Are Cwood’s Symbolic Gestures Mere Platitudes?

I’ve been wondering what the purpose is of the declaration that now starts every council and standing committee meeting. It’s a symbolic gesture, of course, but I cannot fathom what it’s meant to accomplish or who its audience is. The most recent declaration reads:

For more than 15,000 years the First Nations walked upon, and cared for, the lands we now call home: Anishinaabek, Haudenosaunee, Ojibwe, and many others who cared for their families and communities, the way we now seek to care for ours. The Town of Collingwood acknowledges the Lake Simcoe-Nottawasaga Treaty of 1818 and respects all of the Nation-to-Nation agreements that have formed relationships with the original inhabitants of Turtle Island; the reality of our shared history; the current contributions of Indigenous people within our community and seeks to continue empowering expressions of pride amongst all of the diverse stakeholders in this area, we seek to do better, to continue to recognize, learn, and grow, in friendship and community, Nation-to-Nation.

I get it: especially given the recent, shocking discoveries at former residential schools, there’s a common sentiment across the nation that can be more succinctly expressed as “Imperialism bad, multiculturalism and diversity good.” We have no statues in Collingwood of now-disgraced white men to pull down, so we have to resort to less dramatic gestures to show our solidarity and grief.

Collingwood seems, however, to have created a murky, rambling statement that does no great service to what I assume is its intent. (I speak, of course, as one previously employed as a writer, editor, and communications director, so words and clarity are my focus.)

I understand symbolic gestures: they’re what we do when we cannot change a situation, but want to express our anger, passion, compassion, outrage, sadness, support, angst, or other emotions. From bumper stickers to flags at half-mast, rainbow-painted crosswalks, and lawn signs with supportive messages for causes: we all make them, even corporations and municipalities do it. They can reflect our individual or collective feelings. 

But symbolic gestures are like “thoughts and prayers” — they are not change. No matter how many people walk the streets wearing a Che Guevara T-shirt, the evils of predatory capitalism will not be mitigated by the wearing. Decades of “thoughts and prayers” have not stopped the epidemic of mass shootings in the USA.

To be most effective, these gestures first need to have relevance to the viewer. They need to spark awareness, but to affect change they need to encourage advocacy and action in their audience. Without action and advocates, there can be no change. Words have to be carefully crafted for that purpose because symbolic gestures can too easily become platitudes riding on the bandwagon of political correctness.

This is, to my knowledge, the third time this declaration has been changed since it was introduced in early 2019, and has become longer, more convoluted, and more difficult to understand each time.

I had to look up the “the Lake Simcoe-Nottawasaga Treaty of 1818” online because I knew nothing of it. That’s forty years before there was a Town of Collingwood (1858) and even before there was a Canada (1867). I’m not sure what its relevance to today’s Collingwood is. It was a purchase of land between the “the Chippewas of Lake Huron and Simcoe and the Government of Upper Canada” but I can’t tell by the description if it included land that later became Collingwood (read it in its entirety here).

Even if so, how are we “acknowledging” it? It’s not clear from the wording if we’re supposed to see this as a good or bad purchase. If it’s neutral, why raise it at all? And pardon my asking, but where is our local indigenous community’s input in all of this? Do we even have one? I’m a little uncomfortable having outsiders dictate local values, even symbolic ones done with the best of intentions.

While our declaration promises the town “respects all of the Nation-to-Nation agreements,” I can’t tell what nations it refers to (it’s unclear enough that it could as easily refer to, say, agreements made between Germany and Russia). There wasn’t a Canadian nation in 1818: “Upper Canada” was just a colony. I’m not sure the status of the document’s indigenous co-signers either: were they a nation, tribe, or band? I find the declaration’s language confusing and vague. What action, what advocacy is being called for? The declaration promises,

…we seek to do better, to continue to recognize, learn, and grow, in friendship and community, Nation-to-Nation.

Again, I get that one side of the equation is the First Nation people (or rather a particular part of them), but what nation is on the other side? Collingwood certainly isn’t one, no matter what the personal ambitions of our over-reaching mayor may be. I don’t quite know how to “respect” an agreement signed by long-dead representatives of the British government more than 200 years ago.*

I am not sure how I am to accomplish this warm-and-fuzzy growth and learning. Is this a promise made by council? Our self-aggrandizing mayor? Town staff? Or is it on behalf of all residents (I’m pretty sure the public wasn’t consulted)? 

