New Brunswick

Tribunal rules downtown Edmundston is on Maliseet First Nation land

A First Nation in northwestern New Brunswick is celebrating a hard-fought legal victory in its claim to land encompassing most of downtown Edmundston.

Madawaska First Nation fought for recognition of land claim for more than 20 years

An independent tribunal declared Wednesday that the Madawaska Maliseet First Nation claim to land that eventually became most of downtown Edmundston is legitimate. (Étienne Dumont/Radio-Canada)

A First Nation in northwestern New Brunswick is celebrating a hard-fought legal victory in its claim to land encompassing most of downtown Edmundston.

Canada's Specific Claims tribunal said Wednesday that the Madawaska Maliseet First Nation's claim to the 3,900 acres, or more than 1,575 hectares, was valid.

The band has been fighting for this recognition since 1996.

The independent tribunal, established in 2008, is a joint initiative of the federal government and Assembly of First Nations for resolving monetary claims made by First Nations more expeditiously.

Long road for community

Patricia Bernard, the band chief and legal counsel on the claim, said the land was taken away from the community unlawfully when the Madawaska reserve was created.

Chief Patricia Bernard of the Madawaska First Nation says her community is happy with Wednesday's decision, and the next step is to work out the compensation.

She said the community is ecstatic to finally have its claim recognized.

"It has been a very long road of bumps and ups and downs," she said. "It was quite overwhelming."

The history of the claim dates back to 1787, when the surveyor general of New Brunswick set aside 3,900 acres for the Maliseet. 

The First Nation argued that this was when the reserve was created, Bernard said. 

The federal government, however, argued the reserve was actually created in 1860 and only comprised 700 acres, which is roughly what it occupies now.

With the land claim victory this week, the First Nation's argument was validated, she said. 

No land to change hands 

The tribunal doesn't have the authority to return the land, and the First Nation doesn't want it back, Bernard said. 

The only option is to compensate the Madawaska First Nation for the loss of use of the land, she said. 

The maximum possible compensation for a land claim in Canada is $150 million, but a figure for the Maliseet claim has to be negotiated. If the community and federal government can't agree on a figure, the matter will go back to the tribunal.

Bernard said the band will organize a community meeting soon to discuss its next steps.

Edmundston mayor not concerned

The federal government has 30 days to decide whether to ask for a judicial review.

Edmundston Mayor Cyrille Simard said he is not worried about the decision, since it doesn't change anything for the city.

He said the city considers itself a partner of the Madawaska First Nation, and Wednesday's decision was the culmination of a long fight.

In 2009, the federal government of the day told the First Nation its original land claim had not been accepted for negotiation, saying the land was not on a reserve.

No other explanation was given.

With files from Radio-Canada and Shift