No evidence Higgs will share forestry revenue after axing tax agreement, First Nations say
Premier Blaine Higgs has said province will pull out of gas-tax agreement with First Nations
First Nations leaders say they see little reason to have any faith in the Higgs government's suggestion of resource revenue agreements to replace tax-sharing deals.
Aboriginal Affairs Minister Arlene Dunn said earlier this week that letting bands share in the profits from forestry and mining operations made more sense than the tax agreements being terminated.
"There are existing best practice models that exist across Canada that sadly and very unfortunately do not exist here in the province of New Brunswick," she said, mentioning deals in Alberta, Manitoba and Ontario.
"These agreements have been created for modern times."
Dunn later acknowledged to CBC News she has yet to "scan" other provinces to see what works and has not spoken to anyone in the New Brunswick forestry industry about a new model.
And Mi'kmaw and Wolastoqey leaders say they've asked repeatedly to talk about improving existing forestry agreements, without the province giving any indication it's interested.
"We have zero evidence of that," Tobique First Nation Chief Ross Perley said.
Since 1998, five per cent of the province's annual allowable cut on Crown land has been set aside for Indigenous harvesting.
Dean Vicaire, the executive director of the Mi'kmaw organization Mi'gmawe'l Tplu'taqnn, said chiefs have raised resource revenue sharing "at almost every meeting" with the Higgs government since 2018.
"If the province is really sincere about coming to the table on this, they would have at least given the chiefs a heads up or previously discussed what's happening in other provinces," he said.
"What occurred [Tuesday] was the most disgraceful treatment of elected officials."
The tax deals let First Nations keep 95 per cent of the provincial tax they collect at on-reserve retail outlets, including gas stations and convenience stores. Some will expire in 90 days and others will end next year.
Last year bands brought in tax amounts ranging from $17.6 million at Madawaska Maliseet First Nation to $230,000 at Tobique.
Premier Blaine Higgs calls the system unfair to non-Indigenous businesses and even unjust between First Nations that make a lot of money and those that make less.
Dunn suggested Tuesday that "resource revenue-sharing agreements for forestry and mining" signed in Ontario in 2018 were one example of a better way to go.
'Get First Nations to the table'
But she acknowledged a day later that she has not spoken to any of New Brunswick's major forestry companies about the idea and still needed to look at what other provinces have done.
"What I would suggest we need to do at this point in time is get First Nations to the table to figure out what's important to them," she said.
Perley called the suggestion of forestry revenue sharing "a shiny object" being used to deflect attention from the cancellation of the tax-sharing agreements.
"Why would they attach that to this announcement? Why wouldn't they come up with this plan or idea or suggestion to the chiefs prior?"
Higgs said earlier this week the impending end of the tax agreements should create a "sense of urgency" to sort out new arrangements quickly.
But he said "we haven't proposed any solution" and it's up to Indigenous leaders themselves to come up with a proposal.
Vicaire and lawyer Derek Simon, a lawyer working for Mi'kmaw communities, said their chiefs have written to the province nine times over the last five years, including four times since the Progressive Conservatives took office, to discuss tax-sharing and resource-sharing deals.
"There's never been a willingness to discuss this before," Vicaire said.
Perley said the forestry agreements that give First Nations only a small part of the total Crown wood allocation need to be updated.
"Five per cent of the cut, and 95 per cent goes to everybody else, " Perley said. "So is that real good equity? I don't think so."
Vicaire noted that all of New Brunswick is unceded Indigenous land. He said the five per cent wood allocation is divided between bands on a per capita basis and is too small to allow any viable Indigenous businesses to develop.
Perley said Indigenous loggers are not allowed to sell wood to the provincial marketing board system, a restriction he called racist.
"All the other mills and forestry companies have access to that, but because we're Indigenous, 'Sorry, Indigenous people.' … We've been trying to work with the government for many years to improve the agreement.
"But there hasn't been a willingness by the government to change the agreements."
Forest NB, the association representing industry players in New Brunswick, said no one was able to comment on Dunn's suggestion. The province's largest forestry company J.D. Irving Ltd. did not respond to a request for comment.
The Department of Natural Resources and Energy Development said marketing boards exist to buy wood from private woodlots, and since Indigenous harvesters are cutting on Crown land they are not eligible to sell to the boards.
The forestry agreements were worth $3.9 million in 2019-20.
The department "continues to work with First Nations communities," said spokesperson Nick Brown.
He pointed to an accommodation agreement on the proposed Sisson mine signed by the previous Liberal government. It saw bands receive $3 million along with a promise of a share of the royalties and replacement land if the project goes ahead.
Brown said the department has had "no official discussions" about bringing back special permits that allowed non-Indigenous buyers to purchase moose meat from Indigenous hunters.
In 2017 the New Brunswick Court of Appeal said the elimination of the permits was an "unfair and oppressive" way to interfere with the Indigenous right to earn a moderate livelihood from hunting.