Brian Cuthbertson. Stubborn Resistance: New Brunswick Maliseet and Mi’kmaq in defence of their lands (Halifax: Nimbus Publishing, 2015).
By Thomas Peace
Brian Cuthbertson’s Stubborn Resistance presents a nuanced and detailed window into the legal and bureaucratic processes through which Maliseet and Mi’kmaw peoples lost access to their homelands. Drawing together nearly twenty years of research for Metepenagiag (Red Bank), Tobique and Tjipogtotjg (Buctouche) First Nations, the book walks the reader through the legal and political relationships that existed between Mi’kmaw, Maliseet, colonists, New Brunswick (both as a colony and province), Canada, and the British Empire as they negotiated occupation and use of Mi’kmaw and Maliseet territory. In doing so, Cuthbertson meticulously reconstructs the legislation, policies, individual actions, and duplicity that led to the massive settler confiscation of Mi’kmaw and Maliseet territory.
Though the first chapter briefly addresses the eighteenth-century context that set the stage for the events in the book, Stubborn Resistance does not examine early imperial relationships or the crown’s initial assertion of title over Mi’kmaw and Maliseet territory. Instead, the book demonstrates how the relatively small amount of land initially ascribed by colonial authorities to Indigenous peoples was in turn appropriated from them over the century that followed. In making this argument, Cuthbertson directs much of his readers’ attention to New Brunswick’s 1844 Act to Regulate the Management and Disposal of the Indian Reserves, which served to bring about many of the initial land surrenders. The Act is important not only for its impact, but also because it helps Cuthbertson demonstrate the conflicting motivations, and related negotiations, that shaped this piece of legislation. Taking this approach helps distinguish the diversity of colonial perspectives on the subject of squatting and land surrenders, a key theme developed throughout the book.
The book’s relationship to Cuthbertson’s research for specific claims is both its main strength and a significant weakness. Approaching his subject through a series of case studies, the text does a very good job of conveying the dynamics of debates and the plurality of perspectives on the status of the lands assigned by colonial governments to the Maliseet and Mi’kmaq. This is perhaps clearest in chapters four and five, where Cuthbertson somewhat unevenly addresses the implementation of the 1844 Act in Northumberland, Gloucester, Kent, and Victoria counties. As Chief of the Madawaska Maliseet First Nation, Patricia Bernard, makes clear in her foreword to the book, Cuthbertson outlines these issues and their deep roots in the pre-Confederation period without sacrificing the complexity of their context. Likewise, his analysis of the political stakes and negotiations involved in these surrenders, implicitly points us to a more rigorous understanding of First Nations’ History and their Lands in discussions related to the key political issues of the day: responsible government, Confederation, and early Dominion-Provincial relations.
The downside to structuring the book upon the foundations of specific claims research is that the themes I’ve noted around responsible government and Dominion-Provincial relations go relatively un-noted in the book’s analytical sections (such as introductions and conclusions). Likewise, though he periodically cites key works in the field, such as Bill Wicken’s The Colonization of Mi’kmaw Memory and History, 1794-1928 (2012) and Martha Walls’s No Need of a Chief for this Band (2010), there is almost no explicit engagement with broader historiographic themes. This is perhaps the book’s biggest weakness. Although many graduate students and researchers will find this text useful for its discussion of specific events, people, and relationships, Cuthbertson’s failure to anchor them into their broader context seems like a missed opportunity. As I read through these pages, for example, I often wondered how his analysis might have changed or been strengthened if his evidence was brought into conversation with works such as Micah Pawling’s Wabanaki Homeland and the New State of Maine (2007) or Cole Harris’s Making Native Space (2002). Similarly, situated within a historiographical context where Indigenous history continues to remain beyond the scope of foundational subjects in Canada’s political history, Cuthbertson’s occasional references to the development of responsible government and Confederation serve as a bit of a tease.
Of course, Cuthbertson’s goals in writing Stubborn Resistance were not oriented towards these topics or broader critiques of Canadian history. Nonetheless, while the book’s title, introduction, and conclusion laudably focuses on “New Brunswick Maliseet and Mi’kmaq in defence of their lands,” Cuthbertson’s narrative style and case-study approach often places colonial officials, politicians and other non-Indigenous actors in the foreground as they worked to erode Mi’kmaw and Maliseet territory; the persistence of Indigenous resistance against their actions – clear and present in many of the chapters – is often buried within the details of each case. Taken as a whole, the title invokes Mi’kmaw and Maliseet persistence and resilience in the face of significant obstacles, but within the text itself this is often not as apparent as it could be.
It would be wrong for the reader to take away a negative opinion of this book, however. What Stubborn Resistance does very well is present research and analysis as it was produced for the purposes of specific land claims. This is perhaps the book’s greatest contribution to uncovering this important, and on-going, chapter of New Brunswick’s history. In a field where substantial (and excellent) research is conducted for legal proceedings related to specific and comprehensive claims, and therefore remains unpublished and often difficult to track down, Cuthbertson’s book bridges this gap, helping us to better understand how the Mi’kmaw and Maliseet lost access to their Land in New Brunswick.
Thomas Peace is an assistant professor of Canadian History at Huron University College and an editor of ActiveHistory.ca.