New Brunswick

First Nations leaders warn MLAs about growing impact of climate change

An Indigenous leader has told New Brunswick MLAs that climate change is putting new pressure on her people, squeezing the already-small reserve land imposed on them by the federal government.

Leaders spoke at N.B. legislature hearings held to guide new 5-year provincial climate action plan

Chief Sacha Labillois of Ugpi'ganjig First Nation told a legislative committee on climate change that Indigenous communities in New Brunswick are running out of space. (Serge Bouchard/Radio Canada)

An Indigenous leader has told provincial MLAs that climate change is putting new pressure on her people, squeezing the already-small reserve land imposed on them by the federal government.

Chief Sacha LaBillois of Ugpi'ganjig First Nation, also known as Eel River Bar, says the low-lying reserve will be increasingly vulnerable to extreme weather caused by warming temperatures.

"Our lands were taken from us by the government, and now they're being taken away, out of anyone's control, due in large part to climate change, human activity and influence," she told the New Brunswick Legislature's committee on climate change.

"Our communities are running out of space and they're surrounded by private lands which makes it almost impossible to grow out from our current boundaries." 

She called on the province to make it easier for First Nations to acquire new land.

LaBillois was representing Mi'gmawe'l Tplu'taqnn Inc., an umbrella group of nine Mi'kmaw communities in the province, at hearings set up to gather input into a new five-year provincial climate change plan.

A storm surge in 2010 affected homes in Ugpi'ganjig First Nation on the north shore of New Brunswick. (Ugpi’ganjig First Nation)

She and John Vicaire of the Gespe'gewaq Mi'gmaq Resource Council, a non-profit research organization based at the First Nation, told MLAs that almost all of their reserve lies just six metres or less above sea level.

Existing initiatives only 'temporary fix'

The community built a $10 million seawall to protect infrastructure after a 2010 storm surge, but some homes remain exposed and the wall will need to be enlarged and reinforced, she said.

The band has also lifted some homes and has demolished and relocated others.

"These are great initiatives that are preventative, but unfortunately it's just a temporary fix. It's not a long-term solution," LaBillois said.

Ugpi’ganjig built a $10 million seawall in response to the storm surge. (Ugpi’ganjig First Nation)

Vicaire said 50 buildings on the reserve will be vulnerable to extreme weather by 2050, according to projections.

The reserve's location, directly south of the town of Dalhousie with the Eel River and the Bay of Chaleur to its south and east, leaves it little room for relocation or to accommodate economic development, the chief said.

Support for nuclear power

Earlier in the day, another Mi'kmaw chief, Terry Richardson of Pabineau First Nation, pitched Indigenous communities as enthusiastic potential partners in a range of green-energy projects.

He also declared his support for small modular nuclear reactors now being developed by two companies in Saint John.

Nuclear power does not generate greenhouse gases that contribute to climate change, though some environmentalists oppose the energy source because of longer-term waste issues and safety concerns.

Indigenous organizations have signed up to take part in unrelated licence-renewal hearings for N.B. Power's existing Point Lepreau nuclear power plant.

Peskotomuhkati chief Hugh Akagi said he opposes nuclear power in his people's traditional territory because it's not truly green.

But Richardson argued that even if the province moves completely to non-fossil fuel energy sources for electricity, it won't be able to rely on wind and solar power alone and will need nuclear energy as part of a reliable base load.

Pabineau First Nation Chief Terry Richardson said First Nations communities like his are willing to be partners on nuclear power projects. (Jacques Poitras/CBC)

"Some people will argue it's not green," he said. "But if we're looking at the need we're going to have, how are we going to have to meet that need when the wind doesn't blow and water doesn't flow and the sun doesn't shine?"

He said that nuclear power is "safe enough and the technology is safe enough that it can be utilized."

Last year Pabineau First Nation signed a memorandum of understanding with the Port of Belledune and with Moltex Energy, one of the two Saint John-based SMR developers, "to work collaboratively on mutually beneficial initiatives."

Moltex also has a memorandum of understanding with the North Shore Micmac District Council, which includes Pabineau and Ugpi'ganjig.

The agreement allows the bands "to maximise job prospects, have an equity stake in the business and profit from future reactor sales," Moltex said in a news release at the time.

Pabineau has a similar MOU with ARC Clean Energy, the other company working on SMRs in Saint John.

Asked Thursday if she could imagine a small modular reactor operating on Ugpi'ganjig First Nation land, LaBillois was non-committal. 

"I can't speak to if we'd be willing to have this within Ugpi'ganjig. or the other communities. It's not a discussion we've had. 

"It's something that we are open to exploring, discussing, engaging. To give a firm position on that, I couldn't really give my position at this point." 

Pabineau elder and band councillor James Richardson, who appeared with the chief and also endorsed SMRs, admitted he wouldn't want waste from the reactors stored at the First Nation.

"If I was to be asked — this is my personal opinion — 'Would you store nuclear waste on your territory?' I would have to say no, quite frankly."