RE: Listuguj Access to New Brunswick
Over time, Listuguj has developed a unique symbiotic and collaborative relationship with the neighbouring communities of Campbellton and Pointe-à-la-Croix. This relationship includes kinship ties, shared services and solid working relationships, and recognition of Mi’gmaw ancestral territory. The points of intersection between the communities go well beyond roadways and bridges.
Our students have been attending schools in Campbellton since 1969, and still to this day transition from our community school to Sugarloaf Senior High School to complete their secondary education. The Enhancement services in education are arguably the most successful in the province. The Campbellton Centennial Library has more members than residents of Campbellton because we contribute to and make use of the services. We have a New Brunswick Provincial Championship banner hanging in the gym of our community school. Our people represent and coach for team New Brunswick in the North American Indigenous Games.
The Intercommunity Harmony Project, initiated in 2002 between Pointe-à-la-Croix and Listuguj, unique at the time in how it effectively brought people from our community together, is now something being replicated throughout the province. We share a wastewater treatment facility with Pointe-à-la-Croix, and have been working on joint economic development initiatives over the last 3 years, to increase tourism and opportunities for the region. Should these projects come to fruition, the opportunities will be of benefit to each of us in the region. Additionally, we as a community, and our members, are a significant part of the local economy, contributing well over 60 million annually (according to old estimates) to local businesses and services. However, of late these contributions and opportunities for collaboration seem to have been pushed aside without full consideration for alternative approaches.
On March 25th, 2020, the government of New Brunswick announced their decision to impose restrictions at provincial borders to people from outside the province entering, as a way to deter the potential increase in risk for transmission and infection specific to COVID-19.
Upon hearing of this pending decision, the Listuguj Mi’gmaq Government inquired about the details of the decision and publicly stated through a community announcement that this decision would be problematic. It was further noted in communications with New Brunswick that while this action may address and alleviate the potential concerns around risk of infection for people living in New Brunswick, it creates the potential for crisis, as there are numerous interconnections and links between both services and people on both sides of the Restigouche River. The concerns raised by Listuguj have since been echoed by other municipalities.
The imposed restrictions, at the checkpoint in Campbellton at the time and to this day have been problematic. Initially, decisions on how and what to implement were changing within the day. What was deemed as acceptable at 8 am was no longer acceptable at 12 pm, and then could be switched back again by that evening. The lines of communication were limited and gave the impression of disregard for us as First Nations, and an unwillingness to collaborate on how to continue accessing our ancestral territory for necessities. Again, as Chief, I reached out to the New Brunswick government stating our concerns and need for respectful dialogue towards meaningful solutions as this moves forward.
The Listuguj Mi’gmaq Government received notice that a table was identified with a mandate from the Premier of New Brunswick to find solutions to access services and other needs available on the other side of the river from Listuguj. The first call was held on April 1st, 2020. The initial and most pressing concerns for the people of Listuguj at the time were access to sufficient and consistent sources of food and groceries, medical appointments, and pharmacies.
Key points of discussion included that the restrictions put in place by the government of New Brunswick were done unilaterally and without notice to Listuguj. The restrictions and implementation were, and remain inconsistent, with differences in interpretation daily; causing significant distress and tension for community members in need of access to life essentials. Further to this, communication from the Listuguj Mi’gmaq Government has been rendered pointless, as despite our best efforts to provide accurate information, LMG could not maintain the pace of changes being imposed by those implementing the restrictions.
On April 2nd, 2020 a draft list of essential items was generated and shared with representatives of the government of New Brunswick. This draft list of essential items remains the only actual list of record, and although provided by representatives of Listuguj, to my understanding remains the primary list of reference for restrictions imposed on both Listuguj members and Pointe-à-la-Croix. This list has not evolved nor changed over the course of the last 6 weeks, and while some items remain constant in terms of essentiality, the need to adapt has not kept pace as with changing times, seasons, and reality with regards to COVID-19.
To date, the discussions with the government of New Brunswick have progressed towards a sole solution; a pass system that was understood to address different concerns by the parties involved. Representatives of the Listuguj Mi’gmaq First Nation believed the passes to be a solution to the list of essentials, allowing members with passes additional access beyond the scope of the items from the initial list. New Brunswick’s understanding was that the passes were a system of additional scrutiny imposed by Listuguj on its members to reduce the number of residents crossing over to the other side of the river from Listuguj, and had no effect on what would or could be accessed. Yet another understanding was that the passes were a system used by Listuguj, of identifying those most in need of access to essential items; those who may not necessarily have the means to do so in the nearest urbans centers, located 55+ kilometers from the community of Listuguj.
