What is Land Back?



Land Back is an Indigenous-led movement that means different things to different people. For some, it is about regaining access to, and governance of, lands where ancestors once dwelt before being forced to live on reservations. For others, it is about land repatriation, honouring treaties and spending time on the land.

In the words of Isaac Murdoch, “I think that really [Land Back] is people returning back and finding their place in those systems of life.” According to Canada Council for the Arts chair Jesse Wente, “I think [Land Back] is really about the decision-making power. It’s about self-determination for our Peoples here that should include some access to the territories and resources in a more equitable fashion, and for us to have control over how that actually looks.”

Systems of land governance under our current provincial and federal governments not only fail to set limits for industrial activities and development, driving wildlife decline and ecosystem degradation, they also exclude Indigenous Peoples from decision-making tables where choices about land use are made.

The David Suzuki Foundation believes that land governance in Canada must change to recognize and uphold Indigenous rights and responsibilities, and to restore nature’s once abundant ecosystems.

I think [Land Back] is really about the decision-making power. It’s about self-determination for our Peoples here that should include some access to the territories and resources in a more equitable fashion, and for us to have control over how that actually looks.

Jesse Wente, Chair, Canada Council for the Arts

Canada’s colonial roots

Throughout the history of Canada, Indigenous Peoples have been removed from the lands that once sustained them — relocated to ever-diminishing reservations.

In some territories, Canada and Indigenous Peoples signed treaties to share the lands and waters. But Canada’s implementation of the treaties has, in almost every instance, failed to honour that understanding.

In other territories, Indigenous Peoples did not sign treaties. In these territories, Indigenous Peoples made no legal agreements with Canada to share responsibility of the lands and waters. In essence, Canada took governance of these lands and resources without consent.

World views and systems of governance

Indigenous Peoples had laws and systems of governance long before Europeans landed on what is now called Canada and imposed their own, colonial laws. Colonialists viewed nature as property to be owned or resources to be commodified. In contrast, many Indigenous Peoples speak of inherent rights accompanied by inherent responsibilities to the natural world. For example, University of Windsor associate professor Beverly Johnson says, “Our laws are always about that responsibility — our relationships, reciprocity.”

As Aimée Craft, University of Ottawa associate professor, explains, “We can see [the challenge] in the images of land defenders coming up against the state police. Both are lawful — both are employing their own systems of law. What you have is two legitimate legal authorities that are saying two different things.”

The resulting conflicts over land-use decisions point to a need for Canadians to have conversations, sometimes difficult, about what needs to change to ensure more just systems of land governance.

Our laws are always about that responsibility — our relationships, reciprocity.

Beverly Johnson, Associate Professor, University of Windsor

How can I support the Land Back movement?

Indigenous wisdom regarding lands and waters has evolved over thousands of years. Globally, Indigenous Peoples comprise less than five per cent of the world’s population, but protect 80 per cent of the planet’s biodiversity. Indigenous knowledge can help to address many of the environmental and equity challenges inherent in the climate and biodiversity crises.

In recent years, the David Suzuki Foundation has supported Indigenous-led conservation by supporting the establishment of Indigenous Protected and Conserved Areas, and by promoting Indigenous-led restoration and species-recovery work.

But Indigenous land governance reaches beyond the boundaries of protected areas.

Allies of Indigenous Peoples must also understand that the colonial histories that created these conditions for Indigenous Peoples in the first place are also root causes of the environmental crises.

As Ojibwe journalist Jesse Wente notes, one thing allies of Indigenous Peoples can do is educate themselves and each other. The following videos are an attempt to begin to establish a shared understanding — to serve as a foundation for moving forward together and to open the door to wider conversations about the history and future of land governance in Canada.

Canadian land governance must respect Indigenous rights

Land Governance – The Past

The first video in this “Land Governance” series sets the historical context of the dispossession of Indigenous Peoples from the lands that sustain them within Canada. It identifies the legal and policy landscape that created the conditions for today’s environmental and social crises. It explores the past and the rights and responsibilities of Indigenous Peoples, which are rooted in the inherent governance of their territories.

Additional resources:

Land Governance – The Present

The second video in the “Land Governance” series highlights the current land-management crisis in Canada and how this has motivated the Indigenous-led Land Back movement. It explores what happens when two systems of law and governance come head-to-head and articulates the need for difficult conversations and activism.

Additional resources:

Land Governance – The Future

The third video in the “Land Governance” series explores potential paths toward just systems of land management that honour Indigenous rights and responsibilities. These paths include implementation of the United Nations Declaration on the Rights of Indigenous Peoples, inclusion of Indigenous systems of governance and stewardship, developing mechanisms to recognize Indigenous land ownership and the need to create meaningful relationships as a foundation for moving forward.

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