New Brunswick

Wolastoqi leaders renew call for St. John River name change

As the University of New Brunswick hosts a conference on Indigenous language rivival, Wolastoqi leaders say officially changing the name of the St. John River to Wolastoq would greatly help their cause.

St. Mary's chief and some elders say St. John should revert to Wolastoq to help preserve Indigenous language

A calm day in a warmer season on the St. John River in Woodstock. Indigenous groups want the river renamed Wolastoq, meaning 'beautiful and bountiful river.' (Submitted by Nancy Hall)

As the University of New Brunswick hosts a conference on Indigenous language revival, Wolastoqi leaders say officially changing the name of the St. John River to Wolastoq would greatly help their cause.

"It would be a very big move in reconciliation," said St. Mary's chief Alan Polchies.

The Wolastoqiyik say the river was renamed St. John by Samuel de Champlain without their consultation. They still refer to it by its traditional name. 

Polchies is hosting the Assembly of First Nations Chiefs annual meeting in June and hinted that would be an ideal occasion for the province to make the change.

Important to identity

Wolastoqiyik consider the river a grandmother, and Polchies said he will invite all of the chiefs to the water to introduce themselves to her.

"Our identity is connected to the language," said Polchies.

"That beautiful Wolastoq River that flows here in this beautiful city of Fredericton, you know, that's our connection."

Elder Imelda Perley agreed it would be "a really big gesture, and a really big treaty promise that's gifted back."

Perley said she was presenting arguments in favour of the name change Wednesday night to a Senate committee studying Bill C-91, the proposed Act Respecting Indigenous Languages.

Sees a changing mindset

She said the St. John River label makes it harder to preserve Indigenous identity.

"Our place names have been colonized in a way where it's legislated now," Perley said.

St. Mary's Chief Alan Polchies says the name of the river that flows through Wolastoqey territory is tied to his people's language and identity. (Jennifer Sweet/CBC)
David Perley, the retiring director of the Mi'kmaq-Wolastoqey Centre at the University of New Brunswick, said he believes Indigenous languages are "emerging from the shadows of the colonial structure."

He said he welcomes and appreciates the change in mindsets.

"To me it's a major step."

He agreed he'd like to see more Wolastoqey language displayed throughout Fredericton.

He feels language revival has to be a community effort that includes non-indigenous allies "who are compassionate people, who are good-hearted people and who are committed to social justice."

Working on accord with city

"We're so gifted to have many nations within the territory here," said chief Polchies of St. Mary's.

He's been working with the City of Fredericton to negotiate a friendship accord.

He'd also like to see a flag or some other nod to the Wolastoqiyik and their unceded territory at City Hall.

"When we collaborate we move great things."

The city said the mayor is away until Monday and would be able to answer questions when he returns.

Meanwhile Jaime Watson, a city spokesperson, said the city has a close working relationship with St. Mary's First Nation and items like this would be part of ongoing discussions.

Province mum on name-change plans

The provincial Department of Tourism, Heritage and Culture would not say whether the government is interested in changing the name of the river or doing anything toward that end.

But it acknowledged the importance of the river to the Wolastoqiyik.

It said extensive consultation would be required before an official change was made.

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