Some traditional lands to return to Wolastoqey Nation, agreement signed
A New Brunswick forestry company is agreeing to transfer a parcel of land to Wolastoqey communities in the province and allow their members input into their forest management practices.
The agreement is part of a memorandum of understanding signed between the Wolastoqey Nation in New Brunswick and AV Nackawic, one of the province's largest forestry companies with operations in Nackawic and Atholville.
The Wolastoqey Nation in New Brunswick represents the Matawaskiye (Madawaska), Wotstak (Woodstock), Neqotkuk (Tobique), Bilijk (Kingsclear), Sitansisk (St. Mary's) and Welamuktok (Oromocto) First Nations, located along the Wolastoq River, also known as the St. John River.
The agreement was announced at a news conference in Fredericton Tuesday, with Sitansisk First Nation Chief Allan Polchies describing it as the first of its kind between the six nations and a large industry player.
"It is a clear signal that what we're asking of companies, of Crown corporations and the provincial government is not unreasonable, but in fact, precisely the right way to proceed into the future," Polchies said.
In 2020 the Wolastoqey Nation filed a land title claim for more than five million hectares the chiefs identify as Wolastoqey traditional lands, equating to about half of New Brunswick.
In 2021, they amended the claim to specifically name AV Group and some of the province's other large forestry companies, including J.D. Irving Ltd. and its subsidiaries, Twin Rivers Paper, Acadian Timber and H.J. Crabbe and Sons, as well as N.B. Power.
The claim has led to comments by Premier Blaine Higgs that it could lead to Indigenous people winning control of 60 per cent of the province's land, including homes and businesses. Those comments prompted backlash, with accusations that he stoked fear among the public and spread misinformation.
Largely symbolic, says chief
Matawaskiye First Nation Chief Patricia Bernard said the memorandum of understanding with AV Group doesn't change the company's status as a respondent in the title claim.
She said the claim is still in the discovery stage and while the Wolastoqey Nation is open to negotiations, there's no sign of reaching a settlement with any of the respondents.
She said the new agreement with the AV Group is largely "symbolic" and serves as an acknowledgement that First Nations deserve to have a say in how their traditional lands are developed.
"I think this is a great day and is a great opportunity for this particular company to initiate this memorandum of understanding, because it actually sets the stage for other companies to do the same," Bernard said.
Bernard said the Wolastoqey Nation in New Brunswick is not in discussions with other companies for a similar agreement.
She said the specific parcel of land to be transferred to the Wolastoqey Nation is yet to be determined.
Not about settling claim, says AV Group
Mike Legere, director of government relations with AV Group, said the memorandum wasn't signed with the intention of reaching a settlement in the title claim, but rather about improving engagement with the Wolastoqey nations.
Asked whether he thinks it could help result in a settlement, Legere said it "opens up options."
"Any time you build a relationship and that relationship improves, it opens conversations. Again, it's not the intent ... but obviously if the relationship improves, it opens up options."
Conway Elkins, director of woodlands and fibre sourcing for AV Group, said discussions about the agreement began about two years ago.
He said they were prompted in part by customers challenging the company to become more aware of how their practices impact Indigenous communities and to explore ways to build trust with them.
He said the memorandum of understanding will result in AV Group engaging with the Wolastoqey Nation on its long- and short-term forest management plans, and incorporating their knowledge into the company's operations.
"We will explore economic opportunities as it relates to forest management," Elkins said. "We will work to truly define co-management and what co-decision making means."