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June 22, 2021 (FREDERICTON) – Six Wolastoqey bands have returned to the Court of Queen’s Bench of New Brunswick after the Higgs government failed to comply with the requirements of the termination provisions in the tax revenue sharing agreements with the First Nations.
An application was made in May to the court to declare that termination notices sent out in April were delivered prematurely, a full nine months before the agreements permit. Once again the Higgs government is flouting New Brunswick’s clear contractual obligations.
The tax agreements date back to the 1990s and they were updated in 2017, with the six First Nation making a variety of concessions, including with respect to the termination clause at issue in this application, in exchange for a long-term and stable arrangement.
In April of this year, without warning, the Higgs government hastily convened a news conference to publicly announce the cancellation of the agreements, before contacting the band chiefs and informing them of the action. His representatives, including the Minister of Finance, hosted a very short conference call that same day with the Chiefs. The Chiefs were not permitted to speak or ask questions about the decision on the call.
Since then, the Higgs government has ignored the Chiefs’ repeated requests that the government rescind the cancellations – which are invalid and contrary to the terms of the Agreements – to permit the parties to negotiate in good faith.
Arlene Dunn, the minister of Aboriginal Affairs, wrote to the First Nations twice in the last few months about these matters. Each time, her letters avoided the First Nations’ request that the government rescind the premature termination notices. Her letters have proposed “negotiations” aimed at securing “economic partnership” with the assistance of third -parties, but have ignored the First Nations’ entreaties that good faith negotiations cannot taken place when the First
Nations have their backs up against the wall as a result of the looming, and invalid, termination of the tax revenue sharing agreements.
The Chiefs of the six Wolastoqey Nations are frustrated with Dunn and Premier Blaine Higgs for their repeated refusal to engage in meaningful discussions regarding the revenue sharing agreements.
“The arrogance and lack of respect the Premier and his ministers have demonstrated toward First Nations people on this issue is clearly evident,” said Chief Patricia Bernard of the Madawaska First Nation. “The premier’s action was premature and reckless, and appears motivated by his inability to accept the ruling in the carbon tax court application.”
In March, the Court of Queen’s Bench accepted the Wolastoqey Nation’s position that the newly imposed carbon tax must be shared under the tax revenue sharing agreements. The ruling required the government to comply with the same sharing arrangements.
“The government lost in court,’’ said Chief Allan Polchies of St. Mary’s First Nation. “The court rejected the government’s position that the new carbon tax is not subject to its tax revenue sharing obligations. A few weeks later, they opened a new attack front.’’
Woodstock Chief Tim Paul said a lot of goodwill was lost when the termination notices went out.
“These were 10-year agreements negotiated in good faith with the province. They were scheduled to run until 2027, and they are not even due for review until January of 2022,’’ Chief Paul noted.
“The premier jumped the gun and attempted to cancel them – doing so without notice and without meaningful and respectful discussions.”
The agreements were signed as a continuation of cooperation between First Nations and the province dating back decades. The revenue sharing is designed to provide basic social aid and housing needs for impoverished reserves.
“We do not accept that the province had the right to terminate these agreements when they did,” Oromocto Chief Shelley Sabattis said.
“Unfortunately we have no option at this point but to push this case through legal channels. If this government had engaged in respectful discussions on this matter, we would be in a much different place today. Unfortunately this government has abdicated its duty to First Nations communities in New Brunswick.”
The Wolastoqey Nation repeatedly reached out to the Higgs government for meaningful discussions on this and other issues but those efforts have been in vain.
“There is a complete lack of understanding or empathy for First Nations people in this government,” Tobique Chief Ross Perley said. “They had a minister who was thrown out of cabinet because he was listening to us, and showing respect to First Nations communities. Now we have a part-time minister who is nothing more than a spokesperson for a government that is ignoring its rights and obligations toward First Nations communities.”
Kingsclear Chief Gabriel Atwin reminded the premier of the government’s obligation to consult and accommodate First Nations communities with the goal of establishing a mutually beneficial relationship.
“This premier appears to have no interest in meeting that obligation or even trying to understand First nations issues or the Wolastoqey communities,’’ he said. “Unfortunately, we have no other choice than to take legal action. It didn’t have to be this way. We are confident that we are on the right side of the law on this matter.”
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