“We never surrendered:” Wolastoq Grand Council Chief

Written by Tracy Glynn on October 22, 2018

Ron Tremblay, Wolastoq Grand Council Chief, speaking at the Fredericton Vigil for Tina Fontaine on Feb. 26, 2018. Photo by Jared Durelle.

Indigenous peoples across Canada are decrying the Supreme Court of Canada ruling on Oct. 11, 2018 that the federal government is not obligated to consult with Indigenous peoples before a law is passed in Parliament. Laws passed could interfere with Indigenous treaty rights. The Wolastoq Grand Council Chief is reminding people that the Indigenous Wolastoq people of what is known as the “Saint John River Valley” today “never surrendered one inch of land, one drop of water.”

The Mikisew Cree First Nation of Alberta took the case to the Supreme Court in response to two federal bills introduced by the Harper government in 2012 that gutted Canada’s environmental laws. The Mikisew Cree and other Indigenous activists are pointing out that the changes to the environmental laws also infringe on their hunting and fishing rights.

Wolastoq Grand Council Chief Ron Tremblay, whose Wolastoqey name is Spasaqsit Possesom, told CBC on Oct. 11 that he is “drastically disappointed” by the Supreme Court ruling.

Since becoming the hereditary chief in 2015, Tremblay has driven efforts to rename the Saint John River back to its original name, the Wolastoq. The Wolastoq runs through many of New Brunswick’s rural areas, making it possible for the many farms and villages along the river valley to exist and survive. Tremblay wants settlers to lobby their government officials to change the name of the river. “It’s not up to Indigenous people to ask permission of the Premier or Mayors to change the name back to the Wolastoq since no one asked our ancestors about changing the name of the Wolastoq to the Saint John River,” says Tremblay.

Ron Tremblay joined a caravan to the Wolastoq grandmothers’ camp site at the proposed Sisson mine site to construct a longhouse in the summer of 2018. Photo courtesy of Ron Tremblay.

Tremblay is worried that the recent Supreme Court ruling will further degrade an already poor level of consultation that must be done on resource development on Indigenous territory, such as with the Sisson mine project. He has supported the Wolastoq grandmothers currently occupying the proposed Sisson mine site, near Napadogan, a rural village about 100 km northwest of Fredericton.

Northcliff Resources is currently seeking a Schedule 2 Amendment to the Fisheries Act that would allow them to dump their waste into fish-bearing streams in the Nashwaak Watershed. The Watershed, one of the remaining pristine freshwater environments in the province, is vital to the health of the rural ecosystem in the region. More than 250 people packed a community hall in Stanley last March to tell federal government officials that they were opposed to the project if it meant destroying precious fish habitat. The Department of Fisheries and Oceans has recently asked First Nations in the Wolastoqey territory for meetings on the Schedule 2 amendments.

The grandfather of ten grandsons, Tremblay has been a champion of Indigenous rights all his life. Having grown up in rural Tobique First Nation, Tremblay witnessed firsthand the degradation of the Tobique River. Beginning in 1950, NB Power dammed the Tobique River for hydroelectricity generation. Abundant Atlantic salmon used to travel through the Tobique River but today, the salmon are gone.

Alma Brooks, a Wolastoq clan grandmother, is grateful for Tremblay’s “strong determination to protect mother earth.” Brooks notes that Tremblay is a carrier of their people’s sacred pipe and a speaker, teacher and champion of the endangered Wolastoqey language.

Fellow Tobique native, Jeremy Dutcher, shone national attention on the Wolastoqey language and culture when he told CBC viewers that “we are witnessing an Indigenous renaissance” before accepting the 2018 Polaris Prize for his album, Wolastoqiyik Lintuwakonawa, on Sept. 17. When Dutcher performs, he acknowledges Passamaquoddy elder, Maggie Paul, for inspiring him to share the traditional songs of their people.

Like Dutcher and Paul, Tremblay is keeping Wolastoqiyik culture alive. He regularly invites youth, elders and others to take part in sacred ceremonies. About a decade ago, Tremblay was asked to design a flag for the Wolastoqey Nation by then Wolastoq Grand Council Chief Harry LaPorte. Tremblay says the design, two canoeists following a muskrat, is part of a Wolastoqey story shared to him by Brooks. “Ron works very hard to represent those who have no voice and deserves a lot of acknowledgement and credit for all that he does with little help and practically no resources to speak of,” says Brooks.

