We should be included in talks about St. John River's name change, chief says

·3 min read
St. Mary's First Nation Chief Allan Polchies Jr., seen here at Resilience Day events in Fredericton on July 1, says the province should be discussing the river's name change with Wolastoqey communities. (Gary Moore/CBC - image credit)
St. Mary's First Nation Chief Allan Polchies Jr., seen here at Resilience Day events in Fredericton on July 1, says the province should be discussing the river's name change with Wolastoqey communities. (Gary Moore/CBC - image credit)

It seems a straightforward enough change, requested at a time when such changes are happening across the country.

For years, New Brunswick's Wolastoqey chiefs have been asking to have the St. John River's name restored to what they consider its original and proper name, Wolastoq, meaning "beautiful and bountiful river."

In June, two months after Tourism, Heritage and Culture Minister Tammy Scott-Wallace said she hoped for consultations on names that better reflect First Nations languages, they made that request official by filing a formal name-change request to the province.

But although the movement is gaining momentum with the public, there has been no formal discussion at the provincial level that chiefs are aware of.

In an interview with Information Morning Fredericton on Wednesday, St. Mary's First Nation Chief Allan Polchies Jr. said the province has received the request, but that appears to be as far as it's gone.

"It's on their desk and probably that's where it's sitting," Polchies said.

Minister's office 'working on rules'

Scott-Wallace declined an interview with CBC News, but her office said it is working on rules for how change might happen.

It's unclear what stage that work is at, but Polchies said it should be including members of the Wolastoqey communities whose culture is so intertwined with the river.

"When we talk about reconciliation and being a part of the process for healing and to take pride in the river, we need to be at that table," he said. "We need to be at this discussion."

Coming at a time of a renewed, nationwide call for reconciliation and acknowledgement of the "sins of the past," Polchies said restoring the river's name would be a simple but deeply symbolic gesture.

"We're trying to reclaim the things that we've lost.," he said. "Through the tragedies of residential schools, we lost our language … through colonization we lost almost all of our land and were forced onto small reserves.

"Such a simple gesture would cause no inconvenience. If everyone is actually serious about reconciliation, this is obviously the thing to do and obviously the time."

Maria Jose Burgos/CBC file photo
Maria Jose Burgos/CBC file photo

Timing is right, Fredericton's mayor says

Fredericton Mayor Kate Rogers, who joined Polchies on the interview Wednesday, said the time is right for the conversation.

"As we saw through Resilience Day events that were recently held, there was such a wonderful turnout, which to me is evidence of the desire of this community to move forward with reconciliation," she said.

Rogers said the city has been working to strengthen the relationship with First Nations, noting "Fredericton resides in the Wolastoq territory."

"We have been using the the term the Wolastoq, we've begun doing an acknowledgement at the beginning of our council meeting … and in our tourism materials, we're beginning to to reference the river as well."

She acknowledged there will be some "naysayers" who object to the name change but said she thinks the community as a whole would embrace it.

"It is difficult for people. People have attachments," she said.

"But if we're true in our desire to move forward as a nation with reconciliation, these are the kinds of conversations that we need to be having more of."

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