Dan Ennis, an elder from Neqotkuk/Tobique, who lived with “decolonization always on his mind” died of a stroke on June 3 at the age of 83.
Ennis leaves behind his wife Caroline Ennis, two sons, John and Jim, and people across Wolastokuk (Wolastoq homeland) and beyond to mourn the self-described traditionalist at a time when his counsel on addressing the horrors of systemic racism and Canada’s residential schools will be sorely missed.
Neqotkuk (Tobique) is nestled on the shores of Neqot (Tobique River) that flows into the Wolastoq, a river that gives the Wolastoqiyik their name and means the beautiful and bountiful river in Wolastoqi language. The Wolastoq was renamed the Saint John River by French colonist Samuel de Champlain in 1604. The Wolastoq Grand Council is leading a movement to give the river back its original name.
Ennis often said, “Wolastoq is me and I am Wolastoq,” remembered Wolastoq Grand Council Chief Ron Tremblay.
Ennis was raised in Caribou, Maine, but returned to Tobique, the reserve that his parents left in 1941, shortly after an Indian Agent jailed Ennis’s father, Louis Ennis, for five days for cutting wood on the reserve to heat his family’s home.
Ennis was four years old when his mother Louise Ennis had enough with the Indian Agents and made her family move across the Aroostook River to the U.S. side, where they had family who could support them with finding housing and work. Ennis and his two brothers would grow up in a town that did not welcome Indians or French Canadians. They were bullied and beat up while at school.
Ennis recounted how his teachers thought he was a slow learner because he was so quiet, but being quiet was a survival tactic of native children. The quiet kid schooled in Caribou but more importantly in his family and ancestors’ teachings would go on to become one of the most important voices for Indigenous rights.
In the nineties, Ennis organized to bring back the Wolastoq Grand Council, which had been the governing body for the Wolastoqiyik before European contact.
Chief Tremblay recalled Ennis travelling up and down the Wolastoq, including Québec to organize the resurgence of Wolastoqey traditional governance structure.
Facing resistance from the Indian Act Chief and Council system, Ennis persevered, serving as the first Chief of the Wolastoq Traditional Council. Irving Polchies would become the next chief, followed by Harry LaPorte then Ron Tremblay who is the current chief of the Wolastoq Grand Council.
Wolastoq Grand Council is guided by the Wolastoqew Grandmothers. Over the years, the Wolastoq Grand Council has been a strong voice for the resurgence of Wolastoqi language and culture. The Grand Council has acted to protect their homeland from numerous threats as well as has organized numerous actions and statements of solidarity with Indigenous peoples beyond their homeland.
During the peak of movement against shale gas in New Brunswick in 2013, the Wolastoq Grand Council constructed a longhouse along the banks of the Wolastoq in Fredericton and invited settlers there to attend ceremonies, learn about the treaties and traditional governance of Wolastoqiyik. For many, this was the first time treaty people learned of their shared history.
The Wolastoq Grand Council has raised concerns about the proposed Sisson mine and tailings dam, the Energy East pipeline, the Mactaquac Dam, nuclear energy and a snowmobile hub in Mount Carleton Park. Chief Tremblay was among the almost 100 people arrested at standoffs against fracking for shale gas on Mi’kmaq territory in 2013.
One month before Fredericton/Oromocto MP Jenica Atwin left the Green Party for the Liberal Party, she credited the Wolastoq Grand Council and Wolastoqewi Grandmothers for her decision to oppose Trudeau’s Bill C-15 on implementing the United Nations Declaration on Indigenous Rights, citing a lack of consultation with the Indigenous peoples in her riding. She reminded her colleagues in Parliament that Indigenous rights are inherent rights.
Tremblay said Ennis was always fighting for Indigenous human rights, writing about colonial institutions, the church and state.
“He pulled no punches,” said Chief Tremblay who recalled fondly how he was “a man of ceremony,” but was allergic to sage. “That did not stop him from smudging during ceremonies although always using sweetgrass,” said Tremblay who was “Dan’s main supplier of sweetgrass.” Tremblay said he knew when his wife Joan was talking to Ennis on the phone because she would be laughing.
Ennis made us think and he made us laugh.
Our last phone conversation dealt with the public event over Zoom that we were organizing with his wife Caroline at his house. After a few jokes, Ennis asked about how he could get two books that I was happy to supply him with, Joan Kuyek’s Unearthing Justice: How to Protect Your Community from the Mining Industry, and Andrew Crosby and Jeffrey Monaghan’s Policing Indigenous Movements: Dissent and the Security State.
During the event, while Caroline was discussing government policy that denied Indigenous women status and access to services such as housing and education if they married white men, Dan, sitting next to her, could not help himself from muttering under his breath, “It was sexism.”
Ennis was sharp with his words, but according to Tremblay, when the moment required it, he knew how to soften to make people think about their toxic and racist behaviours. According to Tremblay, talking circles was Ennis’s favourite tool.
Tremblay recalled a story of when he was working at a high school in Victoria County. A boy had threatened a girl, causing a brawl to break out between the Indigenous and settler students. Tremblay contacted Ennis who knew how to deal with “the more difficult talking circles.”
