Last month, eight Mi’gmaq communities in New Brunswick released a statement and a map asserting their jurisdiction in the province.
The communities are represented by the non-profit organization Mi’gmawel Tplu’taqnn Incorporated (MTI). Mi’gmawe’l Tplu’taqnn means “Mi’gmaq People’s Laws” or “how we govern ourselves” in Mi’qmaw.
Indeed, this initiative by the MTI communities is part of a larger movement towards Indigenous self-governance following centuries of dispossession.
Under the Peace and Friendship Treaties signed by the Mi’gmaq with the Crown in the 1700s, the land and waters in the province were never ceded but were intended to remain under Mi’gmaw stewardship.
In a statement, Chief George Ginnish of Natoaganeg told New Brunswickers the effort to obtain title recognition wouldn’t target private land.
“We are not looking at taking your homes, cottages, or properties,” he said. “Our assertion of title is against the Crown and a small number of companies using industrial freehold lands in which the Crown still asserts an interest.”
According to MTI, the federal government has indicated a willingness to negotiate the recognition of their title: “We will only go to court if the Province is unwilling to sit down and engage in meaningful, good faith negotiations,” MTI said in the statement.
In 2021, Premier Higgs was accused of spreading fear for comments about a similar title claim by Wolastoqey Nation against six of the province’s biggest companies as well as the provincial and federal government. Higgs suggested the claim left regular New Brunswickers with uncertainty, saying it “impacts every single land owner.”
The Higgs government has been marked by a lack of consultation with First Nations or respect for Indigenous rights. Other examples include a ban on land acknowledgements referencing “unceded” or “unsurrendered” land by civil servants and the cancellation of longstanding gas tax-sharing agreements.
According to the UN Declaration of the Rights of Indigenous People (UNDRIP), states are obliged to enforce treaties and recognize Indigenous rights, including those pertaining to lands, territories and resources through free, prior and informed consent.
UNDRIP was adopted at the UN General Assembly back in 2007 by a landslide of 144 countries in favour. Four countries — Canada, the U.S., New Zealand and Australia — voted against.
Canada eventually passed legislation implementing UNDRIP in 2021. While the government’s recognition of Indigenous rights has been slow and hesitant, public support seems to be increasing among non-Indigenous citizens concerned with ecological destruction and racist violence.
Given the situation in New Brunswick, it’s worth looking at some recent developments in Canada and the United States.
Building Indigenous power
A 2021 report by the Indigenous Environment Network estimated that Indigenous resistance to fossil fuel projects has lowered Canada-U.S. greenhouse gas pollution by nearly a quarter, equivalent to 400 new coal-fired power plants.
On July 3, 2020, protesters led by groups including the NDN Collective — an Indigenous-led organization dedicated to “building Indigenous power” — blocked the highway leading to Mount Rushmore, a monument to U.S. presidents emblematic of America’s racist history.
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Inspired by the Black Lives Matter movement, they protested against white supremacy and demanded the return of their sacred, unceded territory of Black Hills, or He Sapa in Lakota.
NDN Collective is a global movement demanding the return of all public lands to Indigenous people. It fights against resource extraction, raises funds to build housing and support Indigenous capacity building, and launched the Land Back campaign on Indigenous People’s Day 2020.
Although the struggle over land has been going on for generations, the term Land Back was first coined by a Blackfoot meme artist from Manitoba named Arnell Tailfeathers back in 2018.
An article by two NDN Collective leaders, Krystal Two Bull and Nick Tilsen, explains that the Land Back movement is meant to dismantle “the systems that made stealing our land possible in the first place. We mean reclaiming the culture, language, traditions, health, ceremony, language, and knowledge of the land.”
In “Red Paper: Land Back,” (PDF) an important report published in 2019 by the Indigenous-led Yellowhead Institute in Toronto, land theft was said to be driven by “an unsustainable, undemocratic, and fatal rush toward mass extinction through extraction, development, and capitalist imperatives. It is further enabled by a racist erasure of Indigenous law and jurisdiction.”
The report cited Sákéj Henderson, an Indigenous Law expert from Chickasaw Nation, saying: “this fatal rush functions as a kind of malware released into our ecological system.” According to Henderson, “Indigenous legal orders embody critical knowledge that can relink society to a healthy balance within the natural world. This change must begin on the ground [with] Canada ceding real jurisdiction to Indigenous peoples.”
The Mi’gmaq in the Bay of Fundy area, for example, are governed by Netukulimk, a way of life encompassing respectful and reciprocal relationship to nature that entails responsible and sustainable use of natural bounty.
MTI independently carries out a consultation process called the Mi’gmaq Rights Impact Assessment Framework, protects lands through their Land Trust and works towards the creation of Indigenous Protected and Conserved Areas.
An article by Riley Yesno, an Anishinnabe scholar in Toronto, highlighted community land trusts as one way to redistribute resources and return the land to Indigenous people, without having to go through long, costly, and uncertain state-sanctioned processes.
The Sogorea Te’ Land Trust in the Lisjan/Ohlone territory in California is a large and well-known Land Back initiative led by Indigenous women. It is meant to rematriate and restore land, revitalize culture, and envision a community of Native and non-native peoples that “heal and transform the legacies of colonization, genocide, and patriarchy to do the work our ancestors and future generations are calling us to do.”
Sogorea Te’ receives “Shuumi” (i.e., gift), a voluntary tax from thousands of non-Indigenous people and institutions such as churches, schools or businesses living and operating in the traditional Ohlone territory.
In Seattle, “Real Rent Duwamish” is another land trust initiative started in 2017 by the Coalition of Anti-Racist Whites. It uses the concept of monthly rent to raise awareness of living on stolen lands, in solidarity with the Duwamish people in their struggle to be acknowledged as a tribe by the U.S. government.
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The First Light Community in Maine is an initiative by white-led land trust and conservation organizations to engage in a dialogue and collaboration with the Wabanaki people (Penobscot, Passamquoddy, Maliseet and Mi’gmaq communities), which aims to “repair relationships, grant legal access, and share and repatriate land,” and to return to Wabanaki stewardship.
In Saskatchewan, a number of settler farmers, ranchers and landholders initiated the Treaty Land Sharing Network to open access and share land, to be used by local Indigenous people. The National Farmers Union of Canada supported the creation of similar initiatives in other provinces.
As Yesno concludes in her article: “Indigenous people are often intimately aware of the violence of displacement — we are not looking to replicate the same experiences that colonialists created. Instead, Indigenous belief in Land Back comes from a place of generosity and hope — a hope that we Indigenous people will lead us to a better future and the generosity to share that future with all the other people who have come to call our lands their home.”
Title claims by the Mi’gmaq and Wolastoqey nations in New Brunswick are part of a bigger, resurgent struggle for Indigenous sovereignty that has kept resource extraction interests in check. The Province’s neglect in addressing these demands exposes traces of its colonial nature.
Data Brainanta is a recent newcomer to Turtle Island from Indonesia who writes for NB Media-Coop. He is also the Black, Indigenous, and People of Colour (BIPOC) president of the National Farmers Union–New Brunswick.