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New Brunswick Aboriginal Affairs Minister Arlene Dunn and Premier Blaine Higgs stand beside each other at a press conference
New Brunswick Aboriginal Affairs Minister Arlene Dunn and Premier Blaine Higgs speak with the media as part of National Indigenous Peoples Day in Fredericton on June 21, 2021. THE CANADIAN PRESS/Stephen MacGillivray

New Brunswick ban on land acknowledgements is a death blow to nation-to-nation relationships

New Brunswick is embroiled in yet another fight with local First Nations whose territories New Brunswick was constituted on — and it’s not surprising.

The province’s legislated practice of stealing Indigenous land predates Confederation. Its colonial identity is largely built on the same principles of exclusion, exploitation, domination and dispossession practised by the New Brunswick government today.

In some respect, this makes land acknowledgements even more important, because they speak to the core of the provincial-Indigenous relationship: land.

In the Maritime provinces and the Gaspé, land is governed (in the most generous definition of that word) by the series of 18th-century Peace and Friendship Treaties signed between the British Crown and the Wabanaki Confederacy nations. These treaties did not cede territory or title to the Crown.

This is a fact that has been stated by the Government of Canada and the New Brunswick Court of Appeal — a necessary and important truth that precedes any reconciliation. A government that refuses to acknowledge this should not have the legitimacy to govern.

Land acknowledgements and what’s happening in N.B.

In their most expansive interpretation, land acknowledgements are small reminders for settlers that treaties are living documents and we have, as treaty people and partners, responsibilities to breathe life into those documents and renew those commitments.

Land acknowledgements could be action-oriented calls to service, but the reality is that they are often little more than symbolic gestures.

Vancouver Police officers talk behind a statue of George Vancouver covered in a sign recognizing Indigenous land rights
A statue of George Vancouver in Vancouver is covered by a sign that reads ‘Yes we are on stolen unceded Indigenous land.’ (Shutterstock)

Surprisingly (and seemingly out of nowhere), on Oct. 14, New Brunswick’s Attorney General Ted Flemming forbade the use of land acknowledgements that recognized the unceded and unsurrendered territories of the Wolastoqiyik and Mi’gmaq by government employees across the entire public service.

The government argues it has “no choice” but to defend itself after the Wolastoqey Nation filed its legal claim asserting Indigenous title over 60 per cent of the provincial territorial landmass. Logically, this defence included the ban of symbolic gestures.

Leading by “example,” Flemming stated that he has not made such a land acknowledgement since October 2020. Aboriginal Affairs Minister Arlene Dunn has been silent on the matter, avoiding media requests and deferring to Flemming on the question.

Crown-Indigenous relations in N.B.

It has been a challenging 18 months or so for the provincial-Indigenous relationship in New Brunswick. Since assuming office in September 2020, Dunn has managed to deem herself unwelcome in Indigenous communities across the province. She has called for understanding, stating that “they will see that my actions are going to speak louder than words.”

Her actions include publicly undermining calls for the government to conduct a public inquiry into systemic racism against Indigenous Peoples, which prompted chiefs to demand her resignation. She then proposed the All Nations/All Parties Working Group on Truth and Reconciliation, which collapsed after Indigenous leadership withdrew their support of her and her proposed work.

Three people stand next to one another, the man in the centre wears a headdress, orange and a green vest. The man on the left, a blue suit and woman on the right a black blazer.
New Brunswick Premier Blaine Higgs, left, and Aboriginal Affairs Minister Arlene Dunn, right, speak with Chief Alan Polchies Jr., of St. Mary’s First Nation after raising flags in front of the legislature as part of 2021 National Indigenous Peoples Day in Fredericton. THE CANADIAN PRESS/Stephen MacGillivray

More recently, Dunn appeared before the Senate of Canada to articulate her government’s rejection of the UN Declaration on the Rights of Indigenous Peoples’ principles on free, prior and informed consent.

Unsurprisingly, the provincial-Indigenous relationship in New Brunswick is barely alive. In June, that was further solidified when Madawaska chief Patricia Bernard removed the Canadian and New Brunswick flags from her community saying:

“Currently we don’t really have any kind of relationship with the federal government except their constitutional responsibility to us, and no relationship with the provincial government.”

The nation-to-nation relationship must be dead in N.B.

The land acknowledgements ban is a death blow to the concept of nation-to-nation in New Brunswick.

It represents an insidious reality: that the attorney general, premier and aboriginal affairs minister have convinced a seemingly unwilling cabinet to reject the basic foundational principle of the Peace and Friendship Treaties — that these lands are unceded and unsurrendered.

By rejecting this principle, New Brunswick also rejects the sovereignty of the Wolastoqiyik and Mi’gmaq, thus maintaining a decade-old acceptance of the doctrine of discovery as government policy.

The Royal Commission on Aboriginal Peoples affirmed that acknowledging Indigenous sovereignty is a precondition for reconciliation — I have written about this too.

If senior ministers of the Crown in New Brunswick responsible for Indigenous relations cannot accept or acknowledge Indigenous sovereignty, then surely nation-to-nation must be dead.

Unceded and unsurrendered

The fact that land acknowledgements unsettle the New Brunswick government to the point that the justice ministry is cracking down on their use doesn’t speak highly of the province’s legal case against the Wolastoqey Nation. Clearly, New Brunswick is reluctant to relinquish its claim to absolute and exclusive sovereignty over this territory.

Yet theirs is exactly that: a claim. That the strength of the claim rests on civil servants avoiding the use of the words “unceded” and “unsurrendered” indicates that even the province recognizes its ludicrousness.

Litigation is a very tangible consequence of the 200 years of land theft sanctioned by the New Brunswick legislature. We don’t need a land acknowledgement to confirm this when we have laws that spell it out.

People hold signs reading 'I am on Indigenous land' 'U R on Indigenous land' and 'We R on Indigenous land'
People hold signs recognizing Indigenous sovereignty over the land. (Shutterstock)

Land acknowledge, don’t land acknowledge

This farce reveals a sad state of affairs in New Brunswick: this government doesn’t know what it is reconciling and instead of having the humility to learn, it has opted to kill nation-to-nation.

The series of half measured, watered-down legislative motions and childishness of the past 18 months stresses that we are being led by unserious, unqualified people when it comes to realizing reconciliation.

The Department of Aboriginal Affairs, which not only toes the party line on terra nullius but sets it, is led by a minister who claims to her colleagues that she is working on a plan to better the relationship with First Nations. This is a plan she conceived without the knowledge of First Nations to improve a relationship that she has, at every opportunity, demonstrated she doesn’t understand.

Land acknowledge, don’t land acknowledge. But a new approach to the relationship, rooted in justice, equity and good faith, grounded by the shared acknowledgement of the principles of the Peace and Friendship Treaties and perhaps even led by new faces is required.

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