N.B. government employees ordered not to make First Nations title acknowledgements at events | CBC News

New Brunswick provincial employees are no longer allowed to make territorial or title acknowledgements in reference to First Nations lands, Attorney General Ted Flemming said Thursday in a memo provoked by legal actions against the government involving Indigenous rights and land title.

Instead, the memo said employees must only use an “ancestral acknowledgement” approved by the provincial government’s protocol office.

In recent years, title acknowledgements have become a regular practice by universities, municipalities and government officials across Canada at the beginning of public events and ceremonies.

In New Brunswick, they typically recognize the Wolastoqiyik, Mi’kmaq or Peskotomuhkati, depending on where the acknowledgement is being made, and they indicate an event is taking place on unceded territory.

“As you may be aware, the Government of New Brunswick (GNB) is currently involved in a number of legal actions which have been initiated by certain First Nations against the province, including a claim to ownership and title to over 60% of the Province,” said Flemming’s leaked memo, which was later verified by a provincial spokesperson.

“As a result of this litigation, legal counsel for GNB and the Office of the Attorney General has advised that GNB employees may not make or issue territorial or title acknowledgements.

“This includes the use of territorial acknowledgements at meetings and events, in documents, and in email signatures.”

Flemming wrote it may still be “desirable” at times to make an “ancestral acknowledgement,” which is provided at the bottom of the memo.

“Please note the absence of terms such as ‘unceded’ or ‘unsurrendered,’ ” Flemming wrote.

After Premier Blaine Higgs was re-elected in 2020, a land acknowledgement read by Lieutenant-Governor Brenda Murphy at the throne speech did not include the terms “unceded” and “unsurrendered.” 

Murphy’s acknowledgement consisted of one line: “We gather today on the ancestral territory of our Indigenous people.”

A land acknowledgement read by Lieutenant-Governor Brenda Murphy at the post-2020-election throne speech did not include the terms ‘unceded’ and ‘unsurrendered.’ (Submitted by Province of New Brunswick)

The terms were also missing from Higgs’s speech on opening day of the Assembly of First Nations’ 40th annual General Assembly in Fredericton in 2019.

In that speech he reconfirmed his government’s commitment to strengthen relationships with Indigenous peoples in New Brunswick. He also said the duty to consult, a legal obligation upheld by several Supreme Court of Canada decisions, needs to be clarified.

“We also need a clear understanding of what consultation means to ensure we’ve done it effectively,” he said in 2019.

‘It’s so disrespectful’

Oromocto First Nation Chief Shelley Sabattis said land title acknowledgements are an important part of recognizing that New Brunswick sits on land that was never surrendered to Europeans when they arrived and settled. She thinks Flemming’s memo is a slap in the face to First Nations people.

“We were here since time immemorial,” Sabattis said. “We were always here, and to be pushed aside and to be taken over to follow a more dominant society or more dominant culture, it just seems … ridiculous. It’s like, it’s so disrespectful.”

Oromocto First Nation Chief Shelley Sabattis said she thinks the order not to make land acknowledgements is disrespectful. (Logan Perley/CBC)

Last year, Oromocto, along with five other Wolastoqey First Nations, filed a lawsuit with the province asserting title to their traditional lands along the St. John River, also known as the Wolastoq. 

The claim covers about half the province and is ostensibly the claim to ownership and title Flemming was referring to.

The Wolastoqey Nation in New Brunswick, a group representing six Wolastoqey chiefs, sent a statement decrying the memo.

“We were forced to file a title claim because our rights continue to be ignored by GNB. Now, in response to this, the Province seeks to further trample our rights and erase us from the history of this province,” the chiefs said in the statement.

The chiefs said their unceded Aboriginal title in the province of New Brunswick is a “historical fact that the provincial government is simply going to have to come to terms with.”

“The Wolastoqey Nation is not seeking the return of all of the land in its traditional territory through the title claim,” they said. “We made it very clear when giving the Crown notice of our claim in October 2020 that we were not looking to displace homeowners in New Brunswick.”

Sabattis said she’s already heard from provincial workers in her community who are considering what they should do in response.

“My suggestion is just to keep on doing it, keep on acknowledging the proper acknowledgement. It is unceded, for one, and it’s unsurrendered. That’s what’s unique about New Brunswick, or the Maritimes, even.”

Chiefs point out Higgs’s track record

The six leaders said Higgs’s track record shows “his unilateral decision making without any Indigenous input.”

“His disdain for our people bears out in the government’s refusal to conduct a public inquiry into systemic racism, his shredding of our tax agreements, his aversion to implementing any of the 94 Calls to Action of the Truth and Reconciliation Commission,” they said.

The province did not make the National Day for Truth and Reconciliation a provincial holiday. Higgs also pulled out of a 10-year tax-sharing agreement and called it “unfair.” 

After two First Nations people were killed at the hands of police within two weeks last year, the province did not answer calls for an inquiry into the justice system’s treatment of Indigeous people. Instead, it appointed an independent commissioner to address systemic racism against all groups.

Legal expert questions authority of order  

A law professor says the order set out in the memo appears to be legally unnecessary and could potentially undermine the opportunity for meaningful reconciliation with First Nations in New Brunswick.

Mary Ellen Turpel-Lafond, a law professor at the University of British Columbia, said she thinks the directive issued by Flemming is legally unnecessary. (Submitted by Mary Ellen Turpel-Lafond)

“First of all this, this is not an appropriate approach,” said Mary Ellen Turpel-Lafond, a law professor at the University of British Columbia and a director of the university’s Residential School History and Dialogue Centre.

“There are Indigenous rights in New Brunswick. Indigenous people in New Brunswick are entitled to assert their rights in the courts, and they likely do that because there isn’t any other process.

“What a public servant says or doesn’t say by way of a greeting at a meeting is not going to be evidence that’s going to sway and determine that.”

Turpel-Lafond said the memo also seems heavy-handed, and questioned whether Flemming really has the authority to dictate what all provincial employees can and can’t say.

“For instance, Indigenous employees in the government of New Brunswick — are they supposed to stand in their own territory and deliver this kind of half-witted message to their own people?

“I mean, that smacks to me like something that could touch upon racial discrimination and be, you know, quite harmful and not particularly culturally safe for the Indigenous employees in the government of New Brunswick.”

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