Wolastoqey First Nations chiefs have formally requested that New Brunswick change the name of the St. John River to Wolastoq.
Answering a call put out by Tourism, Heritage and Culture Minister Tammy Scott-Wallace in April, who said the province was hoping for consultations on names that could better reflect First Nations languages, the chiefs sent their letter at the end of May.
It would be a restoration of sorts, considering the river’s been known as Wolastoq for much longer than it’s gone by Saint John.
“It should never have been changed to Saint John in the beginning,” says Madawaska Maliseet First Nation Chief Patricia Bernard.
“The city of Saint John can continue to be Saint John, but the river should be restored.”
Bernard says the potential difficulty of the process is recognized, considering the waterway forms a portion of the international border with Maine, but says worthwhile things “are often difficult.”
“If reconciliation is only about doing the easy things? That’s not reconciliation,” she says.
The “Saint John” moniker was given to the river when the first European settlers arrived in the area in the 17th century.
Bernard says those settlers must have known the significance of the original name Wolastoq, as they also changed the name of the Wolastoqey people.
“The word translates into ‘beautiful and bountiful river’ and we call ourselves the Wolastoqey people. So the importance of the name is extremely dear to us because it’s who we are.”
Global News reached out to Scott-Wallace for an interview Tuesday but was instead provided with a statement by the department.
“We can confirm that our office has received a request for the renaming of the Saint John River,” writes spokesperson Morgan Bell.
“However, the Department cannot provide comment on individual toponymy applications until the review of the draft evaluation process has been completed. Once the process has been adopted, the evaluation of requests can be initiated.”
Bernard says restoring the Wolastoq name could be the grand gesture needed for the province to begin repairing its tattered relationship with Indigenous communities.
“Any gesture, any move towards working with the nations to resolve small things is a start,” she says.
“There are a lot of bigger things that are maybe harder to resolve but, at this point, we haven’t really seen anything concrete enough to say, ‘New Brunswick is great!’ In fact, the opposite.”
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