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  • Annette Dunlop

Rejecting Forced Land Acknowledgments --> Suspended

Updated: Jan 3

I am in an expressive arts psychotherapy program. Or I was until yesterday when I got a call telling me I am suspended. I wrote a letter to the class about feeling “inauthentic” while performing forced land acknowledgements at the beginning of every class. The land acknowledgements would take place during a semi hypnotic psychotherapeutic intervention (an “ABSA”) facilitated by our instructor.

For clarity’s sake, an ABSA is an arts based sensory activity. Something that is meant to “decentre” and enter your body in a more vulnerable, playful state; a less bounded state.

We would then be told to express our “feelings of appreciation” to the keepers of our land.

But it felt false to me, and the rote forced ritual felt like church. So I said so. Then I sent a letter to explain my feelings. A fellow student claimed the letter was “rooted in racism”. I have since had a very disappointing meeting with the director of the school and my teacher where I was chastised, not legally but morally, as they positioned themselves as some kind of spiritual authority.

Now I am suspended while a formal investigation ensues. Not an investigation into the letter, but into how it was received. It seems if I am received as a racist, I must be. This was, in fact, the culture which my letter attempted to frame. So, unfortunately, Quod Erat Demonstrandum.

Reflecting, perhaps, something of my own early trauma (a now redundant trope: white Canadian girl of Irish descent), I prefer my flagellation to be performed on a public stage.

In that spirit, here is my letter:

My intention is to share some ideas behind my gut feeling: that performing an ABSA (arts based sensory activity) around land acknowledgement every week doesn’t feel authentic to me.

I don’t think it is helpful to valorize a group of people. To idealize them. I also think it is dangerous to have a nostalgic relationship to nature. To revere the good ol’ days. Back when we lived in nature and had no walls and our life expectancy was a third of what it is now. Basically, to identify humanity and progression as evil.

I think we can critique modernism, critique colonialism, critique capitalism. But it’s a joke to entirely separate ourselves from it, or suggest that there are easy and correct solutions. I am not under the impression that, while the indigenous have certain values I look up to, and while they are a group of people that have suffered egregiously, that this is a “better group of people”. I have experienced racism from indigenous clients, for example. They aren’t perfect. Nor do I hold them accountable to be. It’s unfair to place a transpersonal reverence upon a human or group of human beings.

I think one of the problems with the Canadian government’s response, under political pressure, to Indigenous, black, LGBTQ people is to overvalorize them. Currently, if you’re applying for artists grants, you have to be BIPOC, LGBTQ+ to get most of the grants. I think that’s a problem. I think art is a crucial space, like play, where we get to explore alternative ways of being. To layer on top of that a moral imperative limits the field of play. You’re saying people can’t enter the arena unless they are one of these groups. That smacks of fascism to me. We’re limiting the conversation.

I think we’re all worth the same. And diversity has to include diversity. I think we have different gifts. But the enantiodromia, reaching too far in the opposite direction, namely the victimization of and idealization of a group of people is not healthy. I have read indigenous writers like Jesse Wente share their feelings about this and from what I gather there is a resentment at being treated this way. They are aware of being a pawn in a political dance, even as they seek reparation.

So in part what I am critiquing is the culture of social correctness.

There is, in this world, a long history of invading the boundaries of individuals or groups of people if we think we have a good cause. This is colonialism and neocolonialism. We’re familiar with that. But it’s hard to see when we’re doing it.

The church is willing to invade your personal boundaries. They tell you what is right or wrong and tell you you’re sinning. In effort to “Save your immortal soul” they’re more than willing to disrespect your physical and emotional boundaries. God is an image of the all knowing collective superego, shiner of light of truth, and the political structure of the church is their representative on earth who decides what is “right and wrong” and how to implement this dogma.

Superego’s are ambivalent, they protect certain values and they also destroy they rest of us that doesn’t conform. They are idealistic, it is this idealism that hurts us. They are of their time. Their values are not perfect. They constantly tell us we “should” do something.

To identify with your own superego is to devalue the play space, to put it in expressive arts therapy terms. To believe in your own superego is to polarize your experience into good and bad.

I grew up in the church and much of me was bad, if I believed them, and I did for a while. They thought they were doing good work. My parents, I’m sure, thought they were doing good. But it was incredibly transgressive to me and my sacred. My ways of knowing were disrupted.

9/11. Something happens. The collective superego decides that the middle east and all those who come from it are evil. The feelings are so intense. The rage, the fear, the righteousness. We’re willing to invade the personal sacred boundaries of people we decide are a risk to our personal safety, to our mission. It took a while for the zeitgeist to acknowledge how terribly racist this was.

