Maliseet chiefs stress opposition to Sisson mine, despite deal with government

Continuing animosity among several Maliseet communities paints a darker picture of why they came to an agreement not to launch a court challenge of the mine than versions offered by the provincial and federal governments.

Province reached multi-million dollar accommodation agreement over mine with 6 First Nations in 2016

The Sisson mine is planned for traditional Maliseet territory and five Maliseet chiefs have expressed opposition to the project, although they signed an agreement with the province. (Northcliff Resources Ltd.)

Five New Brunswick Maliseet chiefs say their communities remain deeply opposed to a proposed open pit tungsten mine northwest of Fredericton, even though they signed an accommodation agreement with the province last winter that cleared the way for its environmental approval.

"The Sisson Mine Agreement does not provide Maliseet support for the mine," the chiefs wrote in a letter to CBC News. "To this day, most of the Maliseet communities and our members oppose the Sisson Mine."

Continuing animosity among several Maliseet communities paints a darker picture of why they came to an agreement not to launch a court challenge over the mine than versions offered by the provincial and federal governments.

Last week, Dominic LeBlanc, a federal cabinet minister from New Brunswick, praised the province for having forged a partnership with the Maliseet communities through consultation and dialogue that helped build trust and settle differences.

"In many ways, this is an example for the rest of the country of how we can build those kind of partnerships, LeBlanc said.

Veiled threats

New Brunswick reached a multimillion-dollar accommodation agreement with New Brunswick's six Maliseet First Nations last winter over the mine, but only one of those, the Woodstock First Nation, has expressed support for the project.

Chiefs of the other five, including Shelley Sabattis of Oromocto, Candice Paul of St. Mary's, Gabby Atwin  of Kingsclear, Ross Perley of Tobique and Trish Bernard of Madawaska, said they remain opposed and reluctantly signed onto an agreement not to battle it.

Chief Patricia Bernard of the Madawaska Maliseet First Nation says the six communities also worried about veiled threats she claimed the province made about not renewing lucrative petroleum and tobacco tax deals if they tried to block the mine.

"Fighting the mine would have involved very expensive litigation, and as with most litigation, the outcome would have been uncertain, the chiefs said in their letter. 

"We ultimately made the hard decision to accept accommodation to try to offset the Mine's adverse effects on our constitutional rights."

In February, Chief Bernard said the communities were also worried about veiled threats she claimed the province made about not renewing lucrative petroleum and tobacco tax deals worth nearly $20 million a year to the six communities if they tried to block the mine.

"The province wanted the chiefs to sign off on Sisson and made it pretty clear that if the Sisson agreements are not signed, they would not sign tax agreements with the First Nations," said Bernard.

The province eventually announced the renewal of the tax agreements and the agreement with Maliseet communities about the mine on the same day.

Promises of training, jobs

The agreement on the mine has several elements. 

It pays the six Maliseet communities $3 million once the mine receives federal environmental approval. That came last week.  

It also sets aside an estimated $1.5 million to purchase land to replace what will be consumed by the mine and entitles Maliseet First Nations to 35 percent ($700,000) of the first $2 million in annual royalties and 3.5 percent of additional royalties generated by the mine if it ever operates. 

Dominic LeBlanc, a federal minister from New Brunswick, praised the province for having forged a partnership with the Maliseet communities through consultation and dialogue that helped build trust and settle differences.

The agreement also has non-financial elements,including promises of training and job opportunities for Indigenous workers during construction and operation of the mine, provincial support for an "Indigenous knowledge centre" and other provisions.

The five chiefs indicated the accommodation agreement is typical in Canada for these kind of projects but maintain the potential benefits for their communities are still not worth the costs and dangers of the project and their preference is that it not proceed.

It reflects the hard reality of a Canadian legal system that, on its  150th  birthday, remains fundamentally inadequate in respecting and meaningfully protecting our Treaty rights, Aboriginal rights, and Aboriginal title.- Letter from 5 Maliseet  First Nations chiefs

"For most of the Maliseet communities, the Sisson Accommodation Agreement does not reflect comfort with or acceptance of the Mine," the chiefs wrote.

"Rather, it reflects the hard reality of a Canadian legal system that, on its 150th birthday, remains fundamentally inadequate in respecting and meaningfully protecting our Treaty rights, Aboriginal rights, and Aboriginal title."

St. Mary's spokeswoman Megan Fullerton said the letter fully expresses the views of the five chiefs who signed it and they were not open to further interviews.

Woodstock Chief Tim Paul, who has been supportive of the mine, was the lone Maliseet leader not to sign.