A Note about Wolastoqey/Wəlastəkwey History
Written By: Jason Hall
Ethnohistorian – WNNB
The Wolastoqiyik/Wəlastəkokewiyik are the Indigenous people of the Wolastoq/Wəlastəkw watershed and adjacent areas. Their traditional territory encompasses lands as well as marine and fresh waters from the Bay of Fundy in the south to the St. Lawrence River in the north. This large territory includes parts of the Canadian provinces of New Brunswick and Québec as well as northeastern Maine in the United States. The Wolastoqiyik/Wəlastəkokewiyik are also sometimes known as “the Maliseet”, a name given to them by their Mi’kmaq neighbours.
The Wolastoqiyik/Wəlastəkokewiyik have inhabited their territory and made use of a wide array of resources since time immemorial. For thousands of years, the Wolastoqiyik/Wəlastəkokewiyik thrived within their homeland, and they refined a variety of useful technologies that were well adapted to human needs and local environmental conditions such as light-weight birch bark canoes, toggle harpoons, snowshoes, toboggans, and clamshell hoes.
They also developed sophisticated social and political structures to govern life within their communities and nation as well as their relations with neighbouring Indigenous peoples and visitors from afar.
When contact between the Wolastoqiyik/Wəlastəkokewiyik and European fishermen and fur traders intensified ca. mid to late-16th century, deadly Eurasian diseases that the immune systems of North American Indigenous peoples had never been exposed to, soon began decimating Wolastoqey/Wəlastəkwey communities. Although the specific number of Wolastoqiyik/Wəlastəkokewiyik who died during the early decades of transatlantic contact was not recorded, well over half of the entire Wolastoqey/Wəlastəkwey population likely perished in this era, and Eurasian diseases continued causing death and suffering in their communities into the 20th century.
The Wolastoqiyik/Wəlastəkokewiyik found some of the Europeans who came to the shores of their homeland to be kind and decent people interested in forging mutually beneficial commercial and social relationships. However, they quickly learned that many European individuals, and even entire governments, could not be trusted to respect Wolastoqey/Wəlastəkwey sovereignty over their lands, waters, and resources. Nor could they be trusted to respect Wolastoqey/Wəlastəkwey beliefs, cultural traditions, or prohibitions on abusing Wolastoqi/Wəlastəkwi women. As a result, Wolastoqey/Wəlastəkwey relations with some European visitors and groups of settlers became characterized by violence and long campaigns of resistance to aggressive imperial and colonial agendas that sought to dispossess them of their lands and rights, and deprive them of their dignity as human beings.
Generally, Wolastoqey/Wolastoqey relations with France and French settlers were far more harmonious than they were with England/Great Britain and British colonies. The Wolastoqiyik/Wəlastəkokewiyik, and their neighbouring Indigenous allies in the Wabanaki Confederacy fought a series of wars on the land and sea with the English/British between the late 17th and the mid-18th centuries. These wars were concluded by diplomatic negotiations and Treaties of Peace and Friendship between Great Britain and the Indigenous nations who were involved in the conflicts.
The treaties were formal sovereign nation to sovereign nation agreements that drew upon both Indigenous and British legal traditions and aspirations. They were co-developed by the Wabanaki Peoples and the British to put an end to conflicts and help foster positive and peaceful relations that would benefit both cultural groups. The written treaties and the oral negotiations that helped define them were not land surrenders or one-sided agreements that the British imposed upon Indigenous people.
The treaties and verbal diplomatic negotiations that informed them respected and protected the rights of the Wolastoqiyik/Wəlastəkokewiyik and neighbouring Indigenous peoples to continue using lands and resources in their traditional territories without being “molested” by British governments or settlers. The treaty signed by the Wolastoqiyik/Wəlastəkokewiyik in 1760 incorporated the contents of the treaties they had co-developed and ratified in 1725-1726 and 1749, and it also recognized and guaranteed their rights to harvest and use resources for commercial purposes.
The Supreme Court of Canada has ruled that the Peace and Friendship Treaties continue to be legally binding documents today, and mandated that the Crown has the duty to uphold and honour these agreements. This means that both federal and provincial governments are legally obligated to respect Wolastoqey/Wəlastəkwey treaty rights to use lands and resources.
The right for the Wolastoqiyik/Wəlastəkokewiyik to receive justice under British law (and later Canadian law) was also guaranteed by the Peace and Friendship Treaties. However, their right to justice was often denied outright or severely infringed upon. Some prominent colonial legal officials contributed to the dispossession of the Wolastoqiyik/Wəlastəkokewiyik from their lands in violation of the Royal Proclamation of 1763 which placed restrictions on the settlement of Indigenous lands in British North America. Moreover, Wolastoqey/Wəlastəkwey efforts to receive justice for injuries committed to them by non Indigenous people received a mixed response from colonial courts. In 1786, the first murder trial in the province of New Brunswick resulted in the hanging of a settler who had shot and killed a Wolastoqi/Wəlastəkwi man in cold blood. However, when a Wolastoqi/Wəlastəkwi man who had been physically abused by a prominent Loyalist tried to take his abuser to court for restitution in 1799, his case was dismissed because he couldn’t find a lawyer who was willing to prosecute it.
