New Brunswick

Wolastoqyik people hold river 'reclaiming' ceremony

The movement to rename the St. John River to Wolastoq is gaining momentum.

A ceremony was held Saturday in Fredericton to return the St. John River to its Maliseet name 'Wolastoq'

Elders arrive in canoes after crossing the St. John River. Indigenous groups want the river renamed Wolastoq, meaning 'beautiful and bountiful river' in Maliseet. (Hadeel Ibrahim/CBC)

The movement to change the name of the St. John River back to Wolastoq is gaining momentum.

At a three-hour "reclaiming ceremony" on Saturday at Fredericton's Morell Park, elders and representatives from First Nations across the province and one from Quebec read out letters of support.

"It's important for us to reclaim the names that define our relationships with our places," said Sherri Mitchell, representing the Penobscots of Maine. "And so we don't look at our rivers and our lands as resources.

"It's one living being that we're connected to and these are the sources of our survival."

Wolastoq is Maliseet for "beautiful and bountiful river."

Cody Brooks and his son, Caden, arrive at Morell Park in Fredericton to participate in the reclaiming ceremony. (Hadeel Ibrahim/CBC)

Wolastoq Grand Chief Ron Tremblay said the campaign has received around 12 letters of support, many from First Nations but also from organizations such as the Conservation Council of New Brunswick.

The province did not respond to a request for comment Friday but previously said there is too much red tape to make the change because the river spans two countries.

In April, Tourism, Heritage and Culture Minister John Ames also said the renaming is not "front burner" priority.

First Nations people and supporters face the river at Morell Park as they sing a traditional song to honour the water. (Hadeel Ibrahim/CBC)

The name and conservation

To many people who spoke, the name of the river has a direct effect on how well people treat it.

Traditional grandmother Alma Brooks said remembering how people treated the river before it was renamed "without permission" may make people respect the land more.

The ceremony also included a smudging with a mixture of herbs and tobacco. (Hadeel Ibrahim/CBC)

"The river has memory, the water in the river has a memory and she remembers her original name, the name that she carried for thousands and thousands and thousands of years," Brooks said.

Youth

Tremblay said renaming the river can also help young Indigenous people stay connected to their roots.

"We're trying to wake up our young people and many of them are wanting to know what our traditional names were, ceremonies, how to connect to their language because our language is in dire straits right now," he said. "So part of this forward movement is reclaiming the names of our rivers, our tributaries."

Particpants were invited to bring water from where they live and speak about its importance to them at the reclaiming ceremony. (Hadeel Ibrahim/CBC)

Tremblay said it's up to "allies," or non-Indigenous groups and people, to put forward the application to begin the name change process.

"It was the ancestors from their people who changed the name, not the Wolastoq people," he said.

About the Author

Hadeel Ibrahim is a CBC reporter based out of Fredericton and Moncton. She can be reached at hadeel.ibrahim@cbc.ca