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.