The tale of Skutik – A letter from New Brunswick’s future #12

Written by Kim Reeder on August 23, 2019

Misty morning on the Skutik. Photo from the St. Croix International Waterway Commission.

August 23, 2050 (Skutik, NB)

Dear Friends,

I—the largest river between the Penobscot and Wolastoq watersheds—am the heart of the Peskotomuhkatik Ancestral Homeland, an area of more than three million acres. I am known as, and I will answer to, the names of St. Croix or Schoodic, but my spirit is carried by my honoured name of Skutik, the home of the big fire.

I descend from the Chiputneticook Lakes, and I flow 114 kilometers south to the Passamaquoddy Bay. The settlements along my shores were born of my assets and because of my ecological and navigational links to the Bay

I am a river, I am an estuary, and I am life. I have been given the responsibility to act as an international border, an example of the two-leggeds desire to organize and control.

For centuries I was, and I am now again, noted for my large runs of anadromous fish migrating up river from the sea to spawn. But it was not always so.

As you listen to my story—the story of my air and water clans, and my two-leggeds—hear from your heart, hear the drums ring out throughout the valley as they did for years, hear the drums that represent my heartbeat, the rhythm of my life. 

Breaking with tradition, I start with the moral of the story: the connection to me, to those within me, and to my terrestrial brother and sister clans is the foundation for all life, for all health, and for all economies. As my reserves were drained, so too were the reserves of strength and hope of my two-legged people. Damming me (figuratively) and damning me (literally) not only transformed my natural landscape but also ushered in an era of pollution, degradation and neglect. Both changed not only me but also the attitudes of two-leggeds to each other. Their actions and attitudes were bred through generations of settlers, and the ability to thrive for me and for any of us became out of reach. 

My landscape, the Skutik region, represents the connection between a thriving environment and thriving communities, the flows of respect, and the ability for interdependent systems to thrive. I understand these interdependencies well, as I established myself here not long after the last Ice Age. From this beginning long ago, let me tell my tale, the tale of Skutik.

Once I was tickled by the canoe bottoms of my people. My two-leggeds made arrangements with the fish—the psam (shad), siqonomeq (alewife), polam (salmon), kat (eel), and pasokos (sturgeon) who lived with and within me—to collect them for their subsistence.

This changed when we welcomed “visitors” from away. When these “visitors” became permanent settlers, the strength of the Peskotomuhkati Nation was decimated by diseases and by their isolation from the tree clans and the four-leggeds, and from myself.

The injuries were plenty and came in the form of dams which supported an era of industrialization starting in 1793 in my upper reaches. Before the early European settlement of this country until 1825, there was annually a great abundance of psam, siqonomeq, polam, kat, and pasokos. Boats from away, some more than 150 tons, took too many members of my water clans. The boats never left without full cargo holds.

When I thought I could bear no further insult, the settlers had more in store for me. In 1825 they built the Union Dam on my lowest riverine reaches with no fishway, and my anadromous brothers and sisters of the water clan could visit me no more.

The refuse from upriver sawmills created new islands within me, and only after this sawdust created navigational hazards, long after my bottom-dwelling cousins had suffocated and died, did the two-leggeds pay attention. Worse than just my water-borne family being desecrated, many of the land-dwelling tree clans were lost during the log drives, as they lay dishonoured on my bottom.

By the 1860s my waters were being poisoned with human waste, along with salt liquids, lime liquor, and skin scrapings from tanneries upriver.

By 1934, I could take it no more, and summoned all my reserves, and called in the wind clan as well, and we breached the Union Dam. Only three dams were left standing on my lower reaches, and I could hear the people say the names psam, siqonomeq, polam, kat, and pasokos. The call for my rehabilitation commenced.

Conditions worsened through to the 1960s. Over many decades, the two-leggeds could not make up their minds. During this time, I had intermittent fishways, and the two-leggeds stocked me with more than a million salmon from Wolastoq waters and other origins, but never did they clean up the sawdust, or the chemicals, or their behaviours. My recovery was slow. The two-leggeds found mill sludge deposits seven feet deep on my bottom and in the fishways and my water children perished within an hour due to lack of dissolved oxygen: they could not breathe.

By 1975, my toxic exhalations were peeling paint off nearby houses and damaging the lungs of the two-leggeds living along my shores. But, those defending my life stood firm, and they believed I could be who I am now. They carried on with plans to restore my health and restore access for the water clans.

I had to face one last fight. 

