New Brunswick

First Nations could have been better consulted on scrapped tax deals, says minister

Aboriginal Affairs Minister Arlene Dunn says the manner in which First Nations communities were informed that a tax sharing agreement with the province would be cancelled could have been done better.

Going forward, Arlene Dunn says she wants to focus on improving consultation with First Nations communities

Aboriginal Affairs Minister Arlene Dunn says she thinks a better job could have been done in the way her government informed Indigenous leaders of its intent to end a gas tax-sharing agreement in place since 1994. (Jacques Poitras/CBC News)

New Brunswick's aboriginal affairs minister says she thinks her own government could have better consulted First Nations leaders prior to its announcement it would end a tax-sharing agreement that generated millions of dollars in revenue for some communities.

"I think hindsight is 20/20, Arlene Dunn said during the New Brunswick Political Panel, which was debating how Indigenous leaders were informed of the decision. Dunn said she understands why they took offence to it.

"I think when you look back at that, there's probably a better way of doing that," she said.

"But with respect to the agreements themselves, there are actually legal provisions within those commercial arrangements that dictate the time frames and that termination notice needed to be sent out when it was sent out."

Earlier this month, Premier Blaine Higgs announced his government would be pulling out of tax-sharing agreements with 13 Mi'kmaq and Wolastoqey First Nations.

In place since 1994, those agreements fuelled economic growth in some Indigenous communities by allowing First Nations to keep 95 per cent of on-reserve gas tax revenue up to $8 million and 70 per cent of amounts beyond that.

The Grey Rock Power Centre in Madawaska is one of several First Nation truck stops in New Brunswick covered by tax sharing agreements with the province. (Julia Wright / CBC)

The announcement was followed by swift condemnation from Indigenous leaders, including from Madawaska Maliseet First Nation Chief Patricia Bernard, who said chiefs only learned about the decision during a brief conference call with Finance Minister Ernie Steeves, in which they weren't given a chance to ask questions.

Focus on better consultation

Dunn said it's not a good idea to "tick the other side off" in negotiations, adding there's going to be a focus on better consultations with First Nations communities moving forward.

Dunn said her government needs to focus on the future and look at best practices followed across the country in terms of Indigenous relations.

"We need to look at where the gaps are. Why isn't New Brunswick doing some of the things that other provinces are doing in terms of filling those gaps and fostering good economic relationships with First Nations and having those partnerships?" she said.

Dunn said she finds herself having to defend or explain some of the decisions made by the premier when speaking to Indigenous leaders, but added she doesn't think Higgs makes her job as minister difficult.

"So I would say that the premier really has no, you know, influence in terms of my ability to move this file forward and to come up with a successful solution that's going to work for everybody."

Action needed to repair relations, opposition says

Speaking on the panel, Moncton Centre Liberal MLA Robert McKee said he was "troubled" by the announcement, particularly over how the government didn't consult First Nations leaders prior to cancelling the agreement.

"I think we're at a point almost of no return and this further harms any good-will that was left of that relationship before this happened," McKee said.

Moncton Centre Liberal MLA Rob McKee said the Higgs government has a lot of work to do to repair its relationship with the province's First Nations. (CBC)

"So I think this government has a lot of work to do and I'm not sure I have the answer for how they can do that."

Green Party Leader David Coon said the only possibility of the government creating a "workable relationship" with Indigenous leaders would be if Higgs visited and spent time in First Nations to listen and learn.

"Without that, I don't think it's repairable with this government," Coon said, "[Higgs's] behaviour is unbelievable."

Peoples Alliance Leader Kris Austin said he also disagrees with how the government announced its decision to end the agreement but said he understands "the government's position on it."

"The initial sign up of this agreement, you know, made sense but what should have happened, it should have been capped at some point to a certain amount, but now it's just ballooned beyond measure," Austin said.

- With files from CBC's Political Panel