Deal ends First Nation protest over hydro dams

The New Brunswick government and Tobique First Nation have signed a five-year, $2.5-million deal, ending years of frustration and protest over the impact two hydro dams have had on the western community.

The New Brunswick government and Tobique First Nation signed a five-year, $2.5-million deal on Monday, ending years of frustration and protest over the impact two hydro dams have had on the western community.

The provincial government will help repair erosion on the St. John and Tobique rivers caused by the construction of the Tobique Narrows and Beechwood hydro dams in the 1950s.

Under the deal, the government will also analyze and remediate contamination at a dump site that was used by NB Power on the reserve and provide mentoring and training so that band members can get work maintaining the dams.

Aboriginal Affairs Minister Rick Brewer said the province wanted to help the community.

"The Tobique First Nation is probably, of the 15 First Nations in the province of New Brunswick, are having the toughest time financially," Brewer said.

"So as a province we thought, 'What is it that we can do to help?' So at this point in time, this is what we've been able to pull together as of this date."

Also wrapped into the deal, the New Brunswick government will transfer five megawatts of power generated from the dams to the First Nation and the province will discuss future electricity generation opportunities.

NB Power regains access to dam

Although the frustration with the dams has been a long-standing irritant in the western New Brunswick community, tempers flared in the summer.

Protests, threats and blocked access to the dam so maintenance work couldn't be done led to the Tobique hydro dam being shut down at the end of the summer.

It is estimated that NB Power lost close to $2 million worth of electricity during that protest.

Part of the new deal commits the band to guaranteeing that NB Power employees will have access to the dam. 

Terry Sappier, who helped negotiate the settlement, said the deal is a significant move for both sides.

"It is a big deal for me, I'm really happy because I've worked really hard protesting for two years," Sappier said.

Hart Pearly, another Tobique protester, said the accord will also offer a psychological boost to people in the community.

"Our community members won't have to be wary about driving too close to the river bank," she said.

Both sides acknowledge the memorandum signed on Monday is only a beginning. There's been no discussion yet around the stickiest issue, the power that is generated by the dams and who owns it.

During the summer protest, people on the First Nation stopped paying their NB Power bills. It's estimated that upwards of $1 million worth of unpaid power bills from the reserve are piling up.