FREDERICTON — The attempt by the New Brunswick government to protect private property owners from a major land claim by a First Nation is "irresponsible," say the chiefs who are advancing the claim for title to a large part of the province.
Last week the provincial government filed a motion in Court of King's Bench to exclude 250,000 homeowners and businesses from the title claim of the Wolastoqey Nation. Premier Blaine Higgs said at the time that public statements by the First Nation that its claim wouldn't affect smaller private landowners is not adequately reflected in the legal documents filed in court.
“It is the responsibility of any premier and any government to protect the people of the province,” Higgs said in a statement. “Across more than half our province hundreds of thousands of New Brunswickers are at risk of having their property impacted by this unprecedented claim in which they have been denied any standing or representation.”
In a statement on behalf of the six chiefs of Wolastoqey Nation, Gabriel Atwin, Chief of Bilijk First Nation (Kingsclear), accused Higgs of being “irresponsible” about the intent of the land claim. Atwin said his nation's lawsuit isn’t about “harming homeowners and regular New Brunswickers.”
“(Higgs) knows that is not what this claim is about,” he said. “His statements can only serve to put fear in the general public and to create tensions between the Indigenous and non-Indigenous populations in New Brunswick.”
The Wolastoqey Nation filed a land claim in 2020 seeking title to more than 50,000 square kilometres in the province that the nation claims as its traditional lands. The nation updated the lawsuit in 2021 to demand compensation from corporations that operate on about 20 per cent of the land it claims, and from the Crown for allowing the development.
New Brunswick's government says the province covers roughly 73,400 square kilometres, meaning the claim seeks title to more than 60 per cent of the territory.
The lawsuit has yet to be tested in court, but Wolastoqey Nation lawyer Renee Pelletier said the chiefs have consistently said in public and in court filings that they aren’t looking to displace people or affect their property rights.
Pelletier pointed to the wording from the nation’s statement of claim, which says the chiefs are not seeking compensation from property owners who are not named in the lawsuit, referred to as "strangers to the claim."
“The plaintiffs do not seek a declaration of Aboriginal title … that binds strangers to the claim with respect to (their) property rights," the court document reads.
But the recent notice of motion filed by the provincial government says that the Wolastoqey Nation's court filings "do not protect the unnamed parties interest in land and cannot be reconciled with the declaratory relief sought by the plaintiffs. ... These paragraphs are inconsistent with the rules of court, cause confusion and should be struck.”
According to legal documents provided by the province, a case management conference is scheduled for Tuesday to discuss dates between January and April of 2024 for the court to hear various motions.
This report by The Canadian Press was first published Aug. 28, 2023.
— By Keith Doucette in Halifax.
The Canadian Press