Recently, in a meeting about a teaching contract, I was told that I am brilliant teacher and scholar. I finished my Ph.D. in 2016, completed an SSHRC postdoc in late 2020, and have been working on contracts of various lengths since then. Through the years, I have heard this so many times from so many people working in permanent positions inside the university – that I should have a permanent job, that I’m worthy and deserving of being one of them, of working shoulder-to-shoulder among the permanent faculty. Sometimes these informal assessments will take strange turns, and the individual conducting the assessment will want to compare me favourably with another person – someone who the system has by some measure found worthy. I am to understand, in these moments, that I am just as good – or even better! – than these other people who have been successful, who have made it through to the inside.
As someone who does not lack a serviceable level of confidence in her work or abilities and does not measure herself against the university structure for this affirmation, I am always aware, in these moments, that I am to find these remarks comforting and that this is not a two-way street. I am forever to be assessed, but an assessment from me would not be welcome or appropriate. It is always there, floating between us, that I am the object of the assessment, and that it is my value, as an outsider, that remains perpetually in question. When I have pushed back, lightly, against this dynamic, these conversations have changed noticeably in tone. In the long run, I have come to understand, my assessors don’t have to be this generous. And maybe I’m not so brilliant after all.
I often think about whether a university can decolonize when it does not understand why or how it is colonial. Obviously, this is a complicated issue, and there are a lot of people contemplating this question and producing important, urgent work. But working in the university and thinking about this question in the context of my own familial and cultural history, I am often reminded of the sermon that John Winthrop delivered to the Puritans on board the Arabella in 1630 before sailing across the ocean to violently entrench Massachusetts Bay Colony in Massachusett land.
“GOD ALMIGHTY,” his sermon begins, “in his most holy and wise providence, hath soe disposed of the condition of mankind, as in all times some must be rich, some poore, some high and eminent in power and dignitie; others mean and in submission.” This sermon, most famous for its articulation of the colonial mission and its identification of so-called America as a “city on a hill,” a civilizing force that would lead the world, was a pre-emptive warning against rebellion and disruption in colonial hierarchies. We need to have poor people, Winthrop argued, so that we can have rich people; we need to have powerless people so that we can have people (like Winthrop) who wield power over others. We must necessarily have some people living or working in poor conditions so that others need never accept those same conditions for themselves. And we all, rich and poor alike, need to understand and agree that these differences are natural, consecrated, necessary — we are to honour and depend on these differences for our collective survival as we move through time.
Patty Krawec (Anishnaabe) writes about how societies based on charity — and Winthrop’s famous sermon was of course titled “A Modell of Christian Charity” — systematize exploitation by requiring the existence of people to be charitable towards. This ideology remains the foundation of so much of what settlers perceive and accept today as neutral. In Winthrop’s vision of society, questions of wealth and power are continuously bound up with threatening messages about God and eternal punishment to convince the colonists of their sacred obligations to their fundamentally unequal social positions. These social positions, he argues, have been thoughtfully prescribed by God – and so “community” or “kinship” is herein based on an agreement to accept these unequal placements in the supposedly natural order of things. He argues that the rich and the poor live happily together when accepting of their unequal positions, united by this sense of mission (lighting and leading the world), and committed to one another under a “bond of love.”
But none of this is love.
Working in a university, a colonial institution that still so openly mythologizes itself as a light and a leader – and aren’t we all, faculty and staff, tenured and contingent alike, bound together by this covenant, by our commitment to this mission, to this good work, to these ideologies of improvement – I feel the expectation or assumption from others that I am to covet a tenure-track position. Because how else will I possibly know that I am good — that I have been successful in or with my life? That I am above my friends in this system that depends for its life on their exploitation? Surely I am hungry for signs that I, too, am one of the chosen ones? Surely my sense of worth is bound up in confirmation and affirmation from this system and from those who have been successful within it?
And yet I refuse to accept that this is the best that we can do for one another. We need to think deeply about what our supposed affinities and solidarities are based on and about where and whether they are yet real. I would argue that our ongoing unwillingness to address questions like this one in the university speaks volumes, and that if we truly love each other, then we will struggle together against this model until it breaks.
These thoughts were pulled together for an audience of academics, students, community members, professionals from the nonprofit sector, and municipal/provincial policymakers. They were shared at the Saint John City Market on November 22, 2021 as part of a National Housing Day event hosted by the team at the Housing, Mobilization, and Engagement Research Lab.
Good evening – I am Rachel Bryant and I am not an expert on housing. Hopefully this will be the most disappointing moment of this entire talk.