In the 1980s, the smallmouth bass introduced in my home lakes by the two-leggeds were in substantial decline. Local guides and sporting camps who had developed a livelihood based on these newcomers, complained and lobbied the American government. Fishways were closed to the siqonomeq who stood accused of the decline of smallmouth bass. There was a complete decimation of my siqonomeq run to less than 1,000 fish in 2002. In Canada, the Department of Fisheries and Oceans trucked my siqonomeq children from the Milltown Fishway to the Woodland impoundment in an attempt to save them.

I thought I had no more fight left in me, but my allies rallied and took me with them.

In 1991, I received a designation as a Canadian Heritage River. I was recognized for my outstanding natural, cultural, and recreational heritage, and for my important habitats that support rare plants and freshwater and marine invertebrates, amphibians, reptiles, and birds.

My RiverKeeper brethren, the Peskotomuhkati Nation, and others fought hard. By 2012, the Passamaquoddy Tribal Sovereign had declared a state of emergency. By 2013, we were celebrating the reopening of the Grand Falls Dam fish-ladder, which had been closed for more than two decades. Between 2016 and 2018, the two-leggeds made more mistakes and allowed more than three million gallons of black liquor to enter my veins. But I am strong, and I continue to recover. By 2019, more than 400,000 siqonomeq returned to my waters, and with them the psam and the ahkiq (seals) and the winged ones too. They had all started to come home.

My next celebrations were major. In 2020, the Woodland Mill replaced a 3km pipeline, and NB Power shuttered the Milltown Dam on my lowest reaches. The two-leggeds celebrated for me, and for the re-established $15 million fishery and associated activities. The lobstermen had lower costs and ecologically friendly local bait, and no longer worried about introducing parasites or pathogens from imported bait fish.

By 2025 the communities of Calais and St. Stephen, buoyed by my health, developed new business and community models that were open source, technologically literate, socially inclusive and financially productive. Profit and market success were no longer central, as the two-leggeds in the region now use the quantity and quality of collaboration as the core metric of  success. When two-leggeds seek solutions to problems that remain unsolved, they start to build from the unexplored and the edges and the once undervalued. The collective intelligence and insight of those very communities were once, but are no longer, undervalued.

The two-leggeds on my shores have established a new municipalism in which I thrive. This new approach puts to the forefront many truths.

The truth of our global and local interdependence.

The truth that social reconciliation can, in part, be created through economic justice.

The truth of the power of a collectivized and municipalist political and governmental agenda where communities own and run the services for a public good.

The truth of the need to adopt new forms of governance in the economic structures we create through co-ownership and beyond ownership.

And, the truth that through the empowerment of youth and others into leadership positions, the two-leggeds can create new economic structures and outcomes in the Maritimes.  

The homecoming of the siqonomeq, the shuttering of the Milltown Dam, the return of the water and air clans, and the growing awareness and the recognition of the importance of the Peskotomuhkati Nation, and the Schoodic RiverKeepers, and the Maritime Social Innovation Lab (MSIL) have all created a new business and community model in the Maritimes, for the Maritimes, and for the allies essential to rebuild toward the 2050 Skutik Kikehtahsuwakon Initiative in which governments and private citizens of the region turn over woodlands and waters for co-management by the Peskotomuhkati Nation and its allies.

Sincerely

Skutik (the St. Croix River)

This letter from the future was written in collaboration between Passamaquoddy Recognition Group, Maritime Social Innovation Lab, and Skutik region residents Art MacKay and Kim Reeder.

In the optimistic spirit of the Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez’s Message from the Future, this letter is a speculative and fictional look back from the future to imagine what New Brunswick could be like if we could meet our climate change obligations. It is fiction, but it need not stay fiction. Each letter offers a vision of what New Brunswick could be like in the future if the province is able to fight climate change and to achieve the IPCC climate goals.

Read other Letters from New Brunswick’s Future.

This series is sponsored by RAVEN, and edited by Daniel Tubb and Abram Lutes. Daniel is an environmental anthropologist at the University of New Brunswick in Fredericton and a co-investigator with RAVEN. Abram Lutes is an environmental action reporter with the RAVEN project Summer Institute and a member of the NB Media Co-op Board of Directors. If you would like to contribute your own letter, read the Call for Letters from New Brunswick’s Future and send a short outline of your idea to Daniel Tubb at dtubb@unb.ca and Abram Lutes at abram.lutes@gmail.com

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