Ramona Nicholas at the Jemseg Crossing interpretive centre. (Photo courtesy of Susan Blair)

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The new route for the highway bridge in the Grand Lake Meadows wasn’t the only bridge built as a result of the Jemseg project. From its inception to its conclusion, the Jemseg project was designed as a new way to connect two communities, two worldviews – to begin to bridge the gap between archaeology and Indigenous perspectives.

“The missing piece of this puzzle was always the fact that the communities were not involved in the archaeology itself,” Chris Turnbull said. “They were passive bystanders in their own history. And that’s what we wanted to change at Jemseg.

“Throughout the project there was a greater involvement on behalf of the community in their history, rather than an archaeologist giving it to them. There was one particular meeting where elders simply said, ‘This is our history, and we will work with these people to do this.’ ” 

Turnbull describes the process as a “two-way street” of communication that was paved during the course of the Jemseg project. The advisory committee, discussions between government officials, project managers and elders and communities, the openness and transparency of the dig site, and the “bringing it back” of information to the communities through exhibitions and the collection of testimony from elders, all were steps down this two-way street.

The promise of what Jemseg could mean for the future of relations between Indigenous and non-Indigenous New Brunswickers hung in the air even as the project was being shut down, the highway rerouted, and reports written.

“I thought at the time that what we were doing would continue, that we would continue to have Indigenous people working in archaeology in meaningful ways, not just as laborers, that over time those people who worked on the projects would become archaeologists and they would become the next archaeologists and we would transform practice,” Susan Blair said.

For Ramona Nicholas, spending three months at the Jemseg dig was not only her first experience in an archaeological pursuit, it was also a form of digging and searching for herself.

She was doing her own research, looking within herself to ask, “Is this really what I want to do?”

Ramona Nicholas (Philip Lee photo)

She decided that she would continue her education in archaeology, that she would use her own hands to explore the history of her people. Archaeology was a way to do this.

In the years that followed the Jemseg dig, Nicholas went on to earn a graduate degree in archaeology and became the first Indigenous president of New Brunswick’s Association of Professional Archaeologists. But she stepped down because she was uncomfortable with the province’s approach to archaeology that seemed a long way from the path outlined at Jemseg.

“I needed to find a place where I felt comfortable enough to be able to stand up and say, ‘No, we need to get back to a different way of doing things,’ Nicholas said.

She sees herself as a channel to the traditional knowledge required to incorporate a more complete understanding of history beyond the technical archaeological perspective.

In Nicholas’s view, which is shared by Blair and Turnbull, the relationship between archaeologists and Indigenous people has continued along a rocky road since Jemseg. Nicholas said it has a lot to do with the fact that “non-Indigenous people are digging up that past and learning and interpreting and not understanding the perception or perspective of an Indigenous person.”

Nicholas, as an Indigenous archaeologist, has been stuck at a crossroads.

“I can’t say that Jemseg was the total answer to all of reconciliation but, you know, it was a really good start,” Nicholas said.

“That was my goal afterward, to find those people that had the same interest in work with that. Recently it’s been tough. It’s been tough because I put myself out there doing this work as an Indigenous archaeologist, but the province doesn’t encourage it.”

(Photo courtesy of Susan Blair)

If the Jemseg project was a step toward reconciliation, it may have been a blip on the radar, one project that tried to do things differently – an anomaly.

“I think there are ways in which we got it right. I think there are ways in which we didn’t,” Blair said. “I think one of the ways we got it right was in openness and transparency. Being open to criticism, inviting people to the site, sharing information and knowledge.

“But I think that that speaks to the need to be open because the only way we’re going to build that kind of respect and in the long term a sense of mutual understanding on which you could build trust, would be to be absolutely and thoroughly open about everything, even the painful things.”

Turnbull said the practice of archaeology has changed since Jemseg, but he says the concept of a two-way street has been lost.

“I had hoped that would not be the end of it, that it would then become a mechanism of working,” he said. “Recent history, old photographs, ethnographic stuff, oral histories, we’d get to work together on all this stuff and have it more prominently featured in the community. And I don’t think that happened.”

That’s one of the reasons why, when the New Brunswick government began promoting a new mine project in the headwaters of the Wolastoq, Ramona Nicholas decided she had to take a stand.

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