I also take exception to the statement that “For more than 15,000 years the First Nations walked upon, and cared for, the lands we now call home.” That was during the last Ice Age and this particular plot of land was buried beneath a mile of ice at that time. The ice didn’t even begin retreating until about 12,000 years ago (later around Georgian Bay, according to the Canadian Encyclopedia). When I questioned this date, PRC Director Dean Collver wrote stating:

The 15,000 year attribution came from indigenous advisors that assisted with the design of the Awen’ Gathering Place as well as other consultation over time. We’ve attempted to honour their input by including it in the Acknowledgment of Traditional Lands, however, I can agree with your math regarding the Ice Age. Although our advisors have Ojibwe origins, as well as some related to other Anishinaabe Peoples, I believe that they were referring to a history across North America where evidence has shown presence from at least 12,000 years ago. Not 15,000 but, again, we sought to honour their input by using references that they had provided us.

I’m not arguing the date of the arrival of the people referred to as”paleo-Indians” or the archeological evidence elsewhere, just wondering how that is relevant to Collingwood and the local audience. The declaration names specific peoples with that date, and that makes it seem like it refers not to some vague continental migration, but a very local population. At least for me, this inexactitude mars the declaration. Collingwood cannot speak on behalf of the continent.

And the second sentence of this declaration is a run-on monster of a full 78 words! Strunk and White would be spinning in their graves over that. (Evidence the town desperately needs a qualified communications officer to proofread public statements before they are released!)

The first instance of this declaration I can find is this 47-word statement from February 13, 2019:

Today we acknowledge that this meeting is taking place on the traditional territory of the Indigenous peoples of Turtle Island. We are thankful to share in the special spirit of this place, rich in the energy of Mother Earth, our ancestors and the love of all Creation.

Although much more succinct and less tortuous than the current one, it made me uncomfortable because it mentions a capital-C “creation.” That suggests a creator, and that means a supernatural deity and that wades into the quagmire of mixing religion and government. Plus there is this capitalized “Mother Earth” and her energy which is uncomfortably close to New Age woo for my tastes.

Municipal documents should be scrupulously secular, and entirely neutral when it comes to anything regarding faith or religion. And not include any spiritual; references, no matter whose.

I had to look up “Turtle Island,” too, because I was unaware of such a local geographic location. But according to the Canadian Encyclopedia, it refers to the whole continent:

Turtle Island is the name many Algonquian- and Iroquoian-speaking peoples mainly in the northeastern part of North America use to refer to the continent. In various Indigenous origin stories, the turtle is said to support the world, and is an icon of life itself. Turtle Island therefore speaks to various spiritual beliefs about creation and for some, the turtle is a marker of identity, culture, autonomy and a deeply-held respect for the environment.

Again, methinks this is far too broad and diffuse for the local audience. Where is the local relevance? And how are local readers supposed to understand the reference? I’m not knocking anyone’s spiritual beliefs, just asking what they’re doing here and why the declaration is so unclear.

By June 28, 2021, the declaration had changed and lengthened to 66 words:

Today we acknowledge that Collingwood is located on the traditional territory of the Indigenous peoples of Turtle Island, including the traditional lands of the Anishinaabek, Haudenosaunee, and Ojibwe peoples, and on lands connected with the Lake Simcoe-Nottawasaga Treaty of 1818. This is the home of a diverse range of Indigenous peoples whom we recognize as contemporary stewards of the land and vital contributors of our society.

A rambling, run-on sentence of 40 words opens the declaration. And then it says “of our society” when it should read “to our society.” Had I been the editor, I might have reduced this to a simple statement:

Collingwood is located on the traditional territory of the Anishinaabek, Haudenosaunee, and Ojibwe peoples, whom we recognize as contemporary stewards of the land and vital contributors to our society.

Short, clear, respectful, and direct. But that’s not the bureaucratic way, and the declaration got longer and windier each time, so now it’s a bloated 120 words, long and convoluted enough to encourage people to skip past it.**

How did this all come about? I recall no public engagement, no public consultation, not even a story in the local media (okay, no surprises there). So I asked the clerk’s department and received this:

The requirement of a land acknowledgement was established by resolution of Council in 2018. Below are links to the June 25 and September 10 meetings where the item was first brought forward and a staff report on the item was brought forward for consideration and approved by Council.

