What’s in a name? Indigenous Chiefs say province still mum on renaming river

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WATCH: Indigenous Chiefs across New Brunswick say they haven’t heard from the province months after formally submitting a request to see the Wolastoq name restored to what’s now known as the St. John River. – Jul 22, 2021

It’s been about two months since Indigenous Chiefs across New Brunswick asked the province to restore the traditional Wolastoq name to what’s now known as the Saint John River — and they say they haven’t heard back.

The request was made in response to a call from Tourism, Heritage and Culture Minister Tammy Scott-Wallace in April, who had said the province was looking for consultations on names across New Brunswick that could be changed to better reflect First Nations languages.

For the Chiefs, the Wolastoq seems like the obvious place to start.

READ MORE: Wolastoqey chiefs formally seek Saint John River name change

“To me, it’s an easy decision,” says St. Mary’s First Nation Chief Allan Polchies Jr.

He says changing the river’s name would make sense when “looking at its history, looking at its value, looking at its spirit.”

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Wolastoq is a Maliseet word meaning “beautiful and bountiful river.”

In pre-colonial times, the waterway held such value to the Indigenous peoples of the area that they called themselves Wolastoqiyik – or “people of the beautiful and bountiful river.”

“When we’re dealing with people’s identity, we need to be respectful and we need to be able to honour,” Polchies says.

“We’re asking the Government of New Brunswick to work with us on this particular file.”

He says, even growing up some 200 years after settlers colonized the land, the river still holds a special place in his heart:

“As a child, walking across the old Carleton Street Bridge, playing down by the river, knowing that that was a safe space for me,” he says.

Land development and property sales have over the years made access to the waterway more difficult for Wolastoqey people, he explains.

“Greed consumes the river,” Polchies says.

What’s now known as the St. John river spans 673 km from northern Maine to the Bay of Fundy. Travis Fortnum / Global News

Polchies, his predecessors and other Chiefs across the province have been seeking the restoration of the river’s name for years. They saw Scott-Wallace’s call for renaming suggestions as their shot to work with the province on the reconciliation step.

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Scott-Wallace was not available for an interview Thursday, with no statement on the file given.

Instead, Global News was referred to a statement provided in June, confirming her office received the Chief’s request on May 26 and was “reviewing an updated draft process for the naming and renaming of geographic features.”

The statement says the Department of Tourism Heritage and Culture “is in the process of engaging with these communities to ensure that they are meaningfully consulted,” but Chief Polchies says that’s not true.

READ MORE: New Brunswick’s Truth and Reconciliation Commission working group has only met twice

“Government only sees what they want to see,” Polchies says. “They only do what’s best for their best interest.”

He adds that he hopes the reason the Chiefs haven’t yet heard back is that Scott-Wallace and the department are working on the file.

“I hope that with New Brunswick day coming up, we’ll have some movement on the file,” he says.

“Because if we don’t, we’ll make sure that it’s loud and clear that we are in a time where it is to be given back to its rightful owners.”

New Brunswick Day is August 2.

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Global News asked Scott-Wallace for any form of time frame surrounding the department’s work on the file. Those requests went unanswered.

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