Ramona Nicholas. (Philip Lee photo.)

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The field beside the river crossing held a library of Indigenous history. A whole history, an untold number of untold stories lay waiting beneath the surface.

Ramona Nicholas remembers the day she held a stone scraper in the palm of her hand. For thousands of years the tool had been buried near the mouth of the Jemseg River, a tributary of the Wolastoq (the Wolastoqey name for the Saint John River), 50 kilometres southeast of Fredericton, N.B.

“The colours on it were just amazing,” Nicholas recalled. “I still see the picture. I can see it in my head. It’s hard to explain, but I remember seeing that piece and thinking, somebody made this and look at the beautiful object that they made, and how much time and energy went into it.

“It made a really big impact on me. You’re the first person to hold this in how many thousands of years? That’s really a big impact on your life.”

The day she found the scraper in the fall of 1996, Nicholas was part of a team excavating an ancient Wolastoqey settlement. The settlement was discovered by archaeologists as they conducted survey work for the construction of a four-lane highway from Fredericton to Moncton, N.B. Her participation in the project changed the course of her life.

The Jemseg River Crossing Archaeological Project is where Nicholas took her first steps toward a career in archaeology and teaching, unearthing the traces of lives lived and the records of her ancestors that lie in the valley of the Wolastoq, the beautiful river.

It was also a project that, for the first time in in Wolastoqey territory, united archaeologists and Indigenous communities in a common purpose. The project was managed through a close and open relationship with Wolastoqiyik communities. The workforce largely came from Indigenous communities, and archaeologists took on the role of assisting communities to explore and record their own history.

Jemseg River Archaeological Project, 1996. (Photo courtesy of Susan Blair)

In the end, the highway was rerouted to protect the site, and the project produced a remarkable series of documents, including archaeological records and interviews with community elders throughout the valley of the Wolastoq, that enriched the recorded history of the Wolastoqiyik. In a larger sense, the project laid out a new path for relations between Indigenous and non-Indigenous communities in New Brunswick, a process that two decades later has been defined as reconciliation.

“Jemseg was sort of a turning point,” Nicholas said. “I can’t say that it was fully what reconciliation means. It was a good step in that direction, and it was a good step toward involving communities and Indigenous people and I felt that the further we got along in the project and developed that better relationship, things were a lot better.

“We came out of it with a lot of lessons learned and really thinking about what worked and what didn’t and how do we move forward from that?”

New Brunswick’s response to the lessons learned at Jemseg is one of the reasons that, one winter night in 2018, Nicholas and her friend Beverly Perley were stomping in snowshoes down an unplowed logging road. They were deep in the New Brunswick wilderness near the village of Napadogan, 60 kilometres north of Fredericton. The two women are part of a collective of mothers and grandmothers living at the site of a proposed open-pit tungsten and molybdenum mine, plotted near Sisson Brook in the headwaters of the Nashwaak River, another tributary of the Wolastoq.

They were trudging through the snow to meet the driver of a broken down plow truck who had been clearing the road to bring them gas for their generators. The driver had called to tell them she was stuck and was going to walk the gas in.

Nicholas and Perley decided to walk out to meet the driver and help her pull the supplies back to their makeshift community on sleds.

When they settled back into the camp, the generators humming, they recalled old photographs of Wolastoqiyik women, hiking ropes around their chests to pull their sleds, delivering supplies to their communities just as Nicholas and Perley had done that evening.

“You’re on your snowshoes and you’re pulling the sled and you’re getting through and having that experience, and reconnecting back with some of the ancestors, the women,” Nicholas said. “It is a good experience being out there and knowing that we’re not only protecting the land and the water, but also the archaeological resources.”

That spiritual connection with their ancestors on a winter night reminded Nicholas of why she was still there, as hard as this long New Brunswick winter has been.

Now, she wonders if the Jemseg dig two decades ago still holds lessons for reconciliation between First Nations and the Crown, or if it was just a fleeting moment in time.

“I do want to make some kind of change,” she said. “I think we need a better place for archaeology here in New Brunswick. I’m still here and I’m going to continue to do this work because that’s what I’m here for.”

The Wolastoqiyik mothers and grandmothers have been living on the proposed Sisson Mine site since the summer of 2017 and have no plans to leave. They understand there are high-stakes legal issues at play on this land. The mine site is on Crown land, the traditional territory of the Wolastoqiyik that was not surrendered through peace and friendship treaties signed with the British between 1725 and 1779.

Wolastoqey mothers and grandmothers at Sisson Brook, winter 2018. (Photo courtesy of Ramona Nicholas)

There are environmental concerns about the creation of an open-pit mine and tailings pond in the headwaters of the river. And there is the issue of archaeology and history. Significant artifacts have been unearthed during the exploratory excavations for the proposed Sisson Brook mine. One projectile point that may have been used on the end of a throwing stick, found during the exploration for the mine, has been determined to be about 8,000 years old – one of the few artifacts of its kind discovered in the Maritimes.

“When they first started doing the testing out there they found a piece that was around 8,000 years old,” Nicholas said. “I thought, ‘Okay, we really need to look into this.’ And then all of a sudden it was brushed off and I’m like, ‘Wait a second, we’ve got a really important piece of information here but nobody’s taking a look at that. They’re not realizing that. Why?’

“If they’re going to put a tailings pond in there and there are sites that were found and documented, how are they going to mitigate? And if they mitigate, you can’t just cover that up.

“We went out on to the land and we lived there because we want to protect the land. We decided, as group of women, as grandmothers and mothers, that we were going to stand up and say that enough is enough.”

(With files from William Cumming, Troy Glover, Alyssa Gould, Sekou Hendrickson, Vincent Jiang, Mitchell Peardon, Tiziana Zevallos.)

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