First Nations logger says conservation officers are eliminating his market instead of laying charges
Firewood wholesaler says New Brunswick investigation violates his treaty rights
A Wolastoqew (Maliseet) logger who's harvesting lumber from Crown land outside of provincial regulations says an investigation by conservation officers is violating his treaty right to earn a moderate livelihood.
Patrick Paul, 30, from St. Mary's First Nation near Fredericton, N.B., has been running a wholesale firewood operation for three years. He works by himself, harvesting with a chainsaw and a logging tractor, 30 km north of his community.
Paul said he's part of a group of 16 other First Nations entrepreneurs running similar operations. They're calling themselves "Wabanaki Loggers" after the 17th century alliance of the Mi'kmaq, Wolastoqiyik, Peskotomuhkati, Abenaki and Penawapskewi peoples.
"It's unceded territory," Paul said. "The Crown calls it Crown land, but I call it [First Nations] land."
Around the end of March, Paul said he was visited by two conservation officers at his woodlot.
"They informed me that I couldn't sell, barter or trade the wood, and if I did [there] would be consequences up to a $10,000 fine and seizure of equipment," Paul said.
"My response was we have the right to harvest the wood for a moderate living, and I didn't see anything wrong with it."
Paul said that soon after their visit, he discovered that a hidden camera he'd set up to monitor his logging equipment captured the same officers visiting his woodlot at night, when he wasn't there, handling and cutting some of his logs.
Paul said he remembered that his father, who was also a logger, told him conservation officers had once marked his wood with ink that was visible only under ultraviolet light, so Paul purchased a black light to check his woodpile.
"I turned [it] on, and every stick of it was marked."
He said initials written on the wood matched the first and last names of the two officers that he'd been speaking with at his woodlot.
Loss of clients
Paul said he has lost at least three clients and an important delivery contractor since the investigation began.
Andrew Booker, a friend and client of Paul's, said he was visited by the officers twice after having his wood delivered.
"They told me they were putting together an investigation, a case, against Native wood harvesting," Booker said.
"They asked me for a statement and how much I paid for it and who I bought it from."
Booker wasn't at home during one of the visits, but said a family member told him that the officers cut sections of his wood delivery and took them when they left.
Booker said Paul has always provided him with the required delivery papers, so he's always considered his business to be legitimate. He said if the province takes issue with a logging operation, the clients shouldn't be the ones to receive charges or fines.
"I told them that their problems are with [First Nations harvesters], not me."
'We're very, very cautious'
Roy and Margaret Anderson, owner-operators of a small trucking business outside of Fredericton, have known Patrick Paul since he was a child. They'd been delivering Paul's timber once a week for around eight months when conservation officers visited them and asked them for a statement and documentation.
"I was a little bit surprised when they came in," said Margaret Anderson.
"I've always had the impression that [Paul] is up-front with everything. He has the paperwork done, he hauls at regular times … it's hard enough to make a living, and we're very, very cautious."
Anderson said she and her husband were no longer going to be hauling Paul's wood for fear of losing their truck and their own livelihood.
"If he's done something wrong, I feel for him. I really do. I really think that he felt he was on the up and up."
Two of Paul's other clients confirmed that they'd been visited by the same conservation officers near the beginning of April, and said that as a result of the investigation, they may not purchase wood from Paul in the future.
Paul said he believes that the officers are choosing to eliminate the First Nations loggers' market by targeting their clients, instead of charging the loggers with illegal harvesting which would allow them to use their treaty rights as a defence.
"We have a right to the land as people," he said. "We always have, since first contact. And I don't think they want to put it in the [court] system because they know that we'll prevail."
He said he thinks the time and resources being spent investigating his operation is wasteful and unnecessary.
A spokesperson for the New Brunswick Department of Justice and Attorney General said the department is unable to comment on open investigations, but in an emailed statement said Crown prosecutors, not conservation officers, determine if charges are to be laid against wood harvesters.
The New Brunswick Public Prosecution Service must determine that there is sufficient admissible evidence, public interest and a "reasonable prospect of conviction," the statement reads.
The statement said conservation officers investigate alleged illegal wood harvesting "within the scope of their authority," but declined to comment on investigation methods.
"Such information is recognized judicially as privileged information not for public dissemination," the statement said.
'Just trying to make a living'
Since 1999, New Brunswick has set aside five per cent of the annual allowable timber harvest on Crown lands for commercial agreements with the 15 Wolastoqey and Mi'kmaw communities in the province.
For a decade prior to beginning his own operation, Paul said he worked for one of the province's largest forestry operators, but eventually became "uneasy" about the scale of the operation and its environmental impact.
He said he chose not to work with his community's forestry program, which harvests within the five per cent allotment, because it would require paying fees for things like road clearing, site management, transportation and royalties.
Paul estimates that he harvested 2,200 cubic metres of hardwood in 2018, which would equate to less than one per cent of the total First Nations allowable harvest in New Brunswick, and less than 0.05 per cent of the allowable harvest for the province's entire forestry industry, which was worth more than $1.5 billion in 2017.
Paul said he's been selling the delimbed, tree-length wood at market price, around $1,700 for a truck load, once a week. He estimates that he earns around $40,000 a year, depending on equipment expenses and demand from clients.
"No one's getting rich off of this," he said. "We're all just trying to make a living."
Speaking for some of the Wabanaki Loggers group, Paul said that they do not intend to stop their operations. He said that while they would prefer not to tolerate costs of a long legal battle, they are prepared to go to court to seek clarification on their right to earn a moderate livelihood.
"I would like it to get settled so we can have our right to go harvest wood as we please, without getting harassed," he said.