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GUEST OPINION: I withdraw my criticism of land acknowledgments

Letters to the Editor
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On Feb. 22, The Guardian published an article by Chief Darlene Bernard, Lennox Island First Nation and Chief Junior Gould, Abegweit First Nation (Land Surrender did not Happen in Mi’kma’ki) in response to my article (Islanders not living on unceded land, Jan. 23). I should like to acknowledge my gratitude for their thoughtful reply.

However, I fear that the chiefs may have misinterpreted my article by stating that I claim that our lands were ceded by the First Nations people. In that article, I clearly indicated that “As none of P.E.I. was ceded by the native community it implies that we are all effectively trespassing on their land.” I have never suggested that the Indigenous population of the Maritimes have ever ceded the land they have occupied for at least 10,000 years. 

In another piece published in February 2018, I wrote that following the 1763 Treaty of Paris “there was no recognition by the British of land rights for those natives living on the island. There can be no doubt it was a cruel fate for the local native community.” The land was ceded to the British by the French, not the Aboriginal people.

Presently all the Maritimes, nearly all B.C. and much of eastern Ontario and Quebec sit on territories that were never signed away by the Indigenous people. Even the Supreme Court of Canada and the Houses of Parliament in Ottawa are on lands unceded by the native (Algonquin) people of Canada.

The Peace and Friendship Treaties from 1729 to 1779, to which the chiefs refer, were in large measure contrived by the British military in unsuccessful attempts to dissuade Mi’kmaq bands in the Maritimes from siding with the French forces in their various military engagements against the British. They provided guarantees of rights to fish, hunt and pursue traditional activities and they remain in effect to this day.

The Donald Marshall case of 1993 resulted in his acquittal in light of the Halifax treaty of 1760/61. As noted by the chiefs, these treaties did not involve land rights.

Since the report of the Truth and Reconciliation Commission in 2015, it is common for various government and community officials in Canada to acknowledge that our lands were unceded by the Aboriginal peoples, when making a public address. I note that Prime Minister Justin Trudeau made such an acknowledgment in his recent speech to the Commons concerning the rail blockades and the We’suwet’en land dispute. 

The New Yorker magazine in September 2017 published a highly pertinent article entitled Canada’s impossible acknowledgment by Stephen Marche, on the subject of these acknowledgments, which sums up the fundamental contradictions that he feels Canadians must face up to if we are to move forward as a nation. 

Chiefs Bernard and Gould view the acknowledgments by the Confederation Centre of the Arts as a positive step, and this being the case I withdraw my previous criticism in all sincerity.


John Palmer is a retired civil servant with extensive experience on aboriginal land claims in the Far North. He lives in West Covehead.

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