Wolastoq: a beautiful and bountiful teacher

Written by David Perley and Brian Beaton on March 20, 2019

Wolastoq, the beautiful and bountiful river. Photo from the Images of New Brunswick databank.

When David Perley, Director of the UNB Mi’kmaq-Wolastoqey Centre, speaks about Wolastoq (“beautiful and bountiful river”) he is able to share first-hand knowledge and experiences about the importance of this traditional waterway for Wolastoqiyik (the “people of the beautiful and bountiful river”).  Perley says: “As a young man, I remember being able to go to Wolastoq and drinking the water. But we are unable to do that today.” For thousands of years, Wolastoq provided for all the needs of families and communities along its shores including food, medicine and transportation.

Wolastoq was the lifeline for Wolastoqiyik before settlers arrived to set up their cities, towns, businesses and industries. The Wolastoqiyik and all their relations lived in a sustainable and respectful manner. The Peace and Friendship Treaties demonstrate the connection the Wabanaki Nation had to the land, the waterways and all their relations to share their territories with others.

The colonial and imperialist agenda brought from Europe by the settlers betrayed the relationship the Wabanaki Nation entered into with the newcomers. Destruction of the waters, lands and wildlife along with the conflict created by the settlers’ development work is highlighted in the 2009 NB Media Co-op story: “‘Pack up and get out:’ Why the Tobique First Nation took control of their territory’s hydro dam”. Today, barely any wild salmon still make their way up the Tobique River. Tobique First Nation residents blame the high rates of cancer on the power lines over their community and the toxic chemicals dumped and sprayed on their land by NB Power. The dam has eroded the community’s riverbanks, leading to “trees being washed away and homes in danger of falling into the river. Many of the edible and medicinal plants are gone – the islands where the plants grew are now underwater.”

The 2018 story “Spraying glyphosate on forests clashes with Indigenous rights” highlights yet another major issue facing New Brunswickers. “Citizens of Tobique and other Indigenous and rural communities in the province are deeply concerned about the poisonous herbicide [glyphosate] and its effects on the forest, waters, animals, people and all their relations.” In the story, the Indigenous people gathered described how the poisons sprayed on the forests are destroying the waterways, the land, wildlife and the air that everyone depends on for survival.

In an earlier NB Media Co-op article, Ron Tremblay, Traditional Grand Chief of the Wolastoq Nation, describes the importance of using the traditional name Wolastoq for the river. “Wolastoq is our identity. Once we address the river as ‘Wolastoq’ this river will remember its original name.” In a sunrise ceremony performed beside the river in 2018, Imelda Perley, the University of New Brunswick’s Elder-in-residence, described this relationship: “the strength of Wolastoqiyik comes from Wolastoq. When Wolastoq starts to hear her name that is when our collective healing can begin.”

In the Canadian Rivers Institute’s (CRI) 2011 report, “The Saint John River: A State of the Environment Report,” Cecelia Brooks shares her Traditional Ecological Knowledge about the state of Wolastoq. Her work with the Maliseet Nation Conservation Council supported training and education to start addressing the water quality problems of Wolastoqiyik. Brooks writes: “I knew this position was a good first step toward my goal of building First Nations’ environmental capacity, enabling Wolastoqiyik to take better care of Wolastoq and all the life she cares for.”

There are many challenges to beginning this healing journey for both the people now living along Wolastoq as well as for the river herself. In the 2016 NB Media Co-op article, “Wolastoq Grand Council on the Mactaquac dam,” Ron Tremblay explains some of the complex relationships that exist in this healing process. “Today, dams separate our people, so in return we carry broken spirits because of this separation. It is crucial that Wolastoq be set free again to reconnect our nation, to cleanse and revive herself so the salmon and other fish species can return to their natural home.”

The 2011 CRI report estimates that Wolastoq and her tributaries supports a population of more than 500,000 people, mostly in New Brunswick. The report highlights that all rivers supporting communities are uniquely ecologically and socially important. Rivers not only provide habitat for numerous species including humans but also are used for navigation and energy production. The report notes that, in spite of their importance to all life, “human activities have diminished, often significantly, the environmental quality and function of these rivers that we depend upon.” The report describes Wolastoq as “one of Canada’s more disrupted river systems.”

Many others are also concerned about the environmental state of Wolastoq and are now taking action to protect and restore the river for future generations. The Maliseet Nation Conservation Council was created in 2004 as a non-profit corporation by the Wolastoqey First Nations to ensure their involvement in the decision-making processes involving their traditional territory across Wolastoq, her tributaries and the Bay of Fundy. They “promote and advance Wolastoqey co-management of the Saint John River (Wolastoq) watershed and ecosystem through conservation and stewardship, education and respecting our traditional knowledge and the work carried out by our ancestors on behalf of our present and future generations.” Their impressive list of projects includes conducting a comprehensive management plan process for Wolastoq watershed.

The St. John River Society was formed in “1992 by a group of individuals dedicated to the promotion and appreciation of the St. John River and the stewardship of its resources.” Their work includes the annual River Summit, bringing together dozens of environmental and community groups working on issues involving the Wolastoq. The society lists a number of other watershed organizations involved in restoration and use of the lands, waters and wildlife in different regions of Wolastoq watershed. Some of these include:

  • Atlantic Salmon Federation conserves and restores wild Atlantic salmon and their ecosystems;
  • ACAP Saint John founded as part of the Atlantic Coastal Action Program (ACAP), a unique community-based program initiated by Environment Canada in 1991 to help Atlantic Canadians restore and sustain local watersheds and adjacent coastal areas;
  • Hammond River Angling Association’s mandate is to protect and preserve the Hammond River watershed through education, conservation and community interaction;
  • Oromocto River Watershed Association Inc. (ORWAI) is a non profit organization committed to the improvement of the Oromocto Watershed serving the communities while maintaining a healthy resource for generations to come.
  • Meduxnekeag River Association promotes, encourages and assists in the protection, restoration and responsible use of the Meduxnekeag River watershed;
  • Nashwaak Watershed Association manages the Nashwaak watershed as a healthy ecosystem that balances a variety of economic, recreational, social, and landowner interests so that it will serve the community while maintaining a healthy resource for generations to come.

The Government of New Brunswick’s Environment and Local Government department maintains fact sheets with details on water quality and other information on various New Brunswick watersheds. All of these rivers and their watersheds have seen their environmental state altered by human activities. Sharing information about the state of Wolastoq will improve understanding of the importance of the river and encourage people to take action to protect and restore it for future generations.

Wolastoq is a great source of information, teachings and experiences. As part of the Wabanki Nation territory, Wolastoq was one of the first watersheds “developed” by early settlers. Today, Wolastoq and the people engaged in its protection and restoration are learning and sharing their successes as part of their contributions to celebrating this “beautiful and bountiful river.” As David Perley explains in the video produced by the NB Media Co-op in collaboration with RAVEN, “A Healthy River is Necessary for Survival” “we have to take drastic steps to help her to be healthy once again.”

David Perley is a RAVEN Collaborator and the Director of the Mi’kmaq-Wolastoqey Centre at UNB

Brian Beaton is the coordinator of the NB Media Co-op calendar and a friend of the RAVEN project.

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