parliament Hill teemed with orange as thousands marched in response to the unmarked graves of Indigenous children being found at former residential school sites. #CancelCanadaDay trended on social media while Prime Minister Justin Trudeau urged Canadians to reflect on the country’s failures.

As in-person festivities return to Ottawa for the first time since 2019, it appears to be business as usual. But should it be?

A demonstration on the train tracks at John Counter Boulevard in Kingston during the demonstrations in solidarity with Wet’suwet’en that took place across Canada in February 2020. Photo by Cris Vilela.

For most settler Canadians — myself included — July 1 is a day to celebrate the rights, freedoms and privileges that come with being Canadian. Privileges, however, come with responsibilities. A crucial one for settler Canadians is to build meaningful relationships with Indigenous people and nations.

Many Canadians dislike being labelled “settlers.” The term refers to non-Indigenous people who, or whose ancestors, settled on Indigenous land, although recent debates question the inclusion of descendants of slaves and non-white immigrants.

As a white scholar studying territorial rights, I see my status as a settler as part of being Canadian. It is not an accusation, but a reality of living on unceded Indigenous lands. It is a recognition that the benefits Canadians enjoy are built on the denial of Indigenous Peoples’ rights to self-determination of their land according to their laws.

Settler Canadians have a responsibility to build respectful, reciprocal relationships with Indigenous nations on our shared geographic space. This relationship starts with land restitution.

What is land restitution?

For many settler Canadians, “land back” discussions generate anxiety and discomfort. Contrary to people’s perceptions, however, land back does not mean the removal of all non-Indigenous people from North America. Instead, as many Indigenous leaders have argued, it is about restitution: the return of jurisdictional control to Indigenous nations.

In legal and political philosophy, jurisdiction is the right to make and enforce laws over a geographic area. It also often includes control over the extraction and development of natural resources.

When we talk about restitution in Canada, we are talking about Crown land — land owned by federal and provincial governments. Eighty-nine per cent of Canada’s land is Crown land, while the other 11 per cent is privately owned.

The Indigenous territories that make up Canada. Image via Native Land Digital.

Indigenous land rights in Canada are protected under Section 35 of the Constitution as Aboriginal title. These are special rights that flow from Indigenous nations’ political sovereignty.

Aboriginal title, however, is not the same as restitution. This is because Canada has ultimate legal authority — or “Crown sovereignty” — over all land within its borders.

Why does restitution matter?

Indigenous nations’ jurisdictional rights are recognized in the Royal Proclamation of 1763 and the United Nations’ Declaration on the Rights of Indigenous Peoples. They are also recognized in treaties.

Canada has ignored many of its treaty obligations, but treaties are integral to land restitution. They recognize Indigenous nations as “separate but equal” with their own constitutional orders and governance structures who share land with the Canadian state.

Land restitution also has larger, positive implications. A 2019 United Nations Report on biodiversity found that Indigenous jurisdictions can mitigate biodiversity loss. This is because Indigenous practices emphasize land restoration and sustainability. Land restitution, then, is also crucial in stopping the climate crisis.

It is important to note that Indigenous nations do not need settler consent to exercise their jurisdiction over land, and many do so, despite violent resistance from the Canadian state. Ending this violence requires settlers to recognize their responsibility to support restitution.

How are settlers responsible?

Colonialism is perceived as a “sad chapter” in Canada’s history, for which settlers must make amends. But colonialism is not in the past: it continues in the present through government policies and institutions and the denial of Indigenous Peoples’ rights.

A peaceful protest in Montreal, held in July 2021, to honour the 751 Indigenous children whose unmarked graves were located at the site of the former Marieval Indian Residential School in Cowessess First Nation, Saskatchewan. The sign centre frame reads ‘The Indigenous community matters!’ Photo by Francois Le Nguyen.

We often think of responsibility in terms of liability — someone is responsible when they cause or fail to prevent harm. Responsibility, however, can also be political: people can be responsible because they benefit from unjust institutions. They can also be responsible by virtue of their membership in a political collective, like the Canadian state.

So settler Canadians have a collective responsibility as Canadians to support land restitution — regardless of our individual actions. This is because land restitution is required for building just relations with Indigenous people and nations.

The first step is to critically engage with the meaning of being settler Canadian. One way to do this is to learn about whose land you live on and the history of that land. If you live on treaty land, what are your responsibilities? Another is to hold your elected representatives accountable: How are they advancing justice for Indigenous Peoples? Are they working to implement the Truth and Reconciliation Commission’s 94 Calls to Action or the Calls for Justice from the National Inquiry into Missing and Murdered Indigenous Women and Girls?

Canada Day can be a day to celebrate the privileges we enjoy as Canadians. However, we must also acknowledge that we enjoy these privileges as settlers. This Canada Day, settler Canadians should take time to reflect on our responsibilities to build a better future: one that all sovereign nations on this land can celebrate.

This article is written by Kaitie Jourdeuil, a PhD Candidate in Political Theory at Queen’s University, who has devoted much of her research to territorial rights.

2 thoughts on “Opinion: This Canada Day, settler Canadians should think about ‘land back’

  • Very many thanks for this reasoned, clearly expressed article. Canada Day requires a personal statement in participation and dress. I think I will go to my small community’s activities, but dressed in orange. “Every Child Matters”

  • This well-written piece made me think of Site C with its rare, prehistoric tufa seeps, and Wet’suwet’en land and salmon rivers, both in B.C., threatened by governments planning full-steam ahead over First Nations’ rights. We can do better. – Jerri J

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