When you have a mission, a group of people who are enraged, who believe they are “Right” and are willing to destroy anyone in their path, it is hard to get in their way. It is seductive to the part of our psyche that still believes in “right and wrong”. It stirs up our fears of not belonging, of being shamed, of risking having an alternate view. Even if that view is not opposite, it will be interpreted as such, as an enemy.

I used to work in international development. For the sake of giving someone clean water or building their value chains, we also give ourselves permission to transgress. To impose without understanding what is sacred to another person or culture. These intentions were the purest, but the outcomes aren’t. Conversations have changed, they are complex, but much of the aid industry is full of new grads, naive and in love with the idea of “help” or “saving”. There are huge and varied responses to this, of course. Some people don’t want aid. But we’ve deeply embedded ourselves in other countries and it’s not clear in terms of military or political or social or economic structures what the least harmful thing to do is. I left that work and decided the most valuable thing I could do was to work with people one on one. Here I could be authentic.

I see the pain of indigenous people. But I also see other people’s pain. I don’t think one pain is deeper because it came first. I am attuned to the women and people of Iran. I am attuned to the suffering of my dog. I am attuned to my partner. I can’t offer a solution but I can feel it and do my own personal work, what that means to me. I don’t identify as a settler on stolen land. That is not how I relate to being a person born and living in Toronto. It’s not that there isn’t an element of truth to it, but it is far more complex. My people came here because they had to; as have many many other groups of people. It does not tell the whole story and it frames our experience in a very binary light.

To value something is to act on that value. I think the deepest offering I have to give to the indigenous people is to connect honestly to my own grief. That way I don’t spend my whole life avoiding my grief. I also try to see people one on one and acknowledge that they are a mystery to me and, when it's appropriate, I take time in getting to know them. When I don’t have the time I am deeply aware of this fact and I don’t pretend to know them. I don’t attack people when I don’t understand them. I’m not quick to cancel.

We live in terribly polarized times.

I think we’re polarized in part because our egos are polarized, being policed internally on this battle between good and evil. Some people are so tired of the righteousness of doing “good” that they’d rather identify with the other side. They tune into the freedoms that are being destroyed. We’re desperately lacking in middle ground.

We’re also deeply tribal and our incredible needs for safety and acceptance in the group play a huge role in our choices; how we mirror behaviour and look for acceptance. I think this deep need to be accepted as "good" plays a larger role in land acknowledgement practices than we care to attend to.

A spontaneous idea is seeded from someone who really believes in it. It came out of their play. It is authentic. And as it is passed down its meaning changes. It becomes rigid and virtue signalling and weaponized. This is the same with every god image that has ever been created.

I don’t question The Create Institute’s intentions around land acknowledgement. In fact, it’s besides the point.

Is there a gap between what it purports to do and what it actually does? Probably. Usually when I encounter it in the world its motivation is tragically multifaceted. Checking the boxes for how to hold up an appropriately socially aware public persona.

But from Create I sense an intention to share a value. We’re in a climate crisis and the indigenous people have a traumatic history. A desire to honour something you find sacred. Which is great.

But then, why are you asking me to do that too? If you/Create find it to be sacred, I applaud that. To ask me to appreciate something that I am not spontaneously appreciating on cue feels false to me.

Also, why is this sacred different from the rest of the sacred in the program? The rest of the sacred is about silliness, play, spontaneity; depth, no doubt, but depth from sharing an image or movement or feeling that appears in the now. We trust that depth will arrive. What we are fighting against, most deeply, is usually the superego. We have to organize our sessions to defend ourselves from the superego, to decentre. To hold so preciously another value ON TOP of that, tells me that this is being imposed. Or that you don’t trust we’ll arrive there, so there’s an element of herding. That’s not decentred. That is curated. I continue to learn about work oriented shaping, but I don’t think it’s about arriving at a particular moral conclusion.

Perhaps you fear I don’t agree with the value? I don’t devalue indigneous heritage, but it isn’t my centre. It isn’t my centre in the way that is suggested by beginning every class with it. That is the stick you place in the ground that we rotate around. It’s not my centre.

My centre, my desire, is to work one on one with people helping them access, in great part, resources from their shadow. To begin towing a political or social line sits, to me, not in the service of that. If, in contacting their own suffering, they arrive at an appreciation for the indigenous, or for their mother, that’s wonderful. But I am not here to curate that. I want to cultivate some empathy for themselves and even (especially) the parts of them they are less comfortable with, which are the parts not socially validated. The taboo.

So for me the impulse is not there.

I love ABSAs, tune into the body. Absolutely. Do something creative. That pulls me deeper.

But when you layer a “should” on top of that. It doesn’t feel right. That’s not deeper for me. That feels invasive in the very tender receptive personal space you have just orchestrated using sensual and creative activity . That takes me out of being with myself into a place of do I want to signal to the group that I am a “good girl” or be honest with myself in that it doesn’t feel right. It feels false for me.

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