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.

Reckoning with the City Charter – Social Justice and the City, Tertulias Fredericton, May 5 2021

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.”