Whose land is it?

Last week, from his hospital bed, Pope Francis formally repudiated the Doctrine of Discovery, a 500 year old set of papal decrees that gave full encouragement and permission to European explorers to take over Indigenous land in the Americas and convert Indigenous people to Christianity.

In some ways, it feels totally anachronistic to be having a conversation about a 15th c. series of decrees from the Vatican. But these decrees fundamentally shaped — and continue to shape — our notion of how we relate to resources, land and the people around us. And as hikers, cyclists, runners, paddlers and yogis who talk about feeling the earth beneath our feet, we need to pay more attention to the assumptions we make.

Last year, Susan and I were walking with the old lady dog on the wooded trails behind Susan’s cottage that everyone in the cottage community has hiked on for decades. Suddenly we were confronted by a red-faced man who furiously informed us that this was HIS land, that he had BOUGHT it, and we had no right to be on this land.

Susan said something mild like, “oh, we live over there, and we’ve been walking here for years.”

“Well it’s MY land and I don’t want anyone on it.” He seemed on the verge of foaming at the mouth, and his obviously long-suffering wife shepherded him away. Doctrine of Discovery in action.

“I think,” I said, carefully, “that this is treaty land. Whose land actually IS this?”

I went away and looked at the excellent, which illustrates traditional territories, language and treaties. The land in question is the traditional territory of the Anishinabewaki and part of the Williams Treaty from 1923.

As an uninvited settler in what’s now Ontario, no one ever talked to me about what it actually means to be hiking on — or think we “own” — the land. No one ever explained a treaty to me when I was growing up in the part of southwestern Ontario that was the traditional territory of the Anishnaabeg people of the Three Fires Confederacy (Ojibwe, Potawatomi, and Odawa). I think — as I assume most white settlers did — that I thought treaties were somehow analogous to real estate agreements, some kind of fair trade.

Well, have a quick gander at this description — this mild history, given that it’s on the website – of the fraud and trickery that marked the three centuries of negotiations that preceded the inoffensive-sounding “Williams Treaty of 1923.” And that’s not even getting into the notion that First Nations tradition didn’t include the notion of ownership, but stewardship. Land is not a resource to be owned or used up, but a space of sacred care to sustain life for all creatures for many generations. Treaties were not a trading of equal sets of valued resources, but forced negotiations about the increasingly smaller spaces Indigenous people were allowed to live.

In North America, every piece of land we hike, cycle, walk or run on, and every cubic centimetre of water we sail, paddle or swim on, has a similar history. I was hiking in my favourite corner of my favourite part of the world a couple of weeks ago, a tiny bit of Tsawaut territory on Salt Spring Island. There is a beautiful sign at the entrance with an image of the thirteen moon calendar, gloriously illustrating how humans are embedded in the same system as water, plants and land creatures.

It’s hard to read the part at the bottom right that says “since European contact” in this image. It reads: “Traditional Salish resources were managed for long-term sustenance, however after the colonial Douglas Treaty process of the early 1850s, our lands were reduced to tiny reserves with token rights. The 600-acre section of land around the Tsawout Fulford Indian reserve was surveyed in 1874 for preemption by settlers starting with the Trage and Spikerman families followed by the Bridgman family. Today, archaelogical sites are protected and conservation covenants have been placed on some of the adjacent private lands which protect the area from being developed or contaminated. We ask visitors to respect our continuing stewardship of this area.”

Right next to this land, someone akin to the red-faced chap next to Susan’s cottage has built the most obnoxious huge house looming over the little harbour, with a long drive walled off from the wooded area, complete with security cameras and a little guard house. A little wooden sign next to this monstrosity marks the entrance to the trail as “Trailhead Wen, Na, Nec Trail, Tsawout First Nations.” Google maps labels the trail as Fulford Harbour Trailhead. The Doctrine of Discovery, right in action right there.

So that’s the Truth part of Truth and Reconciliation. We continue to enact 15th century colonial practices, hoarding and walling off land, steadily trying to erase even the smallest pockets of First Nations land. Mining the resources — literal and figurative — instead of honouring the seventh generation principle.

What’s the Reconciliation part of this? As a hiker, walker, cyclist, runner, paddler, swimmer, you are glorying in the land. Do some research to really understand the history of the land you are on, and how it got to be something you think you can “own.” Look at the connections between that ownership and how we treat it and climate change. And explore the emerging Pay your rent movement.

As settlers, we’re living rent-free on this land. The Nii’kinaaganaa foundation in that link is one of the growing number of “pay your rent” entities that redistribute settler money to Indigenous organizations. Follow that link to the Patreon donation button and do some reading about moving up the allyship scale toward “accomplice” and put your money where your mouth is. Or do some research and create relationships with organizations of your own. (I make monthly donations to Indspire, the Native Women’s Resource Centre, Anduhyuan, and Tewegan, and support Clan Mothers Healing Village, the Anishnawbe Health Toronto and Na-Ma-Res annually).

But don’t be the red-faced dude sitting alone in his wooded land hating middle-aged female bodied people and their old lady dogs. That’s so 15th century.

Fieldpoppy is Cate Creede (she/they), who lives in the part of the world we currently call Toronto, which is Treaty 13 territory, signed with the Mississaugas of the Credit. Here is a photo of Cate and Susan sneaking past the angry man.

Let us know what you think....