I am honoured to have been invited to speak to you this evening, in this market where I used to make sandwiches and sell scones to pay my now legendary $400 Carmarthen Street rent – with free, split cable for the entire building and all utilities included – on this Housing Day, with these fellow panelists who I admire, scholars and professionals who are doing good work that this city and this province so desperately needs, research that actually makes people’s lives better. I am here to speak about housing relatively generally and with specific respect to the Peace and Friendship Treaties – to perhaps give you some things to think about, and to speak to you as a treaty person, knowing that what I understand this term to mean might differ from your understanding. The question of what it means to be a treaty person is something we need to speak about clearly and with specificity more often and more openly in this city, in public places like this one, and I am here for that dialogue any time.
Last Sunday was my friend Sheila Croteau’s birthday, so I wanted to talk about her just a little bit, since she would have liked to be here for this conversation. Sheila died in a house fire right after we were all locked down for Covid for the first time early last year. She was an incredibly generous Cree woman, a 60s scoop survivor, and for most of the time that I knew her, she lived in the south end.
And when she died, right at the beginning of that first lockdown, everyone was at a loss for how to grieve. Four of us decided to start a fund with the Saint John Community Foundation, who are of course helping to host this event tonight. We had a conference call to discuss what we should say and what the fund should do; Sheila worked with so many organizations around the city, it was actually really challenging to decide how to best honour her. In the end, what we talked about most on that call was the loving way that Sheila made space for children and youth in the south end—her legacy as “Mama She,” the woman who lived where the kids in her neighbourhood would go when they had nowhere else to go. And she’d feed them and talk to them and drum with them. So Sheila’s Fund was set up to contribute funds in perpetuity to the Teen Resource Centre – helping to ensure that youth in Saint John have that safe place where they can always go. And over the years to come we of course hope this fund will grow and that this will be part of her ongoing work and her legacy.
This was really just one way in which Sheila made space for others in the south end. I used to take my son to the church where she worked on Sundays so he could play in the gym with her grandson while she and I drank coffee and strategized about all the programs she wanted to bring to this city. She had a lot of ideas. And because she cleaned and tended to that space for the parishioners of that church, she was able to use that space for hosting the NBAPC Local 10 meetings and for other community events as well.
And so Sheila did what she could to ensure there were spaces where people could go in this city – but Saint John is not a city that has historically made space for Indigenous people. I hear a lot of talk these days about the possibility of a Friendship Centre, and that’s something that Sheila certainly talked about too. And while a Friendship Centre in this city would be a great step for our community, we need to understand that, as the Anishinaabe writer Patty Krawec recently wrote on social media, Friendship Centres are not titleholders. They are meant to serve the needs of a city’s Indigenous population – but in Saint John a Friendship Centre would not be a substitute for a relationship with the nation whose land this is, the nation who was displaced by and through the creation of this city.
I first met Julia when we were on a Tertulias panel together – where I spoke about the 1785 city charter and about Saint John as a structure that was built in part to shut Wolastoqiyik out of the harbour. We remember through commemoration materials along the Harbour Passage today that there was a portage path on Bentley Street and a palisaded Wolastoqey village on what settlers would later call Navy Island. Part of what we fail to remember or commemorate are the ways in which Saint John was violently consolidated against those places. And when Saint Johners fail to tell that part of the story, we defer that reckoning in perpetuity, we refuse to face ourselves, what we’ve done or what’s been done for us, and what Saint John, in a variety of ways, continues to do, which is to occupy this land against treaty, against Menahkwesk, and against the interests of Wabanaki peoples.
I spoke in that Tertulia about the Latin inscription from the city charter – our enduring city motto that translates into English as Oh Fortunate Ones Whose Walls Are Now Rising – and I thought through some of the ways in which Loyalists raised those mythological walls to keep Black and Indigenous peoples out. And when we did this in Saint John, when we raised these walls and started to lay out this mythological grid of private property and municipal regulations atop this land, we did all of this in contravention of the Peace and Friendship Treaties. In those treaties the British promised that we would always make or leave space for Wabanaki people in their own lands, that we would honour and protect Wabanaki lifeways, that we would be treaty people forever, partners rather than rulers. That there would be limits on our rights designed to protect the rights of titleholders in their own territories. That we wouldn’t interfere in Wabanaki social and cultural and legal orders even as we sought to establish our own order on the same land.
