Bill Parenteau

I met Bill Parenteau thirty-seven years ago. He’d arrived from America, a seemingly unnatural blend of Rhode Island, NYC, and Maine. He seemed very American. Intellectually exotic and pugnacious, he told tales of then young hotshot historians, Greer and Judd, New York delis, the Red Sox, real punks and historical materialism.

The author making an undoubtedly very important point and Bill calculating when to call BS.
In the background, another loss to the Atlantic Canadian scholarly world, Herb Wylie.

The short-form conventional wisdom on Bill is that he was smart and funny. The slightly longer version is that he was that and that he was a truly decent guy who never lost sight of his New England, working-class sensibilities, an ethic rooted in fairness. His work centred on the simple premise that there were good ways and bad ways to treat people. The job of the historian was to document this and to advocate for the good; it was to shine a light into corners deliberately darkened by those who were enriched and empowered on the backs of the poor. He carried that ethic of right and wrong, of fairness, into everything he did: as a historian to Canada, a partner to Helen, a parent to Mia, and a friend to me and many others.

In the Venn diagram of our lives and interests, Bill and I intersected solidly but nowhere near 50 per cent. Obviously both being historians of the rural poor, the Maritimes and the pernicious effects of capitalism on the region took up a lot of space. So too did our fondness for punk, but even there were limits. I like the Ramones, but lord there’s lots to take a pass on; he thought Sonic Youth had crossed a line into a baleful dissonance, which is what I thought made them great; we agreed the Pixies were sent by God (though we disagreed on the existence of God, but we’ll save that for another time). But art – that is, art-gallery art, not Black-Francis art – was not a world we shared.

Thus, it may seem strange that the last time I saw Bill, our last long conversation, was in an art gallery.

Until that day, I don’t think we’d ever gone to an art gallery together. But last March there we were. I’d been to the Beaverbrook several times, but this was my first visit since its expansion. Bill and Helen, I learned that day, went often, and were members. The Beaverbrook had always punched above its provincial weight, if in a decidedly modernist European manner – like a (not quite) greatest hits package from my mid-80s modern art history class. The changes impressed. If there’s still more Krieghoffs than anyone needs to see, walking among contemporary, often activist, Wolastoqey, Mi’kmaw, and queer works was revelatory: Salvadore Dali and Mary Pratt meet Attila Lukacs and Shirley Bear. And Bill’s commentary on how Fredericton had, and hadn’t, changed in the past thirty years was instructive, an alternative guide to the gallery. The excitement of the newer works partly muted in halls sponsored by McCains and Irvings was enlivened by Bill’s fuller narrative.

We spoke that day of meaning: in our lives, our partners, our work; that powerful mixture of pride and anxiety for our children; of work and knowledge that could be useful to others. We spoke of how the Irvings could be so generous; how forestry trapped poor rural New Brunswickers, how New Brunswick was a captive neo-liberal state; and how Shirley Bear and Jordan Bonnett both disrupted and enhanced the beauty contained in that building.  

Of knowledge, and skills, useful to others, Bill had plenty. Most will know of his important publications on New Brunswick environmental history, particularly the uneven development and application of state-led “conservation” programs. Sold as progressive measures to protect the environment and conserve resources, natural resource laws effectively dispossessed the rural poor and Indigenous people of forest and fishery resources, conserving them for capital and state interests.[1]

Fewer know of his much less public work on Wolastoqiyik (Maliseet) land claims. Together with Elizabeth Mancke and others, their research, armed with Bill’s completely unparalleled knowledge of the Public Archives of New Brunswick, undergirded a powerful and successful case compensating the Madawaska Wolastoqey. Active in specific claims from the mid-90s, he had conducted research on several Wabanaki claims before working on the successful Madawaska claim, research highly praised by Chief Patricia Bernard as critical to the success of that claim.[2] Writing a year later about the importance such work held for him, he described the experience as a highlight of his career, noting the great pride he had in contributing to “meaningful acts of reconciliation”.[3]

That day in the Beaverbrook, as we walked among the works of Jordan Bennett and Shirley Bear, Bill reiterated the great pride he’d taken in being useful in the Madawaska case, that ethic of fairness, of supporting the historically wronged with research that could help revise the record. And because he knew those archives so well, he returned to a theme he’d emphasised in every public presentation he made on Indigenous issues: that such cases represented only a tiny piece of the story. As he wrote after the Madawaska decision, the focus on specific cases:

creates the false impression of the ‘native rights’ movement being occasional and fragmented. It is only through more detailed study that a fuller picture emerges. In fact, administration of Native land and resources that has changed fundamentally over time, while the Native position has been characterized by a core set of beliefs and principles. Those core values have been sustained by unflappable leaders like Chief Patricia Bernard who fought for the Madawaska claim for 20 years despite enduring repeated setbacks along the way.[4]

This sense of service, graciousness, and generosity was part of every professional action Bill undertook. He was unfailingly generous with his time, as editor of Acadiensis, with his graduate students, with his family, and with his friends. Though perhaps the Irvings and a few bureaucrats in Ottawa and Fredericton saw him differently, everyone who knew Bill, who worked and played with him, knew him to be equal measures funny and smart, gracious and generous, that he knew right from wrong, and that social justice was achievable, if hard work. In some ways our day in the Beaverbrook was unusual; it none the less captured much of what made Bill one of the most remarkable people I’ve ever known. I’ll miss him very much.

[1] Bill Parenteau, Parenteau, Bill. “A ‘Very Determined Opposition to the Law’: Conservation, Angling Leases, and Social Conflict in the Canadian Atlantic Salmon Fishery, 1867–1914.” Environmental history 9, 3 (2004), 436–463; and “‘Care, Control and Supervision’: Native People in the Canadian Atlantic Salmon Fishery, 1867–1900.” Canadian Historical Review 79, 1 (1998), 1–35; and with Jim Kenny, “‘Each Year the Indians Flexed Their Muscles a Little More’: The Maliseet Defence of Aboriginal Fishing Rights on the St. John River, 1945–1990.” Canadian Historical Review 95, 2 (2014), 187–216; and “Survival, Resistance, and the Canadian State: The Transformation of New Brunswick’s Native Economy, 1867-1930.” Journal of the Canadian Historical Association 13, 1 (2002), 49–71.

[2] Madawaska Maliseet First Nation v. Her Majesty the Queen in Right of Canada, 28 Nov 2017; and “Trio of Scholars in landmark First Nations case die”, NB Media Co-op 26 October 2023.

[3] Madawaska Maliseet First Nation, Wolastoqiyik: People of the Beautiful River, Land Claim Report (Madawaska, 2018), 21.

[4] “Trio of Scholars in landmark First Nations case die”, NB Media Co-op, 26 October 2023.