New Brunswick

Film shows loss of Indigenous identity from perspective of a man and a river

A gathering circle of Indigenous people and allies in Fredericton has produced a new film about the river officially known as the St. John.

My Name is Wolastoq is a film with a message about the importance of names to fading identity

Imelda Perley is one of the executive producers of the film, and says she has a personal and emotional connection with the river, because her name was taken away and changed by descendants of colonizers as well. (Myfanwy Davies/CBC)

A gathering circle of Indigenous people and allies in Fredericton has produced a new film about the river officially known as the St. John.

My Name is Wolastoq features interviews with chiefs and elders and scenes of the river that runs almost 700 kilometres from northern Maine to the Bay of Fundy.

As one of the executive producers, Elder Imelda Perley had a chance to see it come together. She said it was a personal and emotional experience. 

"When I was a child on my grandfather's canoe, I used to just put my hands into our Wolastoq and drank from her," she said. "That's how clean she was. And beautiful and bountiful she was. 

"Seeing those images, it brings back all those beautiful memories of the salmon going underneath the canoe and just watching the different colours."

My Name is Wolastoq is scheduled to air July 2 at 9 a.m on CBC Television. (CBC / Absolutley Canadian)

The film follows the journey of a young Wolastoqew man, Riley Gaffney, as he explores and claims his Indigenous identity. At the same time, it follows the story of the river itself, narrated by from the river's point of view and supplemented with interviews with elders who are working to restore its original name, Wolastoq. 

The film draws a direct line between the cultural identity of Wolastoqi and the river's name. Perley said this is also her story, because she was given the name Imelda at Catholic school, and it was not the name her grandmother and mother chose.

The Indigenous community has been calling on the name  to be changed for more than five years. In June of last year, the name change application was officially submitted. In November, Tourism, Heritage, and Culture Minister Tammy Scott-Wallace said the name-change process is undergoing a procedural review, so people would have to wait.

According to the Geographical Names Board of Canada, geographical naming is the responsibility of the province or territory where the physical feature is located. In the case of federal lands, such as national parks, naming is the joint responsibility of provincial, territorial and federal naming authorities.

The St. John River is on the list of pan-Canadian names, a collection of 75 large and well-known Canadian features. These features are unique because they can be referred to by their English and French names. The Geographical Names Board of Canada is in charge of maintaining these names, and in the case of a change would co-ordinate with federal and provincial representatives.

Tourism, Heritage and Culture spokesperson Mark Taylor said Friday that changing the name of geographical features is a complex process that needs to involve multiple parties such as provincial, national and international in some cases. Taylor would not confirm whether the department is involved in a St. John river name-change process.

A message of identity

The film's goal is to show how taking away the original river name goes hand in hand with how colonization erased Indigenous culture, languages and ways of life — and how restoring the name would help restore that lost identity, said executive producer Marcel LeBrun.

"You know, someone came in my house and I introduced my children and they said, 'Oh, that's interesting, but I'm going to call them something else.' It says, 'I don't see you. I don't care about your history. I'm just going to give it my own name.'

"And so when my settler ancestors came and said, 'Oh, you know … this river may be well, but we're just going to call it something else. It's really a running over of someone's identity."

"It's really about seeing a historical wrong, seeing people's identity and saying, I see you and I value you and I want to restore this name," LeBrun said.

The film was shot across New Brunswick in last fall and winter. The soundtrack includes music by Wolastoqew composer Jeremy Dutcher.

My Name is Wolastoq is scheduled to air July 2 at 9 a.m on CBC Television. It will also be available through the CBC Gem streaming platform.


Hadeel Ibrahim is a reporter with CBC New Brunswick based in Saint John. She's been previously awarded for a series on refugee mental health and for her work at a student newspaper, where she served as Editor-in-Chief. She reports in English and Arabic. Email: Twitter: @HadeelBIbrahim

With files from Information Morning Fredericton and Jennifer Sweet