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Wolastoqey chiefs accuse N.B. Power of scuttling negotiations over Mactaquac dam refurbishment

September 21, 2022

N.B. Power embarking on project to keep dam operating until 2068

Wolastoqey chiefs in New Brunswick say N.B. Power has reneged on terms initially offered as part of negotiations for the upgrade of the Mactaquac dam. (Shane Fowler/CBC)

CBC: Wolastoqey chiefs in New Brunswick say a land title claim they filed is being used as justification for N.B. Power providing less compensation to their communities over a massive planned upgrade to the Mactaquac dam and generating station.

The narrowing of negotiating terms signals a step back in talks that have been underway for years and smacks of political interference by the provincial government, said St. Mary’s First Nation Chief Allan Polchies Jr., who spoke to CBC News on behalf of the five other Wolastoqey chiefs.

“It’s unfortunate that N.B. power, you know, is narrowing the terms of reference of the negotiations based on a claim that we rightfully have,” said Polchies, who’s part of the Wolastoqey Nation in New Brunswick, the group in negotiations with N.B. Power.

The utility announced in early 2020 its plan to refurbish the dam, about 20 kilometres west of Fredericton, to allow it to continue operating until 2068.

The refurbishment is estimated to cost between $2.7 billion and $3.6 billion. Another $2 billion to $3 billion could be spent on importing electricity from Hydro-Quebec over the next 20 years.

St. Mary’s First Nation Chief Allan Polchies Jr. says he’s disappointed N.B. Power is changing its negotiating stance in light of the Wolastoqey title claim. (Ed Hunter/CBC)

According to documents shared with CBC News, N.B. Power made a first offer to the Wolastoqey Nation in New Brunswick in March 2021, which included six terms of reference on which the utility was willing to negotiate, along with the amount of money earmarked for each.

The terms included employment and education, environmental protections, community interests, procurement and contracts, economic opportunities and cultural protection measures.

In September 2021, the Wolastoqey Nation issued a counter offer, which included more environmental protections as well as the requirement that N.B. Power create a 200 mega-watt renewable energy project that would cover Wolastoqey communities’ power costs.

In a letter to the Wolastoqey Nation in May of this year, Charlie Ryan, N.B. Power’s project director for the refurbishment, said N.B. Power would be dropping three of the terms of reference included in its original offer.

“In light of the details of the counteroffer and the pending litigation against N.B. Power et al with respect to aboriginal title in New Brunswick, N.B. Power must refocus the scope of the negotiations to address identified adverse impacts of the [Mactaquac Life Achievement project] on potential or established aboriginal or treaty rights” of the Wolastoqey Nation, Ryan said in the letter.  

He said as a result, N.B. Power would like to continue negotiations toward an agreement, focusing solely on employment and education, environmental protections and procurement and contracts.

The Mactaquac dam refurbishment is expected to cost between $2.7 billion and $3.6 billion, along with between $2 billion and $3 billion that could be spent on importing electricity from Hydro-Quebec over the next 20 years. (Shane Fowler/CBC News )

In 2020, the Wolastoqey chiefs filed a title claim in court, which covered roughly half of the province, namely in areas along the Wolastoq, also known as the St. John River, which the Mactaquac dam is built on.

Last fall Wolastoqey chiefs updated the title claim to include parcels of land owned by N.B. Power and the province’s five largest forestry companies.

They say they want ownership of the land used by the five forestry companies, N.B. Power, and the federal and provincial governments, and if they win they are willing to sign agreements to let industrial harvesting continue subject to their approval.

Months after the title claim was updated, New Brunswick Attorney General Ted Flemming issued a memo to provincial employees directing them to stop making First Nations title acknowledgements, a move he said was prompted by recent legal actions.

Premier Blaine Higgs also came under fire for spreading false information by saying the title claim “impacts every single land owner” in the province.

CBC News requested an interview with N.B. Power about its negotiations with the Wolastoqey Nation in New Brunswick, and instead received an email statement from spokesperson Marc Belliveau.

“On