A First Nations chief whose reserve has seen only a tiny fraction of the total tax-sharing revenue in the province says he doesn't feel the system is unfair to his community.
Tobique First Nation chief Ross Perley says Premier Blaine Higgs should be applauding Indigenous entrepreneurship rather than ripping up tax-sharing agreements for being "unfair" to some reserves.
"The premier and the minister should be proud of their First Nations communities that are successful, not try to oppress them," he said.
Higgs said Wednesday on CBC's Information Morning Fredericton that the tax deals were unfair to other First Nations because Madawaska Maliseet First Nation collected 40 per cent of all the revenue in the province last year.
He was responding to a question from a listener who asked why he doesn't raise taxes on "super-wealthy" New Brunswickers like the Irving family.
"You could apply that logic right here in this situation," Higgs said. "Because this model does create super wealthy [reserves and] that is not shared with the other populations."
According to figures from the Finance Department, Tobique had the lowest revenue last year of the 13 First Nations with tax sharing agreements, bringing in only $230,000.
But Perley said he doesn't resent Madawaska's runaway success or accept Higgs's use of it as a rationale to terminate the deals.
"We applaud communities when they become successful," Perley said. "We don't stomp on them or try to oppress success, because they've planned and invested and become a model for all of us to follow.
"It's shameful that the premier had to go there in defence of the Irvings, who are the real super-wealthy family in New Brunswick. We're talking billions."
Madawaska Maliseet First Nation's success has been fuelled largely by the sprawling Grey Rock retail complex located on the Trans-Canada Highway near the main exit to Edmundston.
The band brought in $18 million under the tax agreements last year, less than one one-100th of this year's $1.9 billion estimate of Arthur Irving's net worth by Forbes Magazine.
Minister distances herself from premier's comments
Higgs's aboriginal affairs minister distanced herself from the premier's "super-wealthy" comment Wednesday.
Arlene Dunn said she wouldn't use the same terminology to describe the almost $18 million that the Madawaska Maliseet First Nation collected last year.
"The premier has a historical perspective with these tax arrangements that I don't necessarily have," she told CBC News. "So his perspective is what it is."
"I can't speak to his perspective. I know there are disparities in these tax agreements that are weighing heavily on his mind."
But she said it's "a valid point" that some Indigenous communities located near major highways have cashed in thanks to the tax deals, while others have not. She referred to the financial figures provided at what she termed "the premier's announcement."
'There's always a better way to do things'
Higgs and Dunn shared a podium Tuesday when they said they were giving notice to 13 First Nations bands that they were cancelling the agreements.
Some will end next year and others will be terminated in 90 days.
Dunn said she regretted how chiefs from those communities learned of the decision: in a conference call with Finance Minister Ernie Steeves in which he read a prepared statement and took no questions.
She called the brief call "very abrupt" and "very unfortunate" and said she understood why chiefs were upset by it.
"There's always a better way to do things," she said. "I've very sad to learn of that."
"She's going down the road of being the worst Indigenous affairs minister in history in New Brunswick..." - Tobique First Nation Chief Ross Perley
Perley compared the call to Dunn's earlier refusal to hold a public inquiry into systemic racism following two separate police shooting deaths of two Indigenous people.
"This is the same pattern of action that's been happening since they took office. It's crazy that she regrets it, but she did it," Perley said.
"She's going down the road of being the worst Indigenous affairs minister in history in New Brunswick, at the rate she's going."
The tax agreements have allowed retailers on First Nations reserves to keep 95 percent of provincial tax revenue. Provisions added when they were renewed in 2017 cap that at $8 million. The bands get 70 percent of revenue beyond that.
Higgs says that on top of being inequitable between First Nations, the agreements put non-Indigenous business owners near reserves at a competitive disadvantage.
But he said the concentration of wealth at Madawaska Maliseet First Nation, which has only two per cent of the Indigenous population in the province, violates the principle of taxation that everyone pays for services available to all.
"There are over half of the population, I would say, that do not receive any great benefit from these tax agreements," he said. "This is not shared among First Nations as a collective."