Seeing The Brothers

On Kennebecasis Drive in Saint John, New Brunswick, between Millidge Avenue and the Summerville Ferry, there is an area where motorists are invited to stop and take a picture. This “‘Fundy City’ Photo Spot” is sponsored by the nearby Royal Kennebecasis Yacht Club.

The area is a bit overgrown, and it’s actually rather challenging to get a good view of the river from this vantage. But if you could see behind this sign and through the trees, you’d see not only the area of the Kennebecasis River that the yacht club calls “Brother’s Cove” but also the islands that comprise what is, according to federal and provincial records, “The Brothers Indian Reserve No. 18.”

Sunset over Indian Island and Goat Island with some boats in the foreground

I haven’t met many people in Saint John who are aware that there is reserve land in the city — likely because the islands are not home to a year-round or permanent settlement — but in 1905, when a local lawyer attempted to acquire a piece of one of the islands for settlement, the “Secretary of the Department of Indian Affairs J.D. McLean replied that the Maliseets never surrendered their rights to Indian Island and, therefore, the department was ‘not in a position to consider the question of application for lease.'”1 Today the land is plainly identified on both historical and Google maps as a reserve, and there is ample evidence that Wolastoqi people were using the islands seasonally and traditionally as late as the 1970s.

The Daily Gleaner, August 1, 1970

In Wolastoqiyik Ajemseg, community members from Sitansisk/St. Mary’s First Nation, including Pat Laporte, Tina Brooks, and Richard Polchies, Jr., describe camping on The Brothers in the 1960’s and 70’s — often in groups and with children, and sometimes for the purpose of harvesting timber.

The names of the islands vary from map to map, but I will follow Micah Pawling in identifying them as Indian Island, Goat Island, and Burnt Island.2 Pawling’s excellent essay about the lower Wolastoq River Valley contains an illuminating section about The Brothers that draws from correspondence and records kept by commissioner of Indian affairs, Moses Perley. In 1841, Perley described houses and potato fields on what Pawling surmises was likely Burnt Island, which was inhabited by families who fished, hunted, and harvested in the area, selling some of their wares at the Saint John City Market.

Burnt Island from the Summerville Ferry landing

There are likely numerous reasons why use of The Brothers declined over time. Pawling explains how the nineteenth century communities were affected by illnesses and, in 1848, by a devastating smallpox outbreak. And while the islands were still being used for seasonal camping in the mid twentieth century, Polchies, Jr. tells the story of an important dwelling structure that was burned down by settlers in the 1960’s.3 I can’t help but feel that we should explore rebuilding this structure now, if it is wanted.

Today there is no mention of The Brothers on the Royal Kennebecasis Yacht Club’s web page dedicated to the club’s history. And yet they incredibly, and almost certainly unknowingly, have cannons pointed at the islands:

RKYC cannons pointed at The Brothers

However unintended the imagery, I was struck this evening by this vision of conflict and aggression — by the fact that we have guns pointed at the only land in the city that we settlers still recognize, on paper, as Wolastoqey land — and by the almost perfect way in which this captures our continued marginalization and suppression of Indigenous history in this city.


1 Micah Pawling (2017). “Wəlastəkwey (Maliseet) Homeland: Waterscapes and Continuity within the Lower St. John River Valley, 1784-1900.” Acadiensis, 46(2). Page 33. Retrieved from https://journals.lib.unb.ca/index.php/Acadiensis/article/view/25946

2 Confusion over the names of these islands today is at least partly due to the fact that there are two islands identified as Goat Island in close proximity in Saint John. The other “Goat Island,” likely about a kilometre away, sits at the mouth of the Wolastoq River in the area known as Reversing Falls or Reversing Rapids:

3 Karen Perley and Susan Blair, editors (2003). Wolastoqiyik Ajemseg: The People of the Beautiful River at Jemseg. Fredericton: Archaeological Services, Heritage Branch. Page 39. Retrieved from https://www.nbwomenscouncil.ca/content/dam/gnb/Departments/thc-tpc/pdf/Arch/MIA34English.pdf

Relating/Related

Content warning: mental illness; suicide

In 1877, Mary Huestis Pengilly and her husband, Robert, lost their home and business in the Great Fire of Saint John. They had five sons and one daughter. The couple separated soon after, and Mary moved to Lowell, Massachusetts with her daughter, Clara, who died in 1882 at the age of 12. In 1883, several of Mary’s sons had her committed to a Saint John-area psychiatric hospital.