Even just the idea of this space – this mythological fortress that was chartered for people like me, with its walls and its fortunate ones, whose fortunes of course came at the expense of others, of course they did, that’s how fortunes work – even just the shell of this idea stands in contravention of the agreements through which we are here tonight. Saint Johners, those of us who collectively uphold this city today, this grid of municipal bylaws and private property that we reinforce through our daily lives, we are the inheritors of those agreements and those responsibilities. That inheritance is our great privilege, our true fortune. And our very presence here on this land, on the inside of this social order, in this place, in this remarkable, beautiful, amazing territory should be a reminder for us at every turn of the agreements through which we are here – the agreements that facilitated our lives and that continue to sustain us.
Through a process of treaty my ancestors promised Wabanaki people would continue to enjoy unfettered access to their own lands. And so what might a treaty housing model look like? I am asking you experts on housing to consider this, to begin to work this question out in consultation and partnership with Wabanaki people, because I don’t know. I know that the system that we do have is broken—and I know this because my partner, a lawyer, has been, since the beginning of the pandemic, fighting the New Brunswick Housing Corporation on behalf of Wabanaki people facing evictions from their homes on their own unceded land. I know that housing corporations in the province exclusively operate outside the treaties—and I know that they operate outside the treaties because my partner has been using the treaties and the principle of the Honour of the Crown to help Wabanaki people fight to keep their homes.
And so what models do we have for conceptualizing and discussing housing in the context of unceded and stolen land? What models do we have for conceptualizing evictions in the context of those illegal evictions through which our forebears stole this land and established an exclusory social order meant to benefit us fortunate ones in contravention of the treaties – which remain the laws of this land? And how can we help fight for the yes special rights of Wabanaki people to safe, affordable, or even free housing in their own unceded, unsurrendered territories? We say these lands are unceded and unsurrendered, but what does that mean, and how can we now help bring this idea of Indigenous jurisdiction to bear on the way we live and think and the policies that we create or advocate for?
This idea of special rights is worth pausing on – because maybe the word special isn’t exactly what I’m reaching for here, and I want you to understand what I mean. A year or two ago, you might remember, there was shock and awe around this city as Saint Johners were reminded that three islands near Tucker Park and the university are Wolastoqey reserve land. These are the Brothers—I wrote about them, Logan Perley made a CBC documentary about them, and most people here know about these islands now, even if they haven’t quite worked out what it means that they exist and that Saint Johners lost track of them there for a few decades.
I mention the Brothers because you might be thinking about those islands as space that was made inside this city for Wolastoqiyik. And this isn’t the only example that we have of this. I am doing some research right now on Lovett’s Point, land just down the hill from where I live in west Saint John where, in the nineteenth century, Wolastoqew families, as many as 50 people at a time, used to camp seasonally—they’d pay a landowner “a small sum for each wigwam” they pitched, and I’m interested in who this landowner was and how or whether they understood their responsibility to facilitate or ensure access to the harbour and to hold that space apart for Wolastoqiyik.
This question of how or whether we understand our responsibilities as settlers is an incredibly important one, and it’s the one I want to leave you with because it is one of those questions at the heart of what it means for someone like me and maybe you to be a treaty person. Our city council in Saint John now acknowledges that this is unceded Wabanaki land – and so what does this mean, what responsibilities flow from or follow this acknowledgement? This land belongs to the people who we physically pushed out and violently consolidated our social order against? Surely that will have some pretty serious implications for structural reform. 236 years after we consolidated Saint John against Menahkwesk we have finally acknowledged that we have a relationship with Wabanaki people. And we just can’t keep moving this slowly. So now here comes the hard part—the humbling work of admitting that the relationship is not a good one, of making specific amends and restitution in consultation with our treaty partners, of giving up some power, of committing to doing things very differently moving forward; the difficult but I think deeply fulfilling and meaningful work of coming into our responsibilities under the Peace and Friendship treaties.
And so in Saint John, how will we face and address the violent functions and legacy of our city charter, how will we initiate the reckonings that we have for so long avoided and refused, how can we go back and create something together that is shared and honourable, not a social order deliberately designed to occupy this space in perpetuity against the interests of its titleholders but something that can bear the weight of the promises that we made? There used to be a longhouse on The Brothers, and in the 60s settlers went over there on snowmobiles in the winter and burned it down. We know, too, that settlers still go over there and party, that there are firepits and beer cans strewn about over there. The city has an obligation under the Peace and Friendship Treaties to protect Wabanaki lifeways, to facilitate Wabanaki access to their own land, and as treaty people who have thrived in this place we have a collective responsibility to interpret this obligation as robustly as possible.
