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Commissioner on Systemic Racism Manju Varma wrote the report criticizing the lack of initiative from New Brunswick's government on name changes, even after years of complaints.Adrian Wyld/The Canadian Press

After years of advocacy by Indigenous activists, supporters and local residents, New Brunswick is finally renaming three sites that include a slur used against Indigenous women.

A report on systemic racism in the province, released in December, recommended the government rename seven sites as part of reconciliation efforts with local First Nations.

Signage is already being removed, and the government has started the process of renaming three of the seven sites. (The other four will be renamed under a separate process.) The province is accepting suggestions for the town, a mountain and a protected area until June 6. It will then consult historians, ethnohistorians, knowledge holders and language experts.

“We have committed to eliminating derogatory names and ensuring that our toponymy process is sensitive to modern realities and represents values to which all New Brunswickers aspire,” said Tourism, Heritage and Culture Minister Tammy Scott-Wallace in a news release.

The release also mentions that residents will be informed when the new official names have been chosen so they can update their addresses in personal documents. They will have a year to do so at no cost.

The Globe and Mail contacted Ms. Scott-Wallace’s office for an interview but was directed to statements in the release.

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Commissioner on Systemic Racism Manju Varma wrote the report criticizing the lack of initiative from the government on name changes, even after years of complaints. She contrasted the situation with a similar case involving the New Brunswick Black History Society (NBBHS), which compiled a list between 2015 and 2017 of offensive place names and worked with the government to rename them.

Dr. Varma said this should lay the groundwork for how to handle the issue, but pointed out that the province still took years to take action.

“If we don’t change it, it means that we’re comfortable with that. It is troubling that there seems to be a comfort or a lack of urgency around changing these things,” she said.

Lily Lynch, an advocate of white and Afro-Mi’kmaw heritage, has lobbied to remove the racist and misogynistic slur since she found out about it in 2021 through Google Maps. She reached out to the area MLA and then the provincial government, but said the whole process took too long.

“It’s so dehumanizing and it’s so demoralizing and hypersexualizing to Indigenous women,” she said. “It’s just completely unacceptable. I think we have to provide a more suitable name for a place that doesn’t rely on our degradation.”

Ms. Lynch said leaving the names unchanged would obstruct the province’s reconciliation and decolonization process.

Allan Polchies Jr., the Chief of St. Mary’s First Nation, welcomed the removal of the offensive signs as a first step, but agreed that it should have been done sooner.

“This happened years after we first started asking – and it only happened in response to criticism about the government not acknowledging the Wolastoq River,” he said.

Dr. Varma’s report also suggested restoring the traditional Wolastoqiyik name, Wolastoq – which means “beautiful and bountiful river” – of the Saint John River. But Aboriginal Affairs Minister Arlene Dunn has said the government has “no intention” of doing so.

Dr. Varma said the river was named by Europeans who found it on the feast day of Saint John, so there is no connection between the name and the Indigenous people of the area, even though the Wolastoq is an important element of Wolastoqiyik identity.

“If we’re going to talk about reconciliation, we need to understand people in the identity that they want to be understood as,” she said. “This river wasn’t discovered. It was always there and it belongs to the people who have been there since time immemorial.”

Mr. Polchies said the government is trying to appease First Nations and their supporters without actually committing to reconciliation. He said acknowledging the river’s traditional name is important to his community because it ties it to Wolastoqiyik territory.

“It’s very disheartening to know that you deal with a government that does not understand our history or respect the place that we hold.”

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