On October 14, a memo was sent to all Government of New Brunswick employees by Ted Flemming, New Brunswick’s Attorney General and Minister of Justice and Public Safety, ordering employees not to “make or issue territorial or title land acknowledgements.”
Wolastoqewi Kci-Sakom spasaqsit possesom (Ron Tremblay, the Wolastoq Grand Chief morningstar burning) issued a strong response, identifying the memo as a continuation of genocide, reiterating that “we Wolastoqewiyik have never surrendered one speck of Earth, one drop of Water or one breath of Air.”
Flemming’s memo states that his order is in relation to “a number of legal actions which have been initiated by certain First Nations against the province, including a claim to ownership and title to over 60% of the province.” It also states that “while territorial and title acknowledgements may not be issued by GNB, there may be some few situations where it is desirable to issue an ancestral land acknowledgement.” In these rare cases, employees are ordered not to deviate from an approved acknowledgement attached to the memo, which emphasizes the absence of “terms such as ‘unceded’ or ‘unsurrendered’.”
Land acknowledgements have already been criticized as hypocritical when they are not accompanied by meaningful steps to recognize Indigenous sovereignty. With this memo, the Government of New Brunswick removes even the symbolic significance of these statements. It, instead, uses the acknowledgement to reinforce the state’s seizure of Indigenous land.
The GNB’s approved acknowledgement states that “We respectfully acknowledge the territory in which we gather as the ancestral homelands of the Wolastoqey, Mi’gmaw, and Peskotomuhkati peoples.” This is carefully worded to ensure that the speaker does not signify that territories referred to are still Indigenous lands. Restricting recognition to the existence of “ancestral homelands” presents Indigenous sovereignty as something that no longer exists.
The legal action referred to is likely a lawsuit filed by the Wolastoqey Nation in New Brunswick seeking recognition of title rights. The six chiefs of the Wolastoqey Nation in New Brunswick issued a response to Flemming’s memo, which notes that “We were forced to file a title claim because our rights continue to be ignored by GNB. Now, in response to this, the province seeks to further trample our rights and erase us from the history of this province.”
The lands claimed by the Government of New Brunswick were not ceded. Section 25(a) of the Canadian Charter of Rights and Freedoms guarantees rights recognized by the Royal Proclamation of October 7, 1763, which guarantees that all land is considered Aboriginal land until ceded by a treaty. This is engrained in Canada’s constitution and serves as one of the fundamental pillars of its claim to legitimacy.
Flemming’s memo accelerates dispossession by attempting to prevent even rhetorical recognition of the legitimacy of Indigenous sovereignty on these lands. The fact that this was sparked by a legal case brought forth by the Wolastoqey Nation is evidence of the fact even playing by the government’s rules and participating in its legal system is not enough to afford recognition and respect.
In their response, the six chiefs state that “The Wolastoqey Nation is not seeking the return of all of the land in its traditional territory through the title claim. We made it very clear when giving the crown notice of our claim in October 2020 that we were not looking to displace homeowners in New Brunswick.” The lawsuit filed does not challenge people simply living on unceded land or request a full return of all territory. It requests that the government adheres to its own commitments.
Indigenous peoples are entitled to far more. This land is Indigenous. Regardless of treaty obligations, settlers must recognize the actual circumstances which led to the domination of Indigenous lands by European settlers. The government’s land acknowledgements may represent little more than symbolic gestures intended to placate people and quell resistance; however, Flemming’s memo represents the government’s active efforts to further dispossess Indigenous peoples and erase their histories. It is an attempt to double down on the colonial myth of legitimate authority.
The Canadian state, including the Government of New Brunswick, so strongly resists recognition of historical facts because the legitimacy of its existence depends entirely upon the distortion of these facts. Once the history of settler colonialism is actually recognized, the legal justifications for the continued possession of these lands can no longer be seen as legitimate.
Luke Beirne is a freelance writer who lives in Saint John, on unsurrendered and unceded Wolastoqey land.