But here in Saint John we are a society who does not understand or remember the treaties, and until we do, until we take it upon ourselves with urgency to pursue and achieve this understanding, until we stop mythologizing ourselves as the fortunate ones, Saint Johners will be unable to protect Wabanaki lifeways, unable to create spaces in or through or among our settlements for Wabanaki peoples that are safe. And we will see people going to the Brothers and partying because they don’t understand why those islands are for Wolastoqiyik in particular or what that means. We will see people who don’t understand why there should be a longhouse vandalizing it or burning it down.
Let’s imagine that when it comes to housing and development, the city gives some of this land back. And they might—this council is kind of interesting. How will the city then protect those spaces like we promised when the majority of the people who live here don’t understand why any of this might be warranted or necessary? How will we ensure the safety of Wabanaki people just coming here and exercising their rights to their own unceded land if we are a city of people who still mythologize ourselves as the fortunate ones with rights instead of as treaty people with responsibilities? We have so much work to do in this city, on so many fronts, and I am not an expert on housing. But I was heartened by this invitation to speak with you tonight in this place that I love, and I hope we can continue to talk and work together and share ideas as people who are deeply committed to fulfilling our responsibilities, to creating spaces of care and safety, and to bringing about conditions of peace and justice, conditions in which we can all thrive. Thanks again for inviting me to share these thoughts.
On Tuesday evening I will be helping, as a member of the Indigenous Film Series Planning Committee, to introduce the series’ October film, which is Blood Quantum, Jeff Barnaby’s award-winning horror movie in which a community of Indigenous people fight off hordes of white zombies during a pandemic. There will also be a screening of the film on Thursday evening, October 28. I’ve prepared these remarks for my own students and in preparation for the Tuesday event, and I am sharing them more widely here in case I can help drum up additional interest in the film. —
Zombies and pandemics — these are familiar contexts and tropes for most of us at this point in time. But to understand what Jeff Barnaby is up to with this film, Blood Quantum, I expect we will need to be able to think about these themes in particular ways and in terms of the history of this territory.
In my own classes, when we’re inevitably thinking about zombies together, I like to assign writing by Cutcha Risling Baldy, a Hupa scholar who teaches her Indigenous Studies students about The Walking Dead. (The Walking Dead is a successful television show about a group of people who are trying to avoid being killed and eaten by zombies.) In her writing and teaching, Risling Baldy draws a powerful analogy between these popular zombie stories, like The Walking Dead, and what Indigenous peoples have been forced to endure, especially but not exclusively during the more explicitly violent phases of Western colonial expansion. She writes about her own ancestors, who were hunted down and murdered by resource-hungry, land-stealing colonists during the Gold Rush in California. What her ancestors experienced, she says, “was nothing short of zombies running around trying to kill them.” And she writes about the kinds of things that people have to do, the painful and impossible compromises and decisions they’re forced to make when they’re living like this – when they are fighting in such a fundamental way for their own survival and for the survival of their families and traditions and nations.
Risling Baldy thinks about that terrible, terrifying world when she watches The Walking Dead — and she explains to her students that Indigenous people on this continent have already lived through the end of the world. They endured the violent deaths, the terror, the plagues, the world-ending experiences that of course produced “tremendous social stresses,” or what the Anishinaabe scholar Lawrence Gross calls Post-Apocalypse Stress Syndrome. Some families were hunted by those who wanted their lives and their lands. Some lived through other devastating periods of colonial history — like the clearing of the plains in the 19th century, when the Canadian government willfully created the conditions for mass Indigenous deaths, deliberately setting off epidemics and then withholding care and medicine. Or the years from roughly 1492 until 1600, years during which so many Indigenous people died on this continent that it actually caused the earth’s climate to change, as giant swaths of what was previously used as agricultural land were depopulated by humans and reforested. Some scientists refer to this period of history as The Great Dying, and the same phrase has been used by Mi’kmaq researchers to describe the mass deaths and plagues of the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries here in Wabanaki territory.
And what do you do after a genocide, after a great dying? How do you pick up the pieces of your world and rebuild, how do you live in this new, utterly changed context? This present that we collectively inhabit, as Indigenous writers are increasingly suggesting and exploring through horror themes and storytelling genres – it’s a post-apocalyptic future for so many Indigenous people. Of course it is. Look around. This is a dystopian nightmare where powerful Western structures and institutions are continuing to occupy Indigenous land, and powerful Western people, the descendants of those zombies who were so devastatingly hungry for Indigenous lives, are more or less running things – continuing in so many ways to covet indigenous lives for themselves and to frustrate the abilities of Indigenous people to simply live, to exist and thrive as themselves on their own land.