Whether in the assembly rooms of the United Nations or on the frontlines of Indigenous resistance at Oka or Elsipogtog, Tremblay is not afraid to put his body in front of the oppressive structures that are harming his nation and all Indigenous nations.

Accompanied by Indigenous youth and Passamaquoddy Chief Hugh Akagi, Tremblay spoke out against the Sisson mine project at the United Nations Permanent Forum on Indigenous Issues in New York in April 2018. He told the Forum that the mining company had failed to properly consult the traditional chiefs and people of his nation and therefore the mining project was in violation of the United Nations Declaration of the Rights of Indigenous People that Canada claims to endorse.

Speaking of his recent visit to the United Nations, Tremblay remarked that corporations and international financial institutions such as the World Bank are found there, pushing their demands on world governments while Indigenous voices are sidelined.

Tremblay’s life’s work of protecting the land and water and treaty rights has drawn attention of state authorities. He has experienced the kind of state harassment and criminalization that is commonly faced by Indigenous land defenders and their allies on the front lines of resistance to oil pipelines, shale gas and mines across the world.

In 1990, Tremblay, then 29 years old, joined a convoy from his community of Tobique to support the Mohawks of Kahnesatake who were under siege for resisting a golf course expansion on their territory. While travelling to Oka, Tremblay’s convoy was stopped, surrounded and held by armed police in Lévis, Quebec. At Oka, Tremblay recalled a soldier pointing a gun into his forehead after he told the soldier to stop aiming his gun at a woman holding a sign that said, “Go fight a real war.”

Ron Tremblay was one of many anti-shale gas opponents arrested on Mi’kmaq territory in Kent County in 2013. He was holding his community’s sacred pipe when he was arrested. Photo courtesy of @1tnb.

More than two decades later, Tremblay found himself in the front of armed police again, this time the RCMP. He had joined land defenders opposed to fracking for shale gas in rural New Brunswick. The land defenders were blocking SWN Resources’ shale gas trucks and equipment on Mi’kmaq territory, off a highway near Rexton. Tremblay and other land defenders were arrested during one of the shale gas blockade actions in June 2013.

Policing Indigenous Movements is a new book on state surveillance of Indigenous activists by Andrew Crosby and Jeffrey Monaghan. The authors uncovered that the RCMP were secretly investigating Indigenous activists in an operation called, Project Sitka. Thirty-five of the 89 Indigenous activists profiled by the RCMP as potential threats to public safety had participated in the 2013 anti-shale gas movement in New Brunswick.

During and months after the shale gas blockade, Tremblay believed that the RCMP was tracking his movements. A 2017 National Observer story reported that Tremblay was followed out of a National Energy Board hearing on the Energy East pipeline at a Fredericton hotel by RCMP Constable Joanne Spacek. Spacek wanted more information about plans for protests against resource development projects such as Energy East. In the summer of 2017, the night before a solidarity caravan set off to the Wolastoq grandmothers camp at the proposed Sisson mine site, the same RCMP officer called Tremblay, trying to get more information about the caravan. Tremblay was surprised that the trip, to bring food and donations to the grandmothers, would elicit such a phone call.

Policing Indigenous Movements by  Andrew Crosby and Jeffrey Monaghan was published in 2018 by Fernwood.

The recent struggles against shale gas, Energy East and glyphosate spraying of the forest in rural New Brunswick are in some ways a blessing, according to Tremblay. He said that it brought together people who share a common concern for protecting the land and water for seven generations.

Tremblay and others have founded the Peace and Friendship Alliance, bringing together Indigenous people and allies across Wabanaki territory, to oppose risky resource development and honour the Peace and Friendship Treaties, signed between the Indigenous peoples and British Crown, starting in 1725. With New Brunswick putting into place a moratorium on shale gas, TransCanada shelving the Energy East pipeline, and several of New Brunswick’s newly elected MLAs being against spraying the forest, the strength of such alliances cannot be underestimated.

State surveillance, arrests and court rulings do not deter Tremblay. He remains steadfast in his work to protect the land, water, air and all life.

Listen to Wolastoq Grand Council Chief Ron Tremblay speak of the protection of land and treaties in this video.

This article and video was made possible with support from RAVEN – Rural Action & Voices for the Environment.

Tracy Glynn is working with RAVEN as a doctoral researcher and has had the honour of participating in Peace and Friendship Alliance gatherings.


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