Later generations of Wolastoqiyik/Wəlastəkokewiyik also had great difficulties securing professional legal counsel. Between 1876 and 1880, any Indigenous person who became a lawyer automatically lost their “Indian Status” under Canadian law. The Government of Canada also made it illegal for lawyers to represent Indigenous people between 1927 and 1951 unless they had the written approval of the Department of Indian Affairs.
These and other paternalistic laws and policies made it very hard for the Wolastoqiyik/Wəlastəkokewiyik and other Indigenous peoples to organize land claims or seek justice on other matters through the Canadian legal system. Moreover, the high costs of pursuing litigation and institutionalized cultural biases such as the legal system’s traditional privileging of written over oral evidence also severely impeded meaningful Wolastoqey/Wəlastəkwey participation in judicial processes until recent decades.
History that is told from the Wolastoqey/Wəlastəkwey perspective often sounds dramatically different from the history that many people grew up learning from school textbooks and popular media. Wolastoqey/Wəlastəkwey history can be unsettling for non Indigenous people to hear, as it often complicates and challenges assumptions and values they hold about the past and present of the world around them.
• Charismatic men cast as upstanding colonial military officers and political elites in Canadian and American history sanctioned acts of violence and cultural genocide against Wolastoqi/Wəlastəkwi men, women and children.
• Prominent politicians and lawmakers crafted laws that criminalized Wolastoqey/Wəlastəkwey resource use and kept families on the brink of starvation for generations, and they supported initiatives to dispossess the Wolastoqiyik/Wəlastəkokewiyik of large tracks of their lands.
• A host of industrialists and businessmen celebrated in books and museum displays earned their fame by devastating forest, riverine, and ocean habitats the Wolastoqiyik/Wəlastəkokewiyik had used and depended upon for centuries. As a result, components of the Wolastoqey/Wəlastəkwey traditional economy were destroyed, and some animals they had forged deep cultural relationships were extirpated, while others are currently threatened by extinction. The Wolastoqiyik/Wəlastəkokewiyik have seldom been permitted to share in the prosperity that has resulted from the industrial development of the lands and waters they were dispossessed of.
• Teachers and missionaries acclaimed for bringing the gifts of European civilization and languages to Wolastoqi/Wəlastəkwi children contributed to the suppression of the Wolastoqey/Wəlastəkwey Language and culture. Wolastoqi/Wəlastəkwi children who were forced to attend Residential Schools suffered horrific physical, sexual, and mental abuses by the people responsible for their care and education.
• Well respected doctors and scientists conducted research that desecrated the remains of Wolastoqi/Wəlastəkwi ancestors that had been dug up from burial grounds without Wolastoqey/Wəlastəkwey consent. Wolastoqey/Wəlastəkwey burial grounds and sacred sites have been flooded by hydroelectric dams or destroyed by other forms of development.
Such a list could continue for pages, however, in previous generations, the majority of writers and curricula designers omitted these and many other Wolastoqey/Wəlastəkwey historical truths from their histories, or justified them as inevitable steps in society’s march towards greater progress. Until a few decades ago, only a small number of popular and professional scholars deeply engaged with the Peace and Friendship Treaties, the Royal Proclamation, and Indigenous rights in Atlantic Canada, even though these topics are critically important to understanding the past, present, and future of Indigenous – settler relations in this region.
This situation has shown some signs of improving in recent years as growing numbers of professional and popular writers (and their readers) have increased their interest in the perspectives and truths that the Wolastoqiyik/Wəlastəkokewiyik and other Indigenous people across the globe have been consistently asserting for centuries. It is impossible to predict how much this trend will enhance peoples’ understandings of, and respect for, Wolastoqey/Wəlastəkwey history and rights in coming years. At the very least, it will hopefully create far more opportunities for the Wolastoqiyik/Wəlastəkokewiyik to share Wolastoqey/Wəlastəkwey history on their own terms than has previously been the case, as well as more incentives for non Indigenous people to respectfully learn about, and from, that history.
The Wolastoqiyik/Wəlastəkokewiyik endured over 4 centuries of European imperialism and colonization that resulted in the unjust dispossession of the majority their lands as well as the degradation and marginalization of their culture by Settler peoples. However, they remained resilient and resolute in the face of profound adversity time and time again, and are a strong and thriving people today. In recent decades, the Wolastoqiyik/Wəlastəkokewiyik fought and won uphill legal battles to have Canadian courts and governments respect their Treaty and Aboriginal rights, and they continue working towards maintaining and strengthening their rights, culture, and language.