And so what if we are living in the dystopian future that follows the end of the world? Where do we go from here? This is the context in which Risling Baldy imagines and writes with such love about her own ancestors – her great-grandparents who lived through an apocalypse. “They must have known of us,” she writes,
their future. They must have thought of us, their grandchildren, great-grandchildren and great-great grandchildren. Some Native people say they think of Seven Generations when they do things. When our ancestors were sitting together, talking, trying to figure out how to survive this ‘end of the world’ they must have said to each other ‘Do you think we can come back from this?’ And they must have thought about the future generations (like us). Perhaps they saw in the fire a group of us laughing together, perhaps they dreamed about us, singing together, dancing together and they knew the answer…’yes, we will.’
Barnaby is himself testament to this affirmation. He is a vital storyteller from these unceded, unsurrendered Wabanaki territories, a Mi’gmaq from Listuguj, a self-professed horror enthusiast, and he describes this film as both a popcorn zombie film and a commentary on colonialism. He’s not really sure if white people will get it. In interviews, he worries that audiences aren’t ready for what he’s doing with these themes and this storytelling, so let’s try. Thank you for being here, and we look forward to hearing your reflections after the film – enjoy.
On Thursday, the Samuel Leonard Tilley statue in King’s Square was marked with red paint in a manner not unlike what we have repeatedly seen elsewhere, ushering many unwilling Saint Johners into longstanding national debates around issues of public commemoration, vandalism, the re-writing/restoration/reconstruction of history, public property, and Indigenous land.
Before the Canada Act was patriated in 1982, the holiday that Canadians typically observe on the first day of July was known as “Dominion Day.” Despite disuse, “Dominion of Canada” remains the country’s formal title, and with Tilley’s assistance, we can easily trace the idea of Canada as a “dominion” back to Confederation, when the so-called Fathers of Confederation decided that instead of referring to their new country as a “kingdom” — which, they worried, might irritate the United States — they’d call it a dominion. It was Tilley who advocated for the adoption of this language, citing Psalm 72:8 as his inspiration: “He shall have dominion also from sea to sea, and from the river unto the ends of the earth.” This is the idea now enshrined in the Canadian motto, A Mari usque ad Mare, from sea to sea. According to the theologian Albert Barnes, Psalm 72:8 alludes to the promise of Exodus 23:31, which speaks of the dominion of a chosen (or exceptional) people over land that stretches from the River of Egypt to the Euphrates River.
Much has been written about how American colonists internalized and performed this sense of exceptionalism and entitlement, but in The Homing Place, I explained that exceptionalism is additionally among the most important theoretical concepts underlying Canadian identity. In a colonial context, as I’ve argued elsewhere, exceptionalism is much more than a simple perception or articulation of nationalist difference or superiority — it is a fundamental Atlantic World logic and lens through which Europeans assumed and asserted dominion and sovereignty across centuries over Indigenous peoples, land, and resources.
In the City of Saint John’s response to the news about the Tilley statue, they reminded citizens of a few recent and encouraging changes around the council table, including their adoption of a land acknowledgement before meetings. I would additionally encourage this council to consider whether the idea of Canadian dominion is reconcilable with their expressed understanding of this land as Wabanaki territory. Are we ready to understand how this statue participates in a legacy that alienates and disenfranchises Indigenous people on their own land? TRC Call 45.1 asks governments to “Repudiate concepts used to justify European sovereignty over Indigenous lands and peoples such as the Doctrine of Discovery and terra nullius.” Dominion and exceptionalism are rhetorical extensions of these concepts, and in this moment we have an opportunity to stand as a community behind this repudiation.
This is not an active research area for me but rather information that seemed important to share when I first came across it last year. One of the few things I was able to learn about the institution was that it was requested that the “Reformatory of the Good Shepherd” in Saint John be added to the list of Canadian residential schools recognized by the “Indian Residential Schools Settlement Agreement” — that request was assessed against Article 12 in the settlement agreement and refused on the basis that the institution was provincially, rather than federally, operated. I was also curious about a statement made by or on behalf of the Sisters of the Good Shepherd during a legal proceeding in 1996 — that “the Records of the Home were destroyed many years ago.”
As noted in the blog from last year and in the recent CBC interview, Rie Croll wrote the book on this institution, as well as the more general history of the Magdalene Laundries in North America. Her research on the House of the Good Shepherd centres around interviews she conducted with a woman, now deceased, named Chaparral Bowman, who was born in the laundry to an incarcerated teen mother and escaped when she was 18. In those interviews, Bowman claimed that her family was from an Indigenous community somewhere around Fredericton.
