‘So, I could say I am an Indigenous Englishman because my family came from England’: Niagara Regional councillor on his refusal to say a land acknowledgment 
Screengrab Niagara Region

‘So, I could say I am an Indigenous Englishman because my family came from England’: Niagara Regional councillor on his refusal to say a land acknowledgment 

On June 1, 2008 the Truth and Reconciliation Commission was created. Its main purpose was to teach Canadians about the abuses the Indigenous community has endured throughout history and to highlight the horrific torture and trauma Indigenous and First Nations children were subjected to in the residential school system.

The TRC released its final report in December 2015. It made 94 calls to action. It was recommended all Canadians read the report. It was available online and in the public domain.

It was because of these calls to action that land acknowledgments started to become commonplace throughout municipalities ahead of public meetings and events.

Land acknowledgments are now used Canada-wide. It is done to open meetings, both public and private; it accompanies written communications and is often announced on radio stations. 

But in Niagara Region, councillors have recently been accused of failing to understand the value and spirit of acknowledging the land upon which they live and work.

At the May 23 regional council meeting, Indigenous relations advisor Brian Kon, who is Metis, made a presentation about land acknowledgments, particularly the one used to open the regional council meetings.

Kon explained that a land acknowledgment is a short statement that should involve recognizing the traditional territory of the Indigenous community that called the land home before the arrival of settlers. In Niagara, the land acknowledgment refers to the ancestry and history of the original Indigenous people of Turtle Island.

Mr. Kon finished his presentation by giving a few tips to the council. He pointed out: 

  • That an Indigenous person should never be asked to do the land acknowledgment as it is considered an insult. 
  • That the Land Acknowledgment should be said at the start of all public meetings and events, and to use the land acknowledgment prepared by Niagara Region staff with the consultation of Indigenous stakeholders. 
  • And that councillors should use caution in creating their own acknowledgment—recommending the use of Niagara Region’s Land Acknowledgment.


Brian Kon spoke to Niagara Region council members recently about the dos and don'ts of land acknowledgments.

(Niagara Region) 

Councillor Tim Rigby, who represents St. Catharines, was the first to speak on the matter. “I am one person who has an issue with this. I think the word Indigenous is not being used correctly. I read Webster's dictionary and found that Indigenous is a group of people and not just our North American Indians. And there are others. So, I could say I am an Indigenous Englishman because my family came from England.”

He then voiced a position entirely out of step with widespread Canadian values.

“If there comes a time I am asked to repeat the land acknowledgment here, I am going to have to say no.”

He then asked, “why the land acknowledgment needs to be read by someone who isn’t Indigenous?”

“We are all Indigenous, it just depends what group we are in. Now, I have not personally looked this up but I was told there was not an (Indigenous) encampment in the City of St. Catharines confines at any time for some reason.”

He requested that Mr. Kon explain to him the reason an Indigenous person should not do the acknowledgment.

Mr. Kon replied, “that there are 50 million Indigenous people all over the world and to properly identify Indigenous people of Niagara, if you refer to them as Indigenous to Turtle Island there will be no mistake. There is no other Turtle Island, that is where we are Indigenous to.”

Regarding Rigby’s claim that there was no Indigenous "encampment" in St. Catharines, Mr. Kon replied, “St. Catharines was actually a very important travel route for Indigenous people. Some of St. Catharines’ main roads actually follow those travel routes of our original people.”

If Rigby had done some basic research he would have known the origin of the very name of the region in which he lives. 

Almost 13,000 years ago, Indigenous peoples first came to the area where two large bodies of water were separated by a river that flowed between them. 

The Onguiaahra (near the big waters, thundering noise, the straight or the neck between two great bodies) eventually began to plant corn and tobacco and lived in longhouses covered in bark.

The Haudenosaunee (People of the Longhouses) were later joined by the Onondowa-gah in the area more than a thousand years ago. 

Eventually, Onguiaahra was shortened by Europeans to Ongiara and then to… Niagara.


Niagara Region Councillor Tim Rigby, who represents St. Catharines, said he will refuse to say an Indigenous land acknowledgment.

(Screengrab Niagara Region) 


At the end of the questions and comments, after Kon calmly explained some of the history over thousands of years of Indigenous presence in and around where St. Catharines currently stands, Councillor Rigby admitted he had to do more reading. He only had to go to the Region of Niagara website which can be searched for documents dedicated to educating residents and politicians on Indigenous issues.

In response to Rigby’s question about why Indigenous people should not be asked to do a land acknowledgment, the reason is explained well in a video on nativegov.org.

The video also addresses why Indigenous people want to see land acknowledgments, so others come to understand the history and millenia-long cultural associations between them and their surroundings. If the act becomes a token whose meaning is entirely lost on the very people who take part in the acknowledgment, it can do more harm than good.

