N.B. government employees ordered to stop making Indigenous land acknowledgments

New Brunswick's provincial flag flies in Ottawa, Monday, July 6, 2020. Government employees in New Brunswick have been ordered to stop making territorial or title acknowledgements in reference to First Nations lands. THE CANADIAN PRESS/Adrian Wyld

FREDERICTON - Citing a series of legal actions and land claims initiated by First Nations, the New Brunswick government has ordered employees to stop making territorial or title acknowledgments in reference to Indigenous lands.

The order was included in a memo issued Thursday to all government employees by Attorney General Hugh Flemming.

"As a result of this litigation," the memo said, "legal counsel for GNB (Government of New Brunswick) and the Office of the Attorney General has advised that GNB employees may not make or issue territorial or title acknowledgments."

It is common across Canada for politicians and others to begin events by stating that they are standing on unceded territories of various Indigenous Peoples.

The memo said the order covers land or territorial acknowledgments during meetings and events, in documents and in email signatures. Employees can make reference to ancestral territory but not use the terms "unceded" or "unsurrendered," the memo said.

Speaking to reporters late Friday, Flemming said the directive was in response to a lawsuit filed last year by six Wolastoqey communities claiming ownership of more than 60 per cent of the province. "The province takes a different view of the enormity of that claim," Flemming said.

He said the issue must be resolved before the courts, and until then, government employees can't be making statements affirming Indigenous ownership. However Flemming said government employees would not be penalized if they failed to obey the memo. "There's not going to be any acknowledgment police," he said.

The six chiefs of the Wolastoqey Nation in the province said Friday they are deeply disappointed by the new policy. They said their title claim was made because their rights continue to be ignored by the government. "Now in response to this, the province seeks to further trample our rights and erase us from the history of this province," the chiefs wrote in a statement.

"We have unceded Aboriginal title in the province of New Brunswick," they added. "That is a historical fact that the provincial government is simply going to have to come to terms with as representatives of the Crown here in New Brunswick."

The chiefs said the government of Premier Blaine Higgs has shown growing disrespect for First Nations people.

The chiefs of the nine Mi'kmaq communities in New Brunswick also issued a response to the government memo. "The contents of that memo are extremely concerning to us and represent a new low in our relationship with the province," they wrote.

They said land acknowledgments are largely a symbolic gesture but represent a starting point toward building and improving a relationship with First Nations.

"It is hard to see how a government directive to employees to avoid taking even that bare minimum step has us moving forward on a path of reconciliation and partnership," they wrote.

Chelsea Vowel, an assistant lecturer at the faculty of native studies at the University of Alberta, called the government's directive a "hostile" move.

"These territorial acknowledgments were first brought forward by Aboriginal Peoples, but they've been co-opted by institutions and politicians as a way to pay literal lip service to Indigenous Nations without actually doing anything by giving land back or addressing outstanding claims," she said in an interview Friday.

"They clearly see land acknowledgment as an admission of guilt," she added. "It's really the only reason why they would caution their employees against using it."

Vowel said land acknowledgments are part of truth-telling. "And if we can't even do that, what possible hope can we have that this government is committed to reconciliation in any tangible form?"

Green party Leader David Coon called on Flemming to withdraw the policy. "It's just another stick in the eye for Indigenous people throughout New Brunswick," he said in an interview Friday.

"Acknowledging that the Wolastoqey, Mi'kmaq and Peskotomuhkati peoples never surrendered or ceded their lands to the Crown is to state a historical fact. It is the truth," Coon said. "The attorney general's memo is ordering public employees to be complicit in this government's sophistry. It is repugnant"

Coon said he would provide a full land acknowledgment when he speaks in the legislature next month.

This report by The Canadian Press was first published Oct. 15, 2021.

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