On May 5, I was invited to speak about the Saint John City Charter and the Treaty relationship as part of the run-up to the New Brunswick municipal elections. This talk was part of a panel on Social Justice and the City that also featured presentations by Julia Woodhall-Melnik and Valerya Edelman, who spoke on the gentrification of the central peninsula in Saint John and on New Brunswick’s urban addictions problem, respectively. All three talks are available in video form on the NB Media Co-op website. I’m grateful to Tracy Glynn for inviting me to speak, to the organizers of the incredible Tertulias series and to the NB Media Co-op team for everything they do to engage and inform New Brunswickers.

I mediated my discussion of the Charter through Shalan Joudry’s poem “Another Poverty,” which is from her 2014 collection Generations Re-merging. The full text of my talk, complete with slides, has been added below.


Tonight I’m speaking about the Saint John City Charter, which is a document through which my ancestors and maybe some of yours consolidated themselves and their ideas and interests against unceded Wolastokuk, against their responsibilities to co-exist with Indigenous people, and against the interests of their Wabanaki partners in Treaty. 

I am interested in the Charter because of what it says but perhaps more fundamentally what it represents. My background is in literary history and I want to mediate my discussion of the Charter through a poem titled “Another Poverty” by the Mi’kmaw writer Shalan Joudry. There is of course this long history in the northeast of non-Indigenous people speaking for Indigenous people, of wanting to be both sides of any conversation or supposed relationship. So here is a Mi’kmaw woman turning those tables, speaking from the position of people with family histories like mine, saying –

Tonight in my discussion of the Charter I want to reference back to this idea of the machine I work automatic each day, upholding systems and structures that cast Wabanaki people as intruders in their own unceded homelands.

In my research I’m exploring some of the ways in which my ancestors lived in relationship with Wabanaki people before the arrival of the Loyalists. [Note: this is not to say that the relationship between British and Wabanaki people was “good”; it was often adversarial, and periods of peace were often fleeting and came on the heels of theft, encroachment, and disagreement.] I appreciate John Reid’s work on the 1760s where he shows that “British hegemony” had not been “consolidated conclusively” in Wolastokuk and Mi’kmaki before the arrival of the Loyalists. Even if the British were trying to consolidate their hegemony, this was still, as he puts it, “debatable territory,” which is part of why we see this negotiating of rights and responsibilities over the course of decades in the eighteenth century, these processes where the British continuously tried to assert themselves beyond what they could defend and Wabanaki people pushed back hard. 

However grudgingly, then, the British lived in relationship with Wabanaki people until they didn’t have to anymore. Until they had sufficient numbers on the ground that would allow them to feel like they no longer had to share. And the Saint John City Charter is emblematic of this shift in the thinking and behaviour of the British in this part of Wolastokuk. In 1783 the first wave of Loyalists flooded into this harbour, and in May of 1785 the city of Saint John was chartered under the authority of George the 3rd through this now very famous process, the first common law municipal corporation in Canada. Canada’s first incorporated city. And Thomas Carleton explained why the Charter was needed a month later, in June of 1785, in a letter to the British Home Secretary.

Essentially he was afraid that all of these people who suddenly lived here, if left to their own devices, might create something new, a governance structure that wasn’t British. So they drafted a Charter to “[secure] the perfect Obedience” of the area inhabitants, and it was based on “the . . . plan . . . of the City of New York, when Under His Majesty’s Government” (50). Carleton used templates from colonial New York a lot when setting up structures and institutions in New Brunswick because this is how the English common law works – it’s a system based on precedents. You build on precedents and you modify and adapt them and this is how English models of governance and society reproduced themselves in these kinds of fundamental, structural ways all over the world.

But as you might expect, the relationship with Wabanaki people, the Treaty relationship, is nowhere to be found in this Charter. The so-called “freemen and inhabitants” that are herein defined and granted rights have no responsibilities to Wabanaki people – their responsibilities are to the perpetuation of this structure into tomorrow.

And here you see the Latin inscription on the frontpage, and this remains our city motto today, O fortunate ones whose walls are now rising. And through the Charter we established those mythological walls that would enclose the city space and protect the rights and powers of all the fortunate ones within.

