On Housing and the Peace and Friendship Treaties

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.

Image from Don Paulin and used for Sheila’s Fund with permission.

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.

Introductory remarks for Blood Quantum – October 26, 2021, UNBSJ Indigenous Film Series (Ganong Hall Lecture Theatre)

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.

Here in Wabanaki territory, where Jeff Barnaby is from and where Blood Quantum is based, we of course had the eighteenth-century scalping bounties, the legal proclamations that terrorists like Edward Cornwallis and Charles Lawrence signed into law. We had periods of history where Wabanaki people were literally hunted for their heads in their own homelands by these monstrous and invasive beings from across the ocean who wanted desperately to eliminate competing claims to this land — and so they paid cash bounties to those who would not only take Indigenous lives but who would also submit gruesome evidence of these acts to their government for appreciation and reward.

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.

Voices from the Barrens: Native People, Blueberries, and Sovereignty / Akonutomahtuwok ‘Cey Ihtolahkikhotimkil. November 30, 7pm Atlantic Standard Time

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 Voices anthology 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.

Brian J. Francis is a Mi’kmaw filmmaker, author, painter, and photographer from the community of Elsipogtog. For this film, he was Director of the Canadian Unit. In 2008, he created a feature-length documentary film called The Sacred Sundance: The Transfer of a Ceremony for the National Film Board. And he led the development of the acclaimed APTN series Eastern Tide. He is the author and photographer behind a new book, Between Two Worlds: Spiritual Writings and Photographs. He assists the Canadian parliament in Mi’kmaq interpretation, and in September of this year he was awarded the Lieutenant Governor’s Dialogue Award for his dedication to protecting the Mi’kmaq language.

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.

A Facebook page for this event can be found here.

More information about the film can be found here.