Wolastoqey Nation officials told MLAs this week that relations with the province have gone downhill with a trend towards “centralization” under the Department of Aboriginal Affairs, while negotiations have suffered.
In response, Minister of Aboriginal Affairs Arlene Dunn issued a lengthy statement defending the province’s approach, saying the department’s mandate has grown as it pursues a “meaningful whole of government nation-to-nation relationship with each First Nation.”
Darrah Beaver, executive director of Wolastoqey Nation in New Brunswick — an advisory body that provides support to the six Wolastoqey communities in New Brunswick — raised concerns about a deteriorating relationship with the provincial government during a legislative committee meeting this week.
“Most progressive governments have sought to decentralize relationships with Indigenous communities and governments to ensure that the spirit of reconciliation and respect is imbued across all departments,” Beaver said.
“Our experience is that New Brunswick has adopted the opposite approach. It’s a problematic approach in centralizing our relationships with the government to one department.”
Gillian Paul, a legal advisor for WNNB, added that many negotiation tables with the provincial government came to a halt as the six Wolastoqey communities filed a court action asserting title to a large section of the province in 2020.
Paul said that consultations with Indigenous communities in New Brunswick tend to occur towards the end of the decision-making processes, when the outcome is already certain.
“Oftentimes, we find that when we’re consulted, it’s really at the end of the project, when it seems like the decision on the project has already been made,” she said. “And consultation is merely a blowing-off-steam process for First Nations, and another hurdle or a checkbox in the process in order to get project approval.”
Mi’gmawel Tplu’taqnn Inc., a group representing Mi’kmaq communities in New Brunswick, has raised similar concerns about the province’s consultation processes with First Nations.
The relationship between First Nations and the provincial government has been marked by tension and conflict on issues ranging from land title disputes to police violence and systemic racism, but the latest complaints seemed to come as a surprise to one cabinet minister.
WATCH: Wolastoqey Nation in New Brunswick at the Standing Committee on Climate Change and Environmental Stewardship, Sept. 26, 2023
Weekly meetings with Premier?
Gary Crossman, Minister of Environment and Climate Change — a member of the legislative committee — told the Wolastoqey Nation officials Tuesday that he believed meetings involving the Premier and chiefs took place on a weekly basis.
“It’s interesting you should say that government departments aren’t working together, because I sincerely thought we were…. I do believe — I stand to be corrected — that there’s meetings every Friday with the chiefs, isn’t there, with the Premier and the Minister [of Aboriginal Affairs]?”
“No, not with the Wolastoqey chiefs,” Beaver replied, seemingly perplexed by the minister’s remarks.
“Okay, I don’t know who’s involved with the meetings, but I understand there’s meetings on a regular basis, and maybe if that’s the case, maybe get on the agenda or on the weekly calls,” the Minister of Environment said. “[It’s] my understanding that there’s regular meetings that take place for information sharing and certainly to keep us up to speed.”
Aboriginal Affairs responds
The Department of Aboriginal Affairs did not respond to an interview request, but provided a 1,300-word statement attributed to Minister Arlene Dunn.
The statement doesn’t directly address questions about Minister Crossman’s remarks or whether Premier Blaine Higgs holds meetings with chiefs.
The statement details how the Department of Aboriginal Affairs has seen its mandate expand under Minister Dunn since her appointment as minister in 2020.
The statement outlines a series of initiatives that resulted in “significant investment” and enlarged the Department of Aboriginal Affairs.
“This investment is reflected in part by the Department’s increase in size as well as its use of external legal counsel to conduct research, work with the Department and the rest of the Government on consultations and carry out negotiations. In addition, legal counsel has been retained to defend the Province in litigation.”
It said a government-wide review led to an expanded mandate for the department in July 2021, making Aboriginal Affairs responsible for coordinating “all the Province’s initiatives with First Nations.”
The ongoing review evaluates government initiatives based on factors such as whether they respect the rights of First Nations, it states. The statement acknowledges “frustration, delays and wasted efforts” previously stemming from inconsistencies with the consultation process.
“First Nations identified that they would have informal discussions, but not formal consultations, and certain departments would think these informal discussions respected First Nations’ rights,” it says.
The duty to consult stems from Section 35 of the Constitution Act, 1982, which recognizes and affirms Indigenous and treaty rights. The government is obligated to engage in consultations in order to protect those rights, a doctrine that emerged from a series of decisions in the Canadian court system.
According to Dunn’s statement, there was “no legal failure” identified in the province’s duty to consult. And although it admits there is room for improvement, it says the “Duty to Consult process is now consistently applied.”
The statement, issued on the eve of Truth and Reconciliation Day, states that “reconciliation is an ongoing process. We have made considerable progress in this regard and are dedicated to continuing this important work.”
Officials from Wolastoqey Nation in New Brunswick weren’t immediately available to comment on Friday afternoon. Beaver has stated that the government’s new approach is more costly and creates conflict with First Nations, according to earlier reporting by the CBC.
The question of consultation was central to the group’s presentation this week at the Standing Committee on Climate Change and Environmental Stewardship.
Clean energy questions
Beaver, during her presentation to MLAs on Tuesday, stressed the need to transition away from fossil fuels, but criticized projects implemented “under the flag of clean energy” without adequate consultation with Indigenous communities, such as hydroelectric dams.
“Since the 1760s, colonizers have harnessed the energy of our rivers, with hundreds of small dams, and eventually several big ones,” she said.
“These dams have flooded our communities, and eroded parts of others, submerged sacred prayer sites and burial grounds, flooded some of our best and most accessible fiddlehead and sweetgrass areas, created barriers for our navigation, blocked fish passage and destroyed habitat.”
That was a reference, in part, to the Mactaquac Generating Station, which dams the waters of the Wolastoq, or the St. John River. The construction of that dam, which began producing electricity 1968, dramatically altered the river.
Beaver called on the province to involve First Nations communities “in all project planning processes, from the earliest stages, with relevant government departments.”
She added that current environmental legislation and regulations “do not provide a rigorous or independent enough review to encourage the development of projects that are clean” or an adequate review of project impacts on “Indigenous peoples, our lands, our resources and our rights.”
David Gordon Koch is a journalist with the NB Media Co-op. This reporting has been made possible in part by the Government of Canada, administered by the Canadian Association of Community Television Stations and Users (CACTUS).