And this structure could be amended or adjusted over time to change or improve conditions within the space – in the British North American Legislative Database there are five search result pages of amendments like these, adjustments made to policing, to business practices, to the granting of liquor licenses, to policy around road repair, etc. etc.

And we spend a lot of time doing this today, don’t we, figuring out how to bend or change regulations within this structure to clarify or improve how things work or make the lives of the people inside this space better. And yet we don’t go back to the foundation of the structure, to what we are ultimately upholding through these activities, or to what this structure itself tells us about our relationship with Wabanaki people. 

And if pressed on this issue we might raise the assimilation of Indigenous peoples into this structure as a solution. We might say that Wabanaki people are welcome in Saint John – a Wabanaki person could even be elected as a city councillor or Mayor if they wanted, if they got enough votes. If they wanted access to the cruise ship economy, they could apply for a vendor’s license just like anybody else. And yet this is not sharing. This is offering Wabanaki people a choice between exclusion and assimilation in their own unceded homeland. 

And our defence might be that we don’t think about it this way; we aren’t taught to step outside of these walls and scrutinize the structures themselves. Maybe we don’t know about the treaties or understand our relationships to them today or how they remain so fundamental to this land. And to be clear, I am not above any of this — I am a law abiding property owner in Saint John paying my taxes and my parking tickets and helping to uphold and consolidate this mythological grid of private property and municipal regulations against Wabanaki land in my day to day life too because we collectively enforce this structure as the sole means of participation within this space. 

So we need to figure out how to reckon with this problem because right now the Treaty relationship isn’t really on our collective radar in Saint John. We don’t think about the fact that through our consolidation of this structure our very real responsibilities to share this space in the spirit of Treaty have been perpetually deferred, generation after generation. And in our defence we were just born, or we just moved here from another municipal structure, maybe one that rhymes with this one, or we came here from someplace else and no one taught us about the treaties, and these were the systems in place here, and if they’ve been here for hundreds of years then surely these systems are generally good and worth protecting, and so now we’re working them — we’re working these systems and making adjustments to try and make life better within this structure. 

And we sometimes speak with regret from within this structure about past wrongdoings, maybe we even formally acknowledge that this is unceded Wolastokuk or Wabanaki territory, and yet we continue to work these systems without any sense of shame or understanding or self-awareness. And

in my defence i will tell you

i have been taught this machine

and work it automatic each day

And of course we can amend and adjust and improve this structure. We can work this machine against Wolastokuk in perpetuity, believing all the while that what we are doing is neutral or even noble. How could what we are doing not be noble? We are trying to make the roads safer for kids to bike to school! That is an objectively good thing to do. I want this for my kids too, absolutely I do. But from another perspective what we are doing is continuously reconsolidating a colonial structure against unceded Wolastokuk and against our promise to share.

“We do, for Us, our Hiers and Successors” forever, claim “all the lands and waters thereto adjoining or running in, by, or through” the city space, herein defined and enclosed. And there’s a lengthy description of the vast amount of land around the river and harbour that’s being claimed here.

We displace Indigenous stewardship, replacing it on the land with ourselves, appointing ourselves “the conservators of the water and the river, harbour and bay,” granting ourselves “the sole power of amending and improving the said river, bay and harbour” (18).

And we declare that the fisheries “shall be and forever remain to and for the sole use, profit and advantage of the freemen and inhabitants” of the city (31) although Wabanaki people, we well knew, had been fishing seasonally in the harbour for millennia. Fishing rights are herein granted to the freemen and inhabitants of the city “to the total exclusion” of “all others under any pretense whatsoever” (32). Any pretense whatsoever; that’s pretty definitive. 

And so we enclose this land and define this system, we declare our rights and privileges with respect to access and property and resources in very Locekean terms, we enumerate the laws that will bind the space together using a template from seventeenth century New York, and then we put ourselves in charge of arresting and punishing anyone who breaks our laws.

And in our freeman oath, we promise to remain vigilant against anyone living among us who might challenge or seek to overthrow our Charter: “you shall know of no gatherings or conspiracies made against the King’s peace, but you shall inform the Mayor thereof, So help you God.” (35) O fortunate ones whose walls are now rising — but there are a lot of problems with this house we’re building, and there are a bunch of people outside our walls who we are deliberately consolidating our power against because we are too afraid to share.

