The federal government will pay out $145 million to the Madawaska Maliseet First Nation in northwestern New Brunswick in what is now the largest federal land claim settlement in Maritime history.
The settlement settles a dispute that wound through the courts for more than two decades.
"This claim strikes at the heart of what it has meant to have grown up on reserve lands" and to be "marginalized as a people," Madawaska First Nation Chief Patricia Bernard said in a statement.
"Our ancestors did not surrender their right to the land.''
In addition to $145 million, the settlement includes an option for the First Nation to acquire up to 783 hectares to add to its reserve.
The land can be anywhere in the province and there is no time limit on its acquisition.
The band's court battle for legal recognition of its claim dates back to 1996.
In that claim, the band argued Canada breached its lawful obligations in transferring lands — including lands that now encompass most of downtown Edmundston — to third parties and did not fulfil the provisions of the Royal Proclamation of 1763.
In November 2017, a federal tribunal ruled that the Madawaska Maliseet First Nation's claim to 1,578 hectares was valid.
However, the tribunal does not have the authority to return the land, so four years of negotiations for financial compensation settlement followed before the settlement was reached in mid-March.
On Monday evening, Carolyn Bennett, the federal minister for Crown-Indigenous Relations, congratulated Bernard and the Maliseet First Nation on the conclusion of the "historic settlement."
"Achieved through the unwavering dedication, determination and hard work of Chief Bernard and the Madawaska Maliseet First Nation, this settlement will stand as a major step forward on the path of renewal and reconciliation between our two nations," Bennett said in an email.
Bennett's office confirmed the $145-million settlement is the largest federal land claim settlement in the Maritimes.
Previously, the largest settlement in the Maritimes was the Halifax County 1919 Invalid Surrender specific claim with the Millbrook and Sipekne'katik First Nation, which was settled on April 24, 2020, for $49,204,071.
"Honouring Canada's legal obligations to First Nations and working collaboratively to renew relationships are key to advancing reconciliation with First Nations in Canada," the office said Monday evening.
Victory represents a new beginning, chief says
In an interview Monday, Bernard, who is also the lawyer who launched and litigated the initial claim and was the negotiator in the settlement, said the hard-won victory represents a new beginning for the Madawaska community.
"We're putting $50 million into a legacy trust fund that will generate money on a continuous basis," Bernard said.
As well, she said, all of the community members will get per-capita distribution.
The money will also fuel economic and infrastructure development for the community, Bernard said.
Consultations will now get underway with the community to determine the sort of lands Madawaska should be considering for acquisition.
"We're going to consult with the community with respect to, you know, what are we are looking for," Bernard said.
"Are we looking for an area to practise traditional ceremonies, are we looking for residential, are we looking for economic development? So we have to consult with the community on that."
For Bernard, the road to victory has been a long and personal journey.
"The amazing thing for me is that I was involved right from the beginning," she said. "I did the initial research, the initial legal opinion, litigated the claim in the tribunal and then did the negotiation.
"This has been a personal goal of mine to see it through, and having it done has been an amazing feeling, so I'm quite happy with the outcome."