Rigby was not the only councillor who had questions. Haley Bateman then spoke. “I have struggled with the land acknowledgment since the January meeting. I want to understand if there are connections between people who come to Canada as refugees under the same circumstances as your ancestors faced?”

In the spirit of respectful dialogue, Mr. Kon explained that the acknowledgment is about Niagara’s original people, not political situations around the world.

The Pointer reached out to Councillor Bateman to clarify her comments.

“I absolutely understand the purpose of the land acknowledgment,” she said. “I was not asking if refugees could be included but was trying to point out that in January of this year when my motion asking the regional council to show support for the Palestinian community was removed from the agenda, there were a dozen Indigenous community members registered to speak in support of the motion sitting in the council chambers.

“Almost immediately following the reading of the land acknowledgment, the motion that was made to remove that item (the support Palestinian community members were asking for) from the agenda, effectively removed all the speakers who had registered to speak on the issue, including those from the Indigenous community. Council did not want to hear from them.

“When does our support of the land acknowledgment meet our work? That is my focus and will continue to be for the duration of my time on Council.” 

The issue of Niagara politicians not understanding how a land acknowledgment is supposed to be approached is not limited to just the regional council: it has been an issue in Niagara Falls since City Council unanimously passed its motion to do one at the beginning of each council meeting on Feb 9, 2021.

It took 7 months before council was presented with what Niagara Falls Mayor Jim Diodati calls a land acknowledgment. The Mayor denied the council any chance to provide input. The offices of the Mayor and CEO took on the sole responsibility to create a land acknowledgment. 

Diodati recruited numerous Indigenous people and had them record themselves delivering historical Indigenous information as a land acknowledgment, instead of using what was widely accepted by those Indigenous stakeholders who led the creation of land acknowledgments to be delivered by organizations and institutions across the country. 

In September of 2021, during a council meeting, Diodati stated, “Rather than having the Mayor read the land acknowledgment from the council agenda, the idea is to have different Indigenous people deliver the acknowledgment.”

“Ultimately it is our time to listen, and we are asking them to give testimony. Who better to do it than the Indigenous people?” Diodati later said in an interview.

It is unclear why the mayor abdicated responsibility of delivering a land acknowledgment back to the very people who lived off land later claimed by Europeans and eventually Canadians. 

Nowhere in any of the information on the City’s website about Indigenous issues does it suggest that an indigenous person should be asked to deliver a land acknowledgment. Nor do various local Indigenous leaders agree with Diodati’s statement that an Indigenous person should deliver the Land Acknowledgment. In the Indigenous community, as Mr. Kon explained, it is considered an insult.  


Brian Kon has educated people in Niagara and Niagara Council on how to handle land acknowledgments in a respectful way.

(Brian Kon/Facebook)


At the May 30, 2023 Niagara Falls City council meeting, there was a memo on the agenda from the city’s Diversity and Inclusion Committee. 

It explained that during a meeting of the committee there had been discussion about the City’s land acknowledgment and based on the discussion, the following motion had been made by Kon, a member of the committee, and passed:

“That City Council includes an official Land Acknowledgment at the start of all Council meetings, City Committee meetings and City-led public events.”

Mr. Kon explained the reasoning behind his motion.

“The road to truth and reconciliation involves two parties. The first includes the Indigenous people who have, for thousands of years, been the caretakers of the land, water and natural resources long before Canada formed as a nation, despite challenges they faced over the past 500 years. 

“The second is non-Indigenous and the reconciliation to acknowledge the role Indigenous people played in ensuring those same resources are enjoyed by both local citizens and visitors to Niagara today.”

Kon continued. “Traditional Openings by Indigenous leaders are important in the process but should not replace a statement of respect from the non-Indigenous people acknowledging gratitude for those gifts we all share and the land they are on. Traditional Openings by Indigenous people should not be intended to replace a Land Acknowledgment.”

Mr. Kon is one of the Indigenous community members Mayor Diodati contacted to record an Indigenous educational component and land acknowledgment at the beginning of Niagara Falls council meetings. 

During the May 30, 2023 council meeting, the subject of the memo was raised by Councillor Lori Lococo and she  stated, “I totally agree with Mr. Kon and the Diversity and Inclusion Committee’s recommendation. It has really been bothering me that the existing land acknowledgment had Indigenous community members delivering the message, and that it was not the council acknowledging the Indigenous community.”

Despite Mr. Kon’s memo to council, the Mayor responded to Lococo’s comment, arguing that he believed council was properly acknowledging the Indigenous community with the meeting’s opening.

In a follow-up comment Lococo said, “I would like the council to consult with local Indigenous leaders to look at different perspectives.” Diodati responded claiming the City already does that.

