First Nations in N.B. sign agreement with one forestry company named in title claim

FREDERICTON — Six Wolastoqey communities in New Brunswick have signed a memorandum of understanding with one of the companies named in a major lawsuit filed by the First Nations, who are seeking to reclaim title over large swaths of the province.

The agreement in principle with forestry company AV Group NB outlines a path for a forest co-management model and for other economic development opportunities, representatives for the six nations said Tuesday.

"It's much more of a symbolic gesture," said Madawaska Maliseet First Nation Chief Patricia Bernard.

"It actually sets the stage for other companies to probably do the same … sit down with the chiefs and come to an understanding, moving forward when it comes to forestry management. And that's just one aspect of all of this."

In November 2021, the First Nations filed an updated claim in New Brunswick court targeting corporations that operate on about 20 per cent of the more than 50,000 square kilometres in the province the Wolastoqey claim as their traditional lands.

In their original claim filed in 2020, the communities sought title to the land, but their new claim also seeks compensation from the Crown for allowing commercial operations on their traditional territory.

Other than AV Group NB, the defendants include J.D. Irving Ltd. and 18 of its subsidiaries or related entities, NB Power, Acadian Timber, as well as the governments of New Brunswick and Canada.

Bernard said the memorandum of understanding, which includes a land parcel transfer, does not mean the title claim will be amended to remove AV Group NB, but added, "negotiation is always better than litigation."

The agreement shows a beginning of reconciliation, she said.

"We are always willing to negotiate," she said.

"In fact, it may end up that when we win this title claim we're going to be having to negotiate. So why waste all of this litigation cost when we could be negotiating right from the beginning. But there has to be that initial acknowledgment first and willing parties."

The agreement in principle allows the First Nations to exercise their treaty rights on the company's land — whether that be privately owned or Crown land, Bernard said.

"It is a great step forward and more than what other forestry companies are doing," she said, adding that the six nations aren't in discussions for similar agreements with other parties named in the lawsuit.

Mike Legere, director of government relations for AV Group NB, said the details of the agreement are confidential. But, he added, there's nothing that would affect the company's ability to defend itself in court against the lawsuit.

He said that if terms are favourable, the company would prefer to settle with the six nations rather than fight them in court.

"But that's pure speculation," Legere said.

"We're not even having those discussions at this point. It's very early stages in the (memorandum of understanding), and it opens the door to things related to co-management. And if that develops a better relationship and provides opportunity for further discussion … there's two ways this can end — with a court-determined decision, or settlement. And that applies to everybody in the claim."

This report by The Canadian Press was first published Feb. 28, 2023.

Hina Alam, The Canadian Press