Fredericton – A cold wind whistled through the trees and snowflakes danced in the air, but inside the Crown Plaza hotel in Fredericton on February 8th, a group of leaders from the Wolastoq nation warmed the ears of their audience with a defiant and fiery message. They came to speak of Mother Earth, our relation to the land, and the Energy East pipeline which would cut across their traditional territory.
Saying they wanted to speak on behalf of families, water, animals, plants, forests, and the Earth, the six Clan Mothers and Chief Ron Tremblay of the Wolastoq Grand Council, which represents about half of the Native people in New Brunswick, presented a philosophy strongly at variance with the common one in government and business which sees nature primarily as a resource to serve human needs. For these Native elders, nature is not merely instrumental.
The press conference was arranged by the Wolastoq Grand Council and attended by corporate and state media, as well as enthusiastic Native supporters and allies from the Fredericton area.
The Wolastoq leaders were seated at a long table. Their colourful and varied clothing, full of vibrant reds, browns and greens, and their passionate and forceful language, were in contrast to the grey sky outside and the flat pastel walls of the conference room.
They began by issuing a Declaration of the Rights of Mother Earth, which was inspired, they said, by the words of Bolivian president Evo Morales.
Article One of the Declaration, which was read by the Clan Mothers, states that since all living beings on Earth are connected, interdependent parts of a whole, all must be regarded as having rights: not only one species, homo sapiens, has rights. The Declaration says that in cases where the rights of different beings or groups of beings conflict, resolution should be achieved by considering the good of the whole — that is, of Mother Earth.
Article 2 of the Declaration deals with the importance of preserving the regenerative capacity of the biosphere, of keeping water and air free of contamination, and of stopping the irresponsible spread of genetic-mutation technologies.
Article 3, which was read by Clan Mothers Tchilatchili (Voice of the Robin) and Roseanne Clark (of Tobique) deals with the obligations of humyns toward the Earth.
Said Clan Mother Alma Brooks, “There is one thing that I would like to see, and that is that whoever it is that has created the economy, that they make sure that they involve the value of all life in the mix, which I don’t believe has been there up to now…. We are spiritually connected to our land. We worship the land that we walk on. This place was a paradise when Europeans came here. We had full and plenty. The Earth took care of us. All we had to do was say thank you…. The bottom line is that we are spiritually, physically, emotionally connected to the land, and water and air that we breathe and that is the source of all life, not just our own but those of our relatives in the animal world, birds that fly in the sky, all things have a right to live. And that’s what we’re about.”
After speaking of the environment in general, the leaders spoke of the Energy East pipeline, which they see as both a local and global threat. If completed, the pipeline will carry the petrochemical diluted bitumen from the Alberta tar sands to the port of Saint John, New Brunswick.
The pipeline will cross hundreds of watercourses in New Brunswick and Wolastoq territory. The leaders say that the consequences of a spill into the natural freshwater system are so potentially serious that the pipeline must not be built. They also oppose it because of the climate-change consequences of fossil fuel use and say that we should be ending our use of petroleum not building new petroleum infrastructure such as pipelines.
Asked by veteran Fredericton journalist Charles LeBlanc if they would allow the pipeline through in exchange for “a billion dollars,” the leaders unanimously and loudly said “No.”
Asked by another reporter if they would permit a modified version of the pipeline after negotiations, the leaders again said “No.” “We are not allowing the pipeline to come through our homeland,” said Clan Mother Hart Perley. “We are not backing down.”
The leaders are asking for a meeting with Natural Resources Minister Jim Carr. They say that in talks with Canada or the province, their different world view must be acknowledged and given value: “our philosophy must be accepted.” They say that negotiations between the Wolastoq and Canada should be on a nation-to-nation basis.
The Grand Council is the traditional governing body of the Wolastoq (sometimes called Maliseet) people. It predates the band councils and “chiefs” which were set up by the Canadian government in the 1870s. The traditional territory of the Wolastoq includes thousands of square kilometers which were never ceded to Britain or Canada. Based on international law, including the Peace and Friendship Treaties, the Wolastoq claim, at minimum, a protective responsibility over those lands.
Prompted by a reporter’s question regarding government consultation over the pipeline, and whether the Wolastoq leaders felt they had been “recognised as a voice to date?” Clan Mother Alma Brooks made the following remarks:
“Apparently there have been some sort of talks going on between the finance chiefs and the companies, but legally it is the government that has the duty, the legal duty, to consult. And, so first of all, you know, the chiefs, through no fault of their own, because they are caught up in a system that was created for us, a system that is a Federal institution, they are placed really in a conflict of interest. Our Peace and Friendship Treaties were signed before Confederation and, really, the elected system that we live under today, all of us, through our elected chiefs and councils, are really just an extension of the government of Canada. And so it’s really like Canada negotiating with itself. And it circumvents the true nature of our treaties, it kind of circumvents. So I’m not saying that they shouldn’t have a role or something to say, I’m just saying that they need to talk to us as a nation of people. There’s not six nations of Maliseet, of Wolastoqiyik, there’s one; we live in six Federal institutions called bands, Indian bands. The jurisdiction of the elected chiefs and councils begins and ends with the boundary of their respective bands or their respective reserves. So therefore there are a lot of things that need to be ironed out before we can say that there’s adequate consultation happening. So, those are some of the concerns that we have, too, as the Grand Council.
“We have concerns that we as a people, we have collective rights, not just individual rights. We have collective rights, and we need to be able to sit down and discuss as a collective, we need to be able to make decisions as a collective, as a nation of people. And we need to set the table in the proper way if we’re going to have talks. So, yeah, there’s a lot to be done; I don’t think they [the band councils] have moved anywhere too far ahead of anything. They cannot participate in activities that will result in my children and my grandchildren not having rights. They cannot. The Supreme Court has stated that… The Supreme Court is supposed to be the highest law of the land. But, then follow the law. That’s all we’re asking for. We’re not asking for anything other than follow the rule of law, and Canada needs to begin that, to do that, and stop circumventing the rule of law.”
At the end of the question-and-answer period, Clan Mother Tchilatchili playfully turned the tables on the media personnel by asking them what they were doing for the environment. Another Clan Mother chimed in with a smile: “And we expect written answers.” There was general laughter and the meeting closed in good spirits.
Norm Knight writes for the NB Media Co-op.