Nothing in regard to the land acknowledgment was changed at that meeting and the matter was deferred to City staff and a closed door meeting was held to obtain legal advice about the issue. 

Once again, the issue was referred back to City staff.

On December 13, 2023, Councillor Lococo tried again to convince Niagara Falls council to update and revise the land acknowledgment. She highlighted that she had spoken to a number of local Indigenous leaders, including Phil Davis form the Niagara Regional Native Centre and Mr. Davis also pointed out that the City’s land acknowledgment should move toward reconciliatory action to be culturally sensitive and competent. 

Fourteen months later and the issue has not yet been brought back to council, and there has been no finalized revisions.

Two very well known Indigenous leaders also disagree with Diodati on his assertion that someone from the Indigenous community should deliver the land acknowledgment. 

Karl Dockstader, former Executive Director of the Niagara Native Centre, co-creator and host of One Dish, One Mic, and former host of the Drive, both on 610 CKTB, and Sean Vanderklis, the new Executive Director of the Niagara Native Centre, former host of CBC Superior Morning and co-creator of One Dish, One Mic, use their radio show to educate and advance Indigenous knowledge and awareness. 

They have not been shy to criticize and point out the problems with the City of Niagara Falls’ land acknowledgment and are regularly very critical of Mayor Diodati’s position.

On One Dish, One Mic, Dockstader said, “I have never seen a land acknowledgment handled so poorly as the one in Niagara Falls.” 

When presenting his new land acknowledgment, Diodati  publicly stated he went to local Indigenous leaders for input. He did not speak to Dockstader who was Director of the Niagara Regional Native Centre at the time or Vandeklis who had won a distinguished 2020 journalism fellowship to advance Indigenous teachings. 

Following Tim Rigby’s comments at the regional council, Vanderklis recently reposted a short video on X of Rigby from the meeting with his own comment: “This is embarrassing!!!”

The credentials and wealth of knowledge of Karl Dockstader, Sean Vanderklis and Brian Kon continue to be overlooked by Diodati. 

Niagara Region engaged Brian Kon as an Indigenous Relations Advisor, recognizing the lack of lived experience among staff and elected officials. The actions of Rigby and Diodati highlight the problems that arise when people try to speak for others, often with their own biases and self-interest. 

Equity experts point to the problem of white men in leadership positions, including in areas such as education and academia, as well as politicians such as mayors, who lack the motivation or willingness to transform organizations and institutions that have served them well. For some, diversifying the structures that helped them is associated with giving up authority and control, in the name of fairness and inclusivity for others. 

There has been no lack of Indigenous educational learning opportunities for Niagara politicians. 

In September of 2022 the Niagara Regional Native Centre welcomed Phyllis Webstad, the creator of Orange Shirt Day that is held every September 30th. She had met Brian Kon through his successful request to have the Falls lit orange to bring awareness to Orange Shirt Day. That has now become a yearly event going forward.


Phyllis Webstad and Brian Kon in Niagara Falls. 

(Brian Kon/Facebook)


“I went to the Mission for one school year in 1973/1974. I had just turned 6 years old,” Webstad writes, explaining why Orange Shirt Day was started. “I lived with my grandmother on the Dog Creek reserve. We never had very much money, but somehow my granny managed to buy me a new outfit to go to the Mission school. I remember going to Robinson’s store and picking out a shiny orange shirt. It had string laced up in front, and was so bright and exciting – just like I felt to be going to school!

When I got to the Mission, they stripped me, and took away my clothes, including the orange shirt! I never wore it again. I didn’t understand why they wouldn’t give it back to me, it was mine! The color orange has always reminded me of that and how my feelings didn’t matter, how no one cared and how I felt like I was worth nothing.” 

Webstad and her family traveled to Niagara to see, in person, the falls light up orange. All those who traveled here with her were survivors of Residential Schools.

The following day, October 1, she and her family attended a sunrise ceremony at the brink of the Falls and were joined by Prime Minister Justin Trudeau who stood silently  with residential school survivors gathered there. He later greeted and spoke to those in attendance.

Later that day Webstad visited Niagara Regional Native Centre’s 8th Annual Traditional Powwow as a special guest.

She also spoke at the Rotary Club of Niagara Falls to roughly 500 people. 

She shares her story of growing up in residential schools, and the efforts of Churches and politicians to wipe out all remnants of Indigenous and First Nations ways of life.

In order to continue to move the dialogue forward Mr. Kon suggested the councillors make a promise or commitment to learn more.

If Niagara leaders want to be true allies to the Indigenous that will take time and continuous learning, according to the Native Women's Association of Canada website that contains the dos and don’ts of allyship.

Brian Kon closed his presentation to the regional council saying, “Let’s keep the conversation going.”



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