There were plans to bring Dr. Croll to Saint John before COVID-19, and it would be great to resume that planning so that we could perhaps find out what others in the city remember about this institution. Because there are still local memories of this history. After chatting with Julia, I heard from a retired canon lawyer and met with him at his house in Rothesay for a few hours. He spoke about visiting the House of the Good Shepherd as as a child and provided contexts for some of the secrecy surrounding the institution. He explained, for example, that women and girls placed in the laundry often wouldn’t know the length of their “sentences” — and that their names would sometimes be changed to frustrate family searches. If possible, he would like to assist anyone who picks up this research, and if this describes you, I’d be happy to make the introduction — send me an e-mail.
On Friday night, Mike Landry, a court reporter at the Telegraph Journal, also released an extensive and revelatory investigative piece that he worked on with researchers from the New Brunswick Museum. One thing that Mr. Landry uncovered was this arrest notice from The Daily Telegraph in which two Indigenous people are arrested; the man is given a “severe warning” by the judge and then released whereas the woman is sent to the House of the Good Shepherd.
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 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.”
A few weeks ago, I spoke with Julia Wright on CBC’s Information Morning about how the city of Saint John was not meant to be shared. I explained that the 1785 city charter was designed, at least in part, to cut Wabanaki people off from the harbour (in violation of Treaty) and to restrict all the “liberties and privileges of freemen” to “the American and European white inhabitants” of the city.1
On Twitter, my friend Daniel Samson, an historian at Brock, shared this 1797 map of the area that very clearly highlights authorized Black settlement spaces well outside of the city limits. Daniel discusses these exclusions as part of a much larger heritage of systemic racism in the Maritime Provinces, powerfully concluding that “our communities are material legacies of 18th-century strategies of inclusion, denial, and removal.”
You can listen to my discussion with Julia, which engages some of my current research about Saint John, here on the CBC website. In addition to the city charter, I spoke about the Bentley Street portage route and the former Wolastoqey village that is now a fenced-off part of the city Port and a footing for the Harbour Bridge. Before the bridge was constructed in 1968, a ferry bearing the name of the Wolastoqey village — Ouangondy — connected west Saint John with the city’s uptown.
One thing that I didn’t have time to talk about in the radio piece was Fort Frederick. Near the Wolastoqey village site, in front of what is now the Carleton Community Centre, there is a marker for Fort Frederick, a site with its own fraught and complex colonial history. But something that is forgotten in the current commemoration material around that site is that there was a truck house at this location prior to the arrival of the Loyalists.
I like to remember the truck house because it helps me reflect on those agreements that my ancestors made to live in this territory alongside their Wabanaki partners in Treaty. In the Peace and Friendship Treaties, the British promised to establish truck houses in and amongst their settlements where Wabanaki people could freely and easily sell and trade their goods. Continuously facilitating Wabanaki access and economic participation in this way was just one specific condition that the British agreed to – in exchange for the amazing right to live here in this beautiful place at all.
And so a truck house master named John Green was stationed at Fort Frederick to ensure this access and to tend to this one aspect of the Treaty relationship. Tending to this relationship is something that my ancestors decided we didn’t have to do anymore once the Loyalists arrived and gave us a majority status in the region. When I remember that there was a truck house in this location, it helps me assess whether we are, as a city, continuing to operate in violation of those historic agreements — continuing to consolidate ourselves against a space that we are still not willing to share.
Yesterday, the Green Paper on Local Governance Reform was released by the Province of New Brunswick to great interest and fanfare. The document contains one instance of the word “Indigenous” (in a demographics chart) and one instance of the word “treaty” (in a reference to western Canada). And so are we acting as partners or as rulers? Are we ensuring Wabanaki access or economic activity and participation in a manner that is consistent with agreements that were made on our behalf many years before spaces like Saint John were chartered — or are we continuing to ignore our responsibilities under Treaty and to represent the structures of our cities and municipalities, the “material legacies of 18th-century strategies of inclusion, denial, and removal,” as the primary conditions of belonging and participation in this territory?
1 The argument that the city charter cut off Wolastoqiyik access to the harbour salmon fishery comes to me, as noted in the radio interview, from Jason Hall, Ethnohistorian for WNNB.
A little later in the fall, I had the great pleasure of meeting the Wolastoqi journalist Logan Perley, who was already deep in the archives and working on a CBC story about the Brothers Islands when I wrote about the islands in August. It was great to meet Logan for the first time, to hear about his work, and to contribute to his story, which you can check out in print, radio, or video form.