As New Brunswick continues to work through clarifying and applying consistency, while also developing the understanding and purpose of the passes, we have been subject to increased tension and diminished relationships in the region. Our people working for businesses located in Campbellton and Atholville are not allowed to access food and takeout during their lunch breaks, and have been threatened with fines. Those from Listuguj who choose to use the pass system are often concerned that a target has been placed on them or their vehicles while they shop for things taken for granted by New Brunswickers. Those who have accessed stores in Atholville have been reminded by staff, while in the store that they are only to shop for essential items or to hurry and finish their shopping; in effect adding distress to an already stressful situation. Tensions are exacerbated by these acts of vilification by staff and enforcement agencies in New Brunswick, which serve no practical purpose towards reducing the risk of infection and transmission of COVID-19.
The initial commitment to dialogue between representatives of our respective governments have hit an impasse. The government of New Brunswick has made it clear they perceive people from outside the borders coming in as the greatest threat posed to New Brunswickers. The New Brunswick government has also been consistent in their statements of late that the border restrictions will remain, and additional scrutiny may be implemented. It has also been brought to our attention that the restrictions imposed at the New Brunswick checkpoints may be in place until November.
The government of New Brunswick’s response to COVID-19 has been successful to date, keeping infection rates low, providing clear and accurate information to the people. Listuguj, as well has been successful to date. No infections within the community or for any of the community members living on both sides of the river. No infections to workers coming in from the other side of the river, or travelling to the other side for work. Our check points have been maintained for several weeks, and potential issues in the community were identified and addressed swiftly. Moreover, communication to our members by the Listuguj Mi’gmaq Government has been frequent, consistent and factual.
We have also been monitoring and closely tracking our data and information. The highest risk for our members has been identified as travelling 55+ km to areas with confirmed cases of COVID-19, which remains our best alternative for accessing essentials of life and basic needs. The conundrum is evident, as this risk was not created by our own decisions and actions, but due to the restrictions imposed by the government of New Brunswick. Thankfully though, the Gaspe region has also stabilized and no new infections have been identified for several days. They have taken great precautions and steps to address the situation and for those with the means to access these centers it is encouraging. However, for many, the 55+ km and increased potential for infection remains a barrier.
We have also noted that restrictions are being eased and new opportunities given to New Brunswickers, clearly with an understanding of the importance of developing comfort with the new normal, and to reduce the adverse effects on mental health from the restrictions. Exploratory discussions and potential partnerships with PEI on how to boost one another’s economy are under way. Yet in our area the border restrictions will remain in place, where people of the region still have no access to purchase simple items such as socks and underwear, buy food during their lunch break, pick up supplies for gardening, or outdoor games to help deal with the added stress of weeks of isolation and restrictions. Furthermore, there will still be no solutions for those who wish to visit family on either side of the river, even though there remain no confirmed cases of COVID-19 within a 50 km radius.
Counter to this, on May 18th, 2020, the Quebec government will remove those imposing the border restrictions under their authority at the JC VanHorne Interprovincial Bridge. The Quebec government will also be removing all restrictions between regions. This decision will allow New Brunswickers to travel across to the Listuguj side of the river, and go wherever they please. We know that on a regular day, between 3000 and 5000 cars travel across that bridge to access services and goods in Listuguj and the nearby region. We also know that many will want to visit family and friends that they have not seen for several weeks; people that have been kept apart because the 14-day isolation required would create additional and insurmountable problems. This free flowing movement coming into our area based on the decision of the Quebec government brings with it significant questions that we alone cannot answer.
It has been suggested that reaching out the offices of the Premiers of both Quebec and New Brunswick may help in finding the solutions and understanding to address our situation. However, it is the decisions being made by people far removed from our local reality that have set us on a collision course for increasing tensions and concern. The decisions to date seem to have increased tensions, anxiety and retraced old lines of division, racism and anger. If provided the opportunity to take action locally, and collectively as a region, I have no doubt that a workable solution would be found in short time. This would also enable the region to be better prepared and ready to evolve, as well as remain adept and relevant in making the necessary adjustments to fit our local reality in response to COVID-19. In that sense, the Premiers could be very helpful by agreeing that it is best for us to work together locally; as we all continue working and doing our best to protect our people, it is time to try something different.
Respectfully, I would like to recommend convening a meeting with New Brunswick and Quebec leadership, representatives of regions, and local municipalities interested in collaborating, along with Listuguj, towards a solution oriented approach. An approach that will maintain the priority of protecting our people from infection and transmission of COVID-19, while increasing access for the region to both sides of the Restigouche River. Additionally, a local response plan could be developed to address and prepare for the potential second wave that is collaborative, appropriate, agile and sufficient.
In Peace and Friendship,
Chief of Listuguj