And we can make amendments to this system over time. We can work this machine. For example, just because the original Charter openly excluded Black people from participation in the city doesn’t mean we have to do that forever once we realize we shouldn’t be doing that. And so in 1849, an amendment was passed, and section 20 of that act reads, “any black person or person of colour may become a free citizen of” Saint John.

And this is a good example of how problems are addressed within a structure like this. We said in 1785 that Black people couldn’t be free citizens of Saint John. We said they couldn’t fish in the harbour and that they had to apply for special approval if they wanted to do business inside city limits. Sixty four years later, we’re ready to amend those rules. Our walls are up; the machine is up and running now, and so we can magnanimously declare that Black people can come in and join the fortunate ones who made all the rules and who have had a 64 year head start when it comes to establishing themselves, their businesses, and their families here.

So there is no reckoning in this amendment. There is no willingness to relate to the structural exclusion of Black people, to understand the kind of social space and environment that a six and a half decade exclusion of Black people might produce, or to make meaningful amends, and so Black people remain at a structural disadvantage. So this is how an exclusory system re-asserts its norm and continues on into tomorrow in a way that doesn’t undermine its own control over the space. Today we somehow remember this amendment as though it absolved our ancestors of crimes that at the same time Black people in New Brunswick have never been able to get meaningful satisfaction for.

And if municipal leaders went to council next Monday armed with the knowledge that there’s something troubling about our motto, O fortunate ones whose walls are now rising, understanding that our walls were raised at least in part to keep Black and Indigenous people out, then we might draft a motion to get rid of the motto. That’s how we so often address perceived problems while ultimately protecting the integrity of our system. And that wouldn’t be changing, it would just be covering our tracks. 

And so in my research I’m trying to learn from the ways in which my ancestors lived in relationship with Wabanaki people before this, before the arrival of the Loyalists. A time when the colonial municipal structure did not represent the sole means of participation in this space, a time when we were far from perfect but we used a different model for living here together. 

Before the arrival of the Loyalists, however grudgingly, the British lived in relationship with Wabanaki people, and we lived that way until we didn’t have to anymore. Until we had sufficient numbers on the ground that would allow us to proceed into tomorrow as though we no longer had to share. But we promised to share. The Treaty relationship was forgotten with the Charter and now we have to decide to remember it. 

And so how could the structure of our city be changed to facilitate and help us remember the Treaty relationship? This is a conversation we need to begin with our Treaty partners. Indigenous people are tired of settlers acting like we are both sides of every conversation. That’s why Shalan Joudry wrote that poem about us! The Treaty relationship is a partnership, and we hear this from Wabanaki Chiefs when GNB stumbles. We hear that we are not being good Treaty partners. 

And being a partner is a lot of work. We put continuous work into the personal relationships that matter to us. Our relationships are not always good, and when they aren’t good we tend to them. We do the work. Experts tell us this and it makes intuitive sense to us – if we want good relationships we have to work at them. If we ourselves harbour toxic traits that hurt or undermine our relationships then we know we have to work on ourselves. And when we do that work on ourselves we show our loved ones that we care more about them than whatever conveniences or benefit we enjoyed through the toxic behaviour, and we create a foundation upon which trust can be built or re-established.

Being in a healthy partnership is a lot of work, but it is also liberating and rewarding. You don’t have to have all the answers – you just have to give up some control. You don’t have to solve problems by yourself – you just have to share. And maybe your partner knows the answer to the problem you’ve been struggling with.

Daniel Paul wrote about this in his book years ago – he said that non-Indigenous people today are trying to re-invent the wheel in many cases, struggling within the confines of these Western structures that we imposed upon Wabanaki land to find answers that are already present in Wabanaki social, political, and cultural structures. 

There is a new book, The Gatherings, about the relationship between settlers and Wabanaki people. And it opens with an epigraph from Elder Miigam’agan that I want to close with. This is a concept that just lives in my head now along with the question of what it would take for an entire city or a region or a province to rise to the level of generosity that is present in this one word. 

After all of the ways in which we settlers have forgotten our promises to Wabanaki people — Miigam’agan says there’s a word in Mi’kmaq that we might translate into English as “forgiveness” but it means, “we return to that original place, and let’s start again.” 

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