City councillors in Richmond Hill, Ont., rejected a motion to begin their meetings with an acknowledgement of the area’s Indigenous community and history.
The decision was made after a lengthy Monday night council meeting that featured dozens of impassioned speeches and letters from citizens in favour of the proposal.
“It was a blatant, strategic, political quashing of a legitimate motion,” said resident Joel Clements, who spoke at the meeting.
Following the decision, some attendees shouted “shame” at councillors who did not support the proposal.
Marj Andre, who implored council to adopt the land acknowledgement, said she left the meeting in anger and disbelief.
“Richmond Hill has been shamed,” she told CBC News. “The message it sends to the community — I’m embarrassed.”
The original motion, proposed by Coun. David West, would have seen city council open its meetings with an acknowledgement that Richmond Hill, a suburban city north of Toronto, stands on the traditional lands of the Wendat, Haudenosaunee, and Anishinaabe peoples.
Land acknowledgements have been widely adopted in Canada following the release of the Truth and Reconciliation Commission’s recommendations in 2015, which were aimed at repairing the harm caused by residential schools and to help the country move forward with reconciliation.
The City of Toronto begins its council meetings with a land acknowledgement. Events hosted by many universities, school boards and even the Winnipeg Jets also include land acknowledgements.
“I think that it’s a clear and first step that’s been adopted by many organizations to start the conversation and it’s a respectful way to acknowledge the fact that the land that we’re on is land — that we were not here first,” said West.
Events hosted by many Canadian universities, school boards and even the Winnipeg Jets include land acknowledgements. (John Woods/The Canadian Press)
‘Not within the municipality’s role’
West’s motion was amended during the Monday night meeting to replace the land acknowledgement with the creation of a new Indigenous training program that will be available to city employees.
A motion to create that program was eventually passed, but made no mention of a land acknowledgement.
“It’s disappointing because I think the idea of a land acknowledgement is to show leadership,” West said.
“There are things happening all over the country and I’m really sorry that we’re not on the forefront of that.”
Regional and local councillor Joe DiPaola, who proposed the amended version, did not respond to multiple interview requests by CBC News. But a councillor who backed DiPaola’s altered plan said it was “superior” to the original.
“We’re going to help explain, educate and promote the Aboriginals and their history in Richmond Hill.” said Coun. Tom Muench, before acknowledging that many people at the meeting were unhappy with the result.
“Was it disappointing for those that said, ‘I didn’t get what I wanted, I want chocolate for breakfast, lunch and dinner, I wanted it my way’? You’re right, those people are disappointed,” he told CBC News.
Muench said many people in his ward voiced opposition to the land acknowledgement plan, though they did not attend the meeting nor submit letters to council expressing their opinions.
He went on to argue that municipal governments should be focused on more immediate issues, such as parking, transit and affordability.
“It’s not within the municipality’s role to get involved in land treaties and engagement, that’s not really your mandate,” Muench said.
A residential school survivor and an elder embrace at a Truth and Reconciliation Commission event in Vancouver in 2015. Land acknowledgements have been widely adopted following the release of the commission’s recommendations. (Darryl Dyck/CP)
Clements, who lives in Muench’s ward, vehemently disagreed, and said people in his community are concerned with reconciliation and want to see their local government take action.
“I actually see our council as being almost completely ineffectual,” he said. “I don’t believe that they’re representing the best needs of the community.”
Andre pointed out the diversity of the speakers who addressed council on Monday night as evidence that many people in her city would have backed a land acknowledgement.
“It was totally dismissive,” she said of the amended motion. “There is no democracy.”
Clements also took aim at what he saw as the hypocrisy of the training program, which will be made available to city staff. The motion did not mention that any educational programs will be directed at the city’s elected officials.
“They’re the ones that need to be educated,” he said of council. “And they’ve rebuffed that.”