This Monday night (November 30), St. Stephen’s University in unceded Peskotomuhkatik and the faculties of Arts at UNB and UNBSJ in unceded Wolastokuk will be co-hosting an online screening and discussion panel for the feature documentary film Voices from the Barrens: Native People, Blueberries, and Sovereignty. This event is free, open to the public, and requires no advance registration.
The screening of the film will begin at 7pm Atlantic Standard Time. You can attend from anywhere in the world via this link. When prompted to login to the Teams software, you can instead elect to join anonymously via any web browser. Heidi Harding from UNB will be digitally producing this event.
The discussion will begin after the screening at approximately 8pm and will feature a remarkable panel of respondents:
Donald Soctomah is from the community of Motahkomikuk (Indian Township). He is an author, editor, filmmaker, and researcher, and the Historic Preservation Officer for the Passamaquoddy nation. He is the author of Remember Me, a book about Tomah Joseph’s influence on Franklin Delano Roosevelt, and just last year he published The Canoe Maker, a book about David Moses Bridges. He has compiled three invaluable collections of Passamaquoddy research material, and he was the Passamaquoddy community editor for the Dawnland Voicesanthology of literature.
Brian Altvater, Sr. is from the community of Sipayik (Pleasant Point). He is the President of the Passamaquoddy Wild Blueberry Company. He is also the chair of the Schoodic River Keepers, an organization dedicated to protecting the waterways of Peskotomuhkatik, including the Schoodic (St. Croix) River. He is the Wabanaki Wellness Co-Ordinator with Maine-Wabanaki REACH (Restoration, Engagement, Advocacy, Change, and Healing), and he has been working in the Maine State Prison system for 14 years, providing sweat ceremonies for Indigenous inmates.
Nancy Ghertner is a visual artist and filmmaker, and the Director and Producer of Voices from the Barrens. She is a former faculty member of Rochester Institute of Technology’s School of Film and Animation. She has directed and produced numerous feature documentaries, including the award-winning After I Pick the Fruit: The Lives of Migrant Women, and In Our Own Backyard: The Hidden Realities of Women Farmworkers. She is an active member of numerous human rights organizations in New York State where she lives and advocates for the rights of immigrants, farm workers, and women. More specifically, she is from the community of Sodus, which is on the Great Lakes in New York’s apple growing region.
Earlier in this story, as I’ve written about elsewhere, Smith had been adopted into the Powhatan nation and made Werowance of Capahowosick, a fishing village. There is no evidence to suggest that Smith so much as visited Capahowosick; instead, he remained stubbornly based in Jamestown, a poor land for agriculture that was surrounded by brackish water, and he continued to show up on Wahunsenaca’s doorstep, requesting (and receiving) provisions, such as turkey, venison, and corn.
By Chapter 8, Wahunsenaca has grown tired of this arrangement. He is annoyed with Smith for refusing to take up his citizenship obligations. He wants to know why Smith hasn’t been fishing, why he hasn’t moved the English to Capahowosick, and why he isn’t contributing to the network that, at this time, sustained all the Powhatans. Smith is taking and taking from the network but refusing to contribute – and the English are still unwilling to put down their guns.
To Wahunsenaca’s first request, in this chapter, that the English give up their weapons, Smith responds, “As for swords and gunnes, I told you long agoe I had none to spare; and you must know those I have can keep me from want.”
Wahunsenaca did indeed know that the English used their weapons to get food. According to Mattaponi oral history, Smith and his colleagues were infamous throughout Tsenacomoca for their habit of showing up unannounced in villages, holding their guns to the heads of the villagers, and demanding provisions. And so he replies to Smith, there is no need for your guns; we are all Powhatans here. “Many doe inform me,” he says, “your comming hither is . . . to invade my people, and possesse my Country. . . . To free us of this feare, leave aboard your weapons, for here they are needlesse, we being all friends, and for ever Powhatans.”
This debate culminates in Wahunsenaca’s beautiful, famous speech –
What will it availe you to take that by force you may quickly have by love, or to destroy them that provide you food. What can you get by warre, when we can hide our provisions and fly to the woods? whereby you must famish by wrongdoing us your friends. And why are you thus jealous of our loves seeing us unarmed . . . and are willing still to feede you, with that you cannot get but by our labours? Thinke you I am so simple, not to know it is better to eate good meate, lye well, and sleepe quietly with my women and children, laugh and be merry with you . . . then be forced to flie from all, to lie cold in the woods, feede upon Acorns, rootes, and such trash, and be so hunted by you, that I can neither rest, eate, nor sleepe; but my tyred men must watch, and if a twig but breake, every one cryeth there commeth Captaine Smith; then must I fly I know not whether; and thus with miserable feare, end my miserable life, leaving my pleasures to such youths as you, which through your rash unadvisednesse may quickly as miserably end, for want of that, you never know where to finde. Let this therefore assure you of our loves, and every yeare our friendly trade shall furnish you with Corne; and now also, if you would come in friendly manner to see us and not thus with your guns and swords as in to invade your foes.
