“When I worked in the newspaper business, a great editor and friend taught me how a true story well told becomes a parable. He was a libertarian editor in the old school who saw his newspapers as daily journals of moral conduct. When something is broken, it is the work of the moralist, the storyteller, to place a finger on it and then ask who’d responsible for fixing it.” – Philip Lee, Restigouche
Last August I went on a long canoe ride down the Restigouche River with a guide who knows the river intimately; he knows the pools where you might find a salmon, he knows where you can and can’t camp or pull up a canoe, he knows who to talk to if you want to know more about the river than he does, and he shares what he’s learned about the river along the way. Philip Lee is that guide in Restigouche: The Long Run of the Wild River, and he tells a story not only of the Restigouche itself, but also the impacts of both colonialism and capitalism on the river and the people of the river, and it is a beautiful, sobering, and necessary ride.
Philip Lee the author is the son of my childhood Minister Reverend Philip Lee, and I know his family, though not well. My own father passed his copy of Restigouche on to me saying it had changed his perspective of how natural resources and native people have been treated in New Brunswick, and that I would appreciate Lee’s appreciation of nature (he was right). From the opening pages, Lee’s writing style and a clear sense of intention/moral compass reminded me of his father’s sermons, which enthralled and grounded me growing up.
“When I returned, I lay awake long into the winter nights, trying to unweave and unwind all that I had seen and learned. At the end of my exploring I didn’t have all the answers and still wondered what the future might hold. What I did know was, like the man who washed his eyes in the Pool of Siloam, I had come back seeing.”
I read Restigouche chapter by chapter, many of them sitting by the brook at the bottom of our lane near Lunenburg, Nova Scotia. It was just the way to read it, bit by bit because there’s so much to learn from this well-informed guide as you travel with him down the northeastern New Brunswick river. You’ll also want to savour the trip. Though it was a literary journey I went on via Lee’s Restigouche as he poled and paddled his canoe down the Restigouche, it felt like I was there on the river as a member of his party, listening to him and his companions tell stories around the campfire.
Restigouche is a natural biography of sorts, and we get to know the river’s story through Lee’s first-hand experience, but also through his careful research and storytelling. The impacts of elitist sport fishing, clearcutting, hydro-damming, herbicide spraying and overfishing are examined here, as is the indefensible tragedy and injustice of how the Mi’kmaq have been excluded from the waters they’ve inhabited for many thousands of years. Lee also retells the story of the 1981 Incident at Restigouche through voices of people who were directly involved, and which was a turning point for the Listiguj Mi’kmaq and reasserting their right to fish.
As Canadians struggle personally and collectively to re-right the wrongs of the past (and present) at this juncture of truth and reconciliation, Lee’s book is an important contribution to better understanding what has happened not only to the Restigouche River–but to the whole country– and what it will take to fix it. It also says something about shame, and what it will take for us as a culture to own it and move forward. Because, as Lee writes “Rivers are remarkably resilient, but they do not wash away our sins.”
Lee takes on the job of moralist and storyteller in Restigouche; subtly asking who is responsible for fixing the Restigouche, though he gathers the information and leaves it to the reader to decide. What he is clear about, though, is that we as a culture have sanctioned travesty and destruction, and it will take much to heal the damage.
“I hope I live long enough to see the day when the dams are removed, so I can watch the river begin to heal itself. Even if I do, I know that much of what has happened is irrevocable, the consequences of a series of decisions made by a few men during a period of about fifteen years during the life of a fifteen-thousand-year-old river.”
Published to acclaim in 2020, Restigouche reads almost like a parable or allegory about the arrival of colonial rules, private property law and resource exploitation, and the exclusion of people from their own native land and resources. Told with a journalist’s objectivity and a poet’s sensibility, Lee’s Restigouche is an extraordinary work of research and finely-crafted writing that should be revisited and widely shared. There is much to (re)learn and rehabilitate. Restigouche is part of that education.
Wanda Baxter is originally from the Kingston Peninsula, New Brunswick, and is the author of If I Had an Old House on the East Coast. She works as a creative and environmental consultant, and lives and works on an old farm in Lunenburg County, Nova Scotia.