For six months, Mary kept her Diary Written in the Provincial Lunatic Asylum (1885), recording her neglect and mistreatment at the hands of institutional doctors and staff while unwillingly inhabiting the asylum in the parish of Lancaster, now west Saint John. The diary is also a plea, in the end, to “the ladies” of New Brunswick, those who might better “understand the weakness or the misfortunes” that brought women like Mary “under the necessity of being protected by the public” (25). By capturing the attention and sympathy of her “fellow-sisters,” Mary believed she could rally enough concern to reach the Governor and to reform the asylum’s Board of Commissioners.

Image: source

It’s easy to relate to Mary’s needs for warmth, kindness, rest, and nourishing food, which are consistent across this text, reflecting the essential structural failures of a system and a society that either could not or would not provide her with the support or comfort she required in the wake of such rupture and loss. One of the primary villains of the narrative is medical superintendent James T. Steeves — who may or may not have gifted a straitjacket to Henry Houdini in 1896, providing “an essential prop in Houdini’s popular escape routines” (See Mike Wong, “Centracare: A History,” 16). From Mary’s perspective, Steeves is a jailer who assures her sons that she is “a lunatic” while quietly warning her, in other moments, that patients who leave the hospital “hang [themselves]” (12, 22).

As a reader, I can relate to Mary, but as a human being, I am related to Steeves. He is my cousin, connected to me through my father and through the family descended from Heinrich and Regina Steif, who crossed the Atlantic in the mid eighteenth-century and settled, eventually, in Sikniktuk, Mi’kma’ki. This is a useful distinction: I cannot relate to Steeves here, but I am related to him. And because of my relation to Steeves, which remains indifferent to my unwillingness or inability to relate to him, I can’t read Mary’s narrative as I might be tempted to otherwise. Certainly, it would be easier to allow my revulsion for a bad actor to isolate that figure outside of the relational framework that I construct while reading. Instead, while I relate to Mary and her suffering, I also feel a kind of responsibility for her narrative.

I am still working through my relationship to this text and to this history. But as I prepare several new classes for the fall, I am thinking about how this principle might apply in other contexts. What does it mean, for example, when a Settler reads a residential school narrative and relates only to the children and the Indigenous families? I see this kind of failure in self reflection everywhere, in and outside of academia — and so how do we want non-Indigenous students to understand their own relationship to such narratives, and how might we help lead them there? What does it mean when a white person relates to a Black man murdered by police without ever pondering their relationship to the violent act? ‘

Can we ever be changed or transformed if the bad actors that we encounter are continuously cast outside of our relational frameworks? I am not talking about finding the humanity or the complexity in history’s or society’s bad actors. We do not need to relate to their ugliness, but we need ways to understand and explore how we may be related to it.

Research Notes: Thomas Carleton, Charter of the City of Saint John (1785)

This evening I read the Charter of the City of Saint John (1785; reprint 1811) for the first time. Its author, Thomas Carleton, was the first Lieutenant Governor of New Brunswick, and he oversaw the arrival of the Loyalists in the final decades of the eighteenth century. If you live in New Brunswick, you’ve seen his name everywhere — on school buildings, towns, and counties. The tallest mountain in the province is named after him.

But until tonight, I don’t think I’d ever actually read something that he authored. Two sections of this document jumped out at me. The first, from the preamble, articulates Carleton’s desire to unite “the inhabitants of the Town or District of Parr, lying on the east side of the River Saint John” with those “of Carleton on the west side thereof, at the entrance of the River Saint John aforesaid, both which Districts are in our Province of New Brunswick, in America.” He describes a people who “have, by their exertions, conquered many of the difficulties attending the settlement of a new country” and who are now “anxious to remove the remaining evils they at present labor under.” Those who know me will understand why I find this combination of language — America, evil, conquest — very compelling; but also, this does not strike me as Loyalist sentiment.