Here, in what is among the most important moments from this text, Smith refuses Washunsenaca’s powerful vision of their relationship and of a balanced future. He shrugs off Wahunsenaca’s assertion that the Powhatans need not die for the English to live. He rebuffs the Powhatans’ generous and unwavering extension of peace and friendship. And he disingenuously disavows the violence that would logically render both of their lives woefully unsustainable. “Had we intended you any hurt,” Smith arrogantly replies, “long ere this we could have effected it. . . . [We] wear our armes as our apparell.”
Once more, Wahunsenaca refuses to back down, insisting, “If you intend so friendly as you say, send hence your arms, that I may beleeve you.”
What happens next in the text is important.
Smith decides that Wahunsenaca wants to “cut his throat.” Against all evidence to the contrary, he describes the other Powhatans as suddenly “brusting with desire to have the head of Captaine Smith.” He is so deeply unsettled by Wahunsenaca’s steadfast refusal to accept English weapons as natural part of their relationship that he believes his life is in danger.
None of this is true or even otherwise supported by Smith’s description of events. There is ice in the Pamunkey river, and so the English are forced to stay the night in Werowocomoco. At this famous juncture of the text, Smith claims that Pocahontas visits him, in secret, to betray her father and to rescue the English colonial endeavour for a second time, this time warning Smith that he should immediately flee the village before he is violently killed. [Contexts provided in Mattaponi oral history all but confirm that this meeting didn’t happen.] As the night advances, Smith is overcome by fear and paranoia. When “eight or ten” Powhatans visit with evening refreshments, Smith makes them “taste every dish” to ensure the food has not been poisoned – which they do, quite happily, before returning to their own beds, oblivious to Smith’s violent state of mind. In the morning, despite Smith’s continued perception of danger, no one stops the English from getting onto their boats and sailing away. In fact, the Powhatans carry baskets of corn onto the boats to help.
I recently taught a portion of this text in an Atlantic World class and found this chapter to be a productive entry point into a larger discussion about guns, policing, and the historical problem of Settler / Indigenous power dynamics in moments of tension. When Smith is told, repeatedly, to disarm – to demonstrate his supposedly peaceful intentions by removing weapons from his relationship with the Powhatans – he responds as though violence has been done to him. In other words, when his relationship to an important source of personal power and security is challenged, he feels he has been threatened when he hasn’t. He becomes fearful and paranoid. He imagines himself into a context of imminent danger and conflict, and his feelings within this context render him immediately dangerous to the Powhatans, who remain oblivious and therefore vulnerable to his panic.
My thinking on this issue crystallized over the course of the last few weeks as the Wolastoqewi grandmothers have been subject to repeated police checks in Officer’s Square, where they are sitting with their ancestors, asserting stewardship over artefacts that were found during an excavation. During these checks, the grandmothers have been approached by city police wearing flack jackets and carrying mace and sidearms. Four officers have taken four police cars to the square to make themselves seem as large and as menacing as possible. Sometimes the officers will fan out to surround the grandmothers and to ensure they can’t all be seen.
The grandmothers themselves are often in ceremony and are in the process of asserting their sovereignty — practices that have always been “unsettling” for Canadians.
If we can accept that Indigenous sovereignty has always been a “problem” for Canada and for Canadian law, that it’s capable of “unsettling” Canadians – and that people, when unsettled, sometimes feel threatened and react with violence – then we must immediately remove weapons from these encounters. We cannot pretend, as Smith did, that guns are a natural part of our apparel. They are not. We cannot pretend, as Smith did, that showing up with a gun is not an already violent act. It is a violent act.
Settlers have been bringing guns into nation-to-nation encounters with Indigenous people since the first permanent English settlement in the Americas. 413 years after John Smith showed us how this violence can escalate without any offence or sign of aggression from Indigenous people, we need to ask why the city of Fredericton is using armed police to perform diplomatic work that they are neither trained nor authorized to perform. And if this inherently aggressive behaviour does not reflect our collective values, then we need to do something about it.