An Immediate Opportunity for Trudeau to Make Good on a “Sacred Obligation” to First Nations

On 8 December 2015, Canadian prime minister Justin Trudeau told gathered First Nations leaders: “It is time for a renewed, nation-to-nation relationship with First Nations peoples, one that understands that the constitutionally guaranteed rights of First Nations in Canada are not an inconvenience but rather a sacred obligation.” ((“Remarks by Justin Trudeau at the Assembly of First Nations 36th Annual General Assembly.”))

These words, and many other lofty sounding promises come on the heels of approval of an environmental impact assessment (EIA) for Northcliff Resources’ Sisson Brook Mine project, albeit with 40 attached conditions, in the province of New Brunswick by the Department of Environment and Local Government. ((“Sisson Mine project given EIA approval, Brian Kenny says,” CBC News, 3 December 2015. )) This is despite Maliseet and Mi’gmag opposition. ((“Sisson mine project slammed by aboriginal leaders,” CBC News, 4 December 2015.))

Dominique Nouvet, a lawyer for six Maliseet First Nations (St. Mary’s, Oromocto, Kingslcear, Woodstock, Tobique, and Madawaska), said none of her clients have agreed to support the project.

Section 35 of the Constitution Act, 1982 has “recognized and affirmed” existing aboriginal and treaty rights in Canada. Subsequent supreme court cases have held that the Crown has a duty to consult in cases of potential infringement of Indigenous title.

Nouvet echoed this constitutional guarantee: “Honestly, based on this sudden and premature approval of the EIA, I don’t think that right now New Brunswick understands what is required. Under its duty to accommodate and consult First Nations when the government contemplates actions or decisions that may affect aboriginal or treaty rights.”

“This mine is in Maliseet territory,” said Nouvet. “As far as I know, no Maliseet community supports it.” ((“Maliseet First Nations ‘dismayed’ by Sisson Mine approval,” CBC News, 16 December 2015.))

Earlier in 2015, Energy and Mines minister Donald Arseneault said “the provincial government would consider giving St. Mary’s First Nation a piece of land” [italics added] if the $579 million open-pit molybdenum and tungsten mine on 12.5 km2 of land north of Fredericton near Napadogan were to proceed. ((Julianne Hazlewood, “N.B. considers St. Mary’s land deal if Sisson mine approved,” CBC News, 16 March 2015.))

St. Mary’s chief Candice Paul objected, “We assert Aboriginal title to the area where the mine is being proposed.”

Why does the provincial government minister characterize the province as giving a First Nation a piece of land? The province of New Brunswick is not a nation, but it is arrogating a right to itself above that of a nation that has resided there for millennia. Second, given that the Maliseet are the First Nation, it must be that colonists stole the territory and formed New Brunswick exclusively for themselves. Returning a piece of what was stolen can hardly be considered as giving.

The CBC story noted that in New Brunswick: “First Nations never surrendered their right to Crown land, unlike in some other areas of Canada.” ((Julianne Hazlewood, “N.B. considers St. Mary’s land deal if Sisson mine approved,” CBC News, 16 March 2015.))

The wording is odd: a contradiction. If the land was never surrendered to the Crown, then it legally and morally is not Crown land.

The outcome of a mine is horrendously predictable to chief Paul: “The mine would destroy this part of our territory, it would never be the same again.”

Before the mine can go ahead, it still requires a review from the Canadian Environmental Assessment Agency and approval from federal Environment minister Catherine McKenna. This process is said to be moving slowly. ((Julianne Hazlewood, “N.B. considers St. Mary’s land deal if Sisson mine approved,” CBC News, 16 March 2015.))

Trudeau forcefully repudiated the parochialism of the previous government. He asserted, “That the Crown must always act honorably and in good faith when dealing with Aboriginal Peoples.”

The provincial authorities’ sidestepping of First Nation rights in New Brunswick provides an excellent opportunity for Trudeau to “act honorably and in good faith” and back up his eloquent words.

Kim Petersen is an independent writer. He can be emailed at: kimohp at Read other articles by Kim.