New Brunswick

Bureaucrats see 'logical' case for restoring Wolastoq as St. John River's name

A Sept. 6 briefing note for Premier Brian Gallant said the Wolastoq Grand Council “made a compelling appeal” for the province to restore the river’s Indigenous name, the Wolastoq.

Wolastoq Grand Council 'made a compelling appeal' to restore the river’s Indigenous name

Wolastoq Grand Council is working on a formal application to give the St. John River its Maliseet name again. (Submitted by Nancy Hall)

The Gallant government says it's not pushing ahead with a proposed name change to the St. John River, despite internal documents showing officials warmed up to the idea after initially rejecting it.

A Sept. 6 briefing note for Premier Brian Gallant said the Wolastoq Grand Council "made a compelling appeal" for the province to restore the river's Indigenous name, the Wolastoq.

And Roger Melanson, the minister responsible for the aboriginal affairs secretariat, wrote in a Nov. 16 letter that officials were "currently contemplating a mechanism" to address Indigenous name-change requests and would "continue this dialogue in the immediate future."

Those encouraging words came despite a statement by the province last June that the name change was "not something the provincial government is considering at this time."

Minister of Tourism, Heritage and Culture John Ames said the province's stance hasn't changed. (CBC)

Tourism, Heritage and Culture Minister John Ames said in an interview Wednesday that is still the province's position.

"We're still going to continue to have discussions with all individuals involved, but our position hasn't changed since last year, in that it's not in the process of being changed as of right now," he said.

"It's not something that's on the front burner right now. Anything's possible of course, but that's not something we're embarking on currently."

Grand Council moving ahead

Wolastoq Grand Chief Ron Tremblay said Wednesday he's been working on the lengthy and technical formal application for the name change since a meeting with provincial officials last June.

But he said no one has contacted him about a promised second meeting. "We're kind of stalling on that," he said.

Wolastoq Grand Council Grand Chief Ron Tremblay says he will still meet again with provincial officials about changing the name of the St. John River back to Wolastoq. (Jacques Poitras/CBC)

The river was known by its Maliseet name, the Wolastoq or "beautiful river," for thousands of years. In 1604, Samuel de Champlain renamed it the St. John after he sailed into it on June 24, the Feast Day of St. John the Baptist.

The Wolastoq Grand Council, a traditional body not formally recognized under the Indian Act, raised the idea last year, saying it would be consistent with the goals of the federal Truth and Reconciliation Commission. They circulated a petition at 2017 Treaty Day festivities.

'Logical and clearly articulated'

Emails and letters obtained by CBC News through the Right to Information and Protection of Privacy Act show that, after the initial rejection on June 12, provincial officials consulted Indigenous representatives and found their arguments persuasive.

The briefing note to Gallant last September said Tremblay and others made the case for the name change supported by "evidence of other name changes, linguistic evidence, and a logical and clearly articulated rationale."

A briefing note to Premier Brian Gallant on a request to restore the Indigenous name for the St. John River. (CBC News)

It also notes former lieutenant-governor Graydon Nicholas, originally from Tobique First Nation, supported the idea.

The documents show a top adviser in Gallant's office, Michael Pearson, got involved in the issue on June 13, the same day CBC News reported on the rejection.

He asked the deputy minister of tourism, heritage and culture, Francoise Roy, to "have a chat" with him before a planned meeting on the issue. The documents don't indicate what Pearson wanted to talk about.

Melanson's letter five months later, on Nov. 16, was a response to five elected Maliseet chiefs who wrote to him to endorse the name change.

Melanson said the government looked forward to "meaningful and respectful engagement around the potential for renaming of geographical features within the province."

'Complex' process

Last June, the province rejected the idea of trying to change the name, calling the process "complex" because the Canadian, New Brunswick, Maine and U.S. governments would need to agree. The St. John River flows from Maine into New Brunswick.

But the briefing note prepared for Gallant in September said changing the name of cross-border geographic features is "a lengthier process" but not impossible.

The renaming may be complicated by the fact a long stretch of the St. John River is in Maine. (Wikipedia)

It pointed out waters between British Columbia and the State of Washington were designated the "Salish Sea" in 2010 after an agreement among provincial, state and federal governments.

And an email from Gilles Bourque, the director of heritage programs — who wrote June 12 that all four governments would have to sign off — wrote four days later that the decision "is up to New Brunswick for the Canadian portion of the river."


Jacques Poitras

Provincial Affairs reporter

Jacques Poitras has been CBC's provincial affairs reporter in New Brunswick since 2000. He grew up in Moncton and covered Parliament in Ottawa for the New Brunswick Telegraph-Journal. He has reported on every New Brunswick election since 1995 and won awards from the Radio Television Digital News Association, the National Newspaper Awards and Amnesty International. He is also the author of five non-fiction books about New Brunswick politics and history.

With files from Karissa Donkin