Ennis organized a talking circle with the boy and girl, the parents of the girl and boy, and school staff. Tremblay said that the father of the boy was sceptical and made offensive remarks at the very beginning of the talking circle, but Tremblay recalled: “Danny made sure that we went around four times to represent the four directions. The amazing thing is that by the end of the talking circle, the father came up and thanked us.” Tremblay said the father promised to make sure that his son apologized to the girl. Ennis encouraged the man to use the talking circle at his dinner table to discuss his family’s problems.
Committed to the idea that people could change their ways, Ennis spoke of how colonial institutions worked to deceive people. He himself had joined the U.S. army as a young man and would later tell the Bangor Daily News that he was told, “When you sign on the dotted line, your ass is grass and Uncle Sam is the lawn mower.”
In a piece for Whisper n Thunder entitled, “Words of a Child of Genocide,” Ennis wrote about the history of the Oskigineeweekoog: “At white contact in 1604, our people, Wulustukyieg a.k.a Maliseet, had been living in our homeland for some 20,000 years. With our homeland as pristine, clean, pollution and toxin-free as when the Great Mystery placed our people upon our beloved homeland with instructions to love, respect, honor, and protect our Great Earth Mother.”
In 1604, with the arrival of Champlain, we welcomed him and his men with open arms of love, respect, acceptance, and sharing. And our white brothers rewarded our people with war, genocide, germ warfare (small pox virus), lies, cheating, fraud, and the theft of our homeland. They also brought with them their written treaties. Our own treaties were the Wampum Belt or Wampum String. After annihilating 95% of our people through smallpox-infected blankets, they then forced our people to agree to and sign their treaties. Being unable to read nor write, we were forced to rely on the white man’s trust, honesty, and integrity as to what was written into their treaties. In short, the white man wrote into their treaties what they wanted to hear.
In the early 2000s, I discovered The Wulustuk Times at my office, the Conservation Council of New Brunswick. That was my very first introduction to Dan Ennis and his long-time collaborator, Pat Paul. I would later meet with Ennis on the side of a highway where he supported mostly Wolastiqiyk women maintaining a road blockade against the way NB Power and federal and provincial governments were treating their community. On Paul’s porch, Ennis and Paul told me stories, contributing to the Conservation Council’s report on traditional forest ecological knowledge. In the Wulustuk Times, Ennis provided reflections in his column, “Dan’s Corner,” educating settlers and Indigenous peoples about the history, culture and news of Indigenous peoples of the Wolastoq and beyond.
Ennis spoke out against systemic racism, colonialism and white supremacy. He worked for a period of time with the New Brunswick Human Rights Commission, never forgetting that the laws in place were what he called, “white man’s laws.”
Ennis successfully brought forward human rights complaints when Indigenous peoples were being denied their rights, including for people living with disabilities who were denied housing on the reserve. When he made complaints, he made sure that the complaints spoke of the systemic racist nature at the heart of the complaint.
Anthony Peter-Paul from the Mi’kmaq community of Pabineau First Nation was one of the many people who Ennis assisted.
When Peter-Paul was denied his right to practice Native spirituality while he was in prison, Ennis assisted him file a human rights complaint against the Province of New Brunswick, the Department of Public Safety, and Southeast Regional Correctional Centre. The challenge was successful.
Peter-Paul, who wrote for the NB Media Co-op while he was a St. Thomas University student, said: “Since my complaint was successful, there have been province-wide changes with regards to provincial institutions allowing Aboriginals to practice their traditional cultural healing practices. If it wasn’t for Dan Ennis, my human rights complaint would have never been successful. It was due to his strong commitments to his people and the traditional way of life.”
David Coon, the leader of the Green Party of New Brunswick, knew Ennis from his time with the Conservation Council of New Brunswick: “Dan Ennis had a piercing sense of humour that he used to great effect, whether to make a point or expose hypocrisy. Our relationship goes back decades, and I will miss him terribly.”
To honour Ennis, Coon said, “One of his many long-term quests was to see the burial sites on E’kpahak Island identified and protected for all time by the provincial government. That would be a fitting tribute to his tenacity.”
Tremblay said at the time of Ennis’s death that he was working on numerous files of people who had complaints about their rights. He heard Ennis shuffling the papers of people’s complaints the last time they spoke on the phone.
Ennis, also a poet, wrote, “For this I am grateful,” that speaks to his life of service to his community. One verse goes:
Ho Great Spirit!
I give thanks for this day.
This precious gift of another day.
Another opportunity for growth.
Another opportunity to grow and develop from my experiences.
Another opportunity to be of service.
Another opportunity to love and know
and respect and accept myself just as I am.
Another opportunity to be happy,
to pursue happiness,
seek happiness and to share happiness.
Another opportunity to enter into the womb of our Sacred Earth Mother.
To enter the womb of love,
To enter the womb of peace.
To enter the Great Mystery,
To enter the Great Silence.
As we struggle with the ongoing discovery of where the Indigenous children stolen from their families are buried across the country’s residential schools, and with the province of New Brunswick continuing to refuse an inquiry on systemic racism against Indigenous peoples one year after the police killings of Chantel Moore and Rodney Levi, we should fight like Ennis – never afraid to seek the truth and speak the truth.
“All we agreed to was to live in peace and friendship,” Ennis reminded us.
Tracy Glynn is a writer with the NB Media Co-op.
With files from Wolastoq Grand Council Chief Ron Tremblay and Kathryn Olmstead.