During my recent trip to Vancouver I attended five screenings at the Vancouver International Film Festival (VIFF). The films were good – I especially enjoyed Lucky, the actor Harry Dean Stanton’s last movie (he died in September); and You’re Soaking in It, a disturbing Canadian-produced documentary about data-driven advertising – but what most impressed me about the festival didn’t appear on the screen. It was, instead, a 32-word statement read by a presenter before each screening.
When I returned home I emailed VIFF to get the precise wording of the statement. Here it is:
First we would like to acknowledge that we are on the unceded Indigenous land belonging to the Coast Salish peoples, including the territories of the Musqueam, Squamish, Stolo, and Tsleil-Waututh Nations.
Five films, five readings, each exactly the same except for one ad-lib when the presenter looked up after “unceded” and commented: “I guess we aren’t yet allowed to say stolen.”
Now, I attend film festivals pretty regularly here in the Bay Area, which is also – like much of these United States – unceded Indigenous land. Has anyone ever acknowledged that fact here? Not even once. Not even at the most politically astute events.
Between screenings, and after I left Vancouver, I thought a lot about that word unceded. Its root, cede, has a legal meaning: to yield or grant, especially by means of a treaty. This Vancouver land hadn’t been ceded. It had been taken long ago by British colonizers. Stolen.
I asked the VIFF organizers how this acknowledgment came about. Was it unique to VIFF? The response was prompt and clear:
It is quite common in Vancouver for organizations to publicly acknowledge that they are on unceded land belonging to the Coast Salish peoples, particularly arts, culture, and educational organizations. This is part of Canada's ongoing reconciliation with the First Nations peoples. VIFF believes in the importance of this reconciliation. This is the first year that VIFF has made this acknowledgment before each screening, but we are actually latecomers to this practise, as other local film festivals and live event exhibitors have been doing it for quite a few years now.
Repeating an acknowledgment about unceded land and the people who refused to cede it – five, 50, or 500 times – will not change history. But it makes an impression that lingers and deepens. It changes the way you look at your surroundings, the way you think about how you and your forebears got here, the way you think about what you owe to those who came long before. For the institutions that commit to the acknowledgment, it’s a powerful form of branding – of communicating character and purpose. It’s a step away from the spotlight, which is an unusual and admirable thing for a film festival to do, when you think about it.
It’s not a solution. But it’s a start.