And then, much later, there’s this:

. . . for us, our heirs and successors, we do will and hereby declare, that although the people of colour are black persons now residing in our said City, and hereafter to come and reside therein, are by these presents excluded the privilege of being or becoming free citizens thereof, yet it is not our pleasure that those who should be found good, discreet and honest persons of that description, should be wholly deprived of the means of getting and having a comfortable support for themselves and their families; and therefore we do will and grant, that the Mayor of the said City, for the time being, may from time to time, as he shall think proper, by warrant under his hand and seal, license any of the said people of colour to reside in the said City, and to carry on any business or occupation which he shall think fit, and express in such license; and the same license and licenses at his pleasure to suppress, any thing herein contained to the contrary notwithstanding.

Some might argue that this kind of language and policy in a document from this era isn’t surprising — since, around the same time, U.S. officials drafted a Constitution that ascribed a value of “3/5 a person” to each black slave within its borders. But I can’t recall having read anything in the historiography of this region about municipal governments using licence systems to control the presence, movements, and actions of black people within or around major settlements, and I could not find similar sections in the town charters for Shelburne or Halifax. I have read work on “black codes” in both southern and northern states in the nineteenth century but nothing on similar laws in British America in the eighteenth century. I’d be happy to hear from any of my colleagues on this point.

An Act in further amendment to the Charter of the City of Saint John, passed in 1849, contains a section titled “Coloured persons may be made free.” That amendment reads, “Notwithstanding any thing in the said Charter to the contrary contained, any black person or person of colour may become a free citizen of, and be admitted to the freedom of the said City.”

Update: Zoe Jackson wrote a fabulous blog post on this topic last year that contains much more context and information. She writes, “the 1785 document can be considered one of earliest acts of institutional discrimination against Black individuals in Atlantic Canada. The Saint John Charter was based upon the 1686 Dongan Charter of the Province of New York, which officially incorporated New York as a city.”

Maritime Urban Planning and the Interruption of Indigenous Life Ways

While out on a walk through Menahkwesk (Saint John, New Brunswick) yesterday, I took this picture from the top of what Settlers call Bentley Street. This street was built over top of a Wolastoqiyik portage path, a key part of an extensive and ingenious transportation network that regional Indigenous people used for trade and travel. This is the view from the top of Bentley Street, facing the Saint John harbour:

IMG_3949

Before this road existed, the Wolastoqiyik would travel this route on foot so they could reach the supekuk (the ocean) from the river while strategically avoiding the treacherous rapids at what Settlers usually call Reversing Falls — the mouth of the Wolastoq where the most powerful ocean tides in the world dramatically reverse the current of the river twice a day.

Based on recovered artifacts, archaeologists have very roughly estimated that for over 10,000 years, Indigenous people carried their canoes, babies, and cargo up and down this hill. After the Europeans arrived, Wabanaki peoples frequently used this route to bring furs and trade goods to the Settlers at Fort LaTour.

From the same spot on Bentley Street, I turned around and took this picture of the New Brunswick Museum Archives. This building is directly between the Bentley portage route and the river. I’ve been inside this building many times — the cover image of my book is actually an iPhone photo of a text that is currently held in their collections. I am comfortable and happy in this building.

IMG_3947.jpg

On the other side of this massive building are the riverbanks where the Wolastoqiyik would camp. This is now a protected archaeological area that the NB government hasn’t figured out what to do with yet.

Every time I walk here, I think about the fact that New Brunswick built this archive, dropped this massive rock, in the middle of this portage route. There is a metaphor here about the ways in which the settler colonial archive interrupts the life ways of the Wolastoqiyik — and about how we have built our archives over existing archives. Literally, in this case, we built an archive over more than 10,000 years worth of stories and memories and materials that developed continuously on and with this soil across millennia.