RES-229-2018 Moved by Councillor Jeffery Seconded by Councillor Madigan:

THAT a Staff Report be prepared regarding the drafting of a policy based on municipal collaboration with local Indigenous peoples, with the intent of that policy being to acknowledge the town’s Indigenous heritage through the recognition of traditional lands at the beginning of Council Meetings and Town events, and such report to be considered at the August 27 council meeting. CARRIED

And then it came back in September 2018, again without public consultation or engagement (and, it seems, ignored by local media too):

9.2.4. PRC2018-15 Recommendation for Acknowledgment of Traditional Lands. RES-294-2018 Moved by Councillor Doherty Seconded by Councillor Jeffery

THAT Council receive Staff Report PRC2018-15, and Council formally adopt the recommended wording for an “Acknowledgment of Traditional Lands” as identified in this report; AND THAT every new Council be provided an orientation on the Indigenous presence in our community, the traditions and history of the First People, and the current challenges facing First Nations, Métis, and Inuit peoples in Canadian communities. CARRIED

I agree our national (and my personal) education about First Nations issues has been sadly inadequate, and our national history has many shameful events that should be exposed in our history books. But isn’t this reaching well beyond local issues, let alone jurisdiction? How will knowing about Inuit challenges make for more effective governance here? Given that there were (and are) many different aboriginal peoples with a wide range of cultures and traditions in Canada, I cannot see such a simple “orientation” could even begin to adequately cover them all.

And who will provide the orientation? Non-aboriginal staff? Will the town hire an educator, or contract with a consultant? Or several, given the diversity that needs to be covered by this motion. Will this be a single session or, as I suspect, sessions that extend over many weeks to be as thorough as the motion requires? What reading material is required (and what are the chances any of this reading-averse council would even glance at it)?

This is well outside the mandate of our small-town’s local governance, and I think too diffuse to be useful, even symbolically. I would have requested that wording be changed to a much more clearly defined local relevance (and I can’t find any indication this council underwent a similar, all-encompassing orientation). We should be careful not to over-extend ourselves in pursuit of such political correctness (I note neither Wasaga Beach nor Clearview councils have adopted such a declaration).

I was also told that “Director [Dean] Collver… was the author of the report and plays a key role in the review of the acknowledgment each year.” When I asked how the changes to this declaration were approved (I could not find any subsequent approvals for the changes in wording and the recent changes happened in less than the motion’s specified year), Collver responded,

Regarding approvals of the text – Staff provided the text to Council as was directed in the motions that Becky has provide to you. I’m not sure what approvals you are referring to? Staff have updated the text over time for a number of reasons such as: learning of new best practices when it comes to these acknowledgments, new advice provided by Indigenous advisors, and so that the “script” does not become so ‘rote’ as to weaken or diminish its intention. We continue to learn and adjust according to new learning as we go.

I will review with the Clerks whether an approval of the text that introduces a Council or Committee meeting is required and, if so, we’ll definitely follow that process. At this time, I’m not sure if that’s defined anywhere – apologies if I’ve missed a step.

As a former councillor, I am also uncomfortable with staff unilaterally making changes to declarations that are supposed to reflect not only all of council, but all of the community. But yet I cannot find evidence of any council member questioning any of these changes or wording. Well, I acknowledge they were not elected for their intelligence, but still, someone should have spoken up and asked how it happened. And don’t even ask where the mayor’s missing leadership went…

As the declaration grows longer and more encompassing, it seems to me to lose both focus and local relevance. I fear next time it will occupy a page or two in every agenda. Perhaps it needs to be updated annually (and approved by council when that happens), but I still believe a shorter, more direct statement is more effective without being disrespectful.

And I think this sort of thing best belongs on a bronze plaque in town hall, or on a poster framed in the council chambers, not in the agenda of every meeting. As any good advertiser knows, things lose their effectiveness when they become commonplace.

Collingwood deserves better.

~~~~~
* I have a certain reluctance to stand by old British treaties signed a couple of centuries ago regardless of their intent. My mother’s side of my family fled the highlands of Scotland, back in 1783, coming to Canada to escape the predations of the English long before even this land purchase was made. We’re still grumpy about losing at Culloden.

** You have to wonder how respectful the town is being when it is planning to build a $1.55 million  “Awen” splash pad supposedly to honour indigenous people, wasting water at a time when many First Nations people still don’t have clean water in their own homes. And then to build it on a former dumpsite. Seems rather tone-deaf to me. I would have thought donating the money to help a reserve build its own water treatment plant and train its staff would have been more practical.

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One comment

  1. In these declarations, the undefined “we” of the statements must surely refer to our council when it promises the group will “seek to do better, to continue to recognize, learn, and grow, in friendship and community, Nation-to-Nation.”
    Council keep its promises? That would be a first. Council learn? Grow? I laughed at the thought of our ideologically hidebound, SVJI-obsessed group ever learning something or growing anything more than their hair. I remind readers of a statement by Publius Iuventius Celsus in Corpus Iuris:
    Impossibilium nulla obligatio est.
    (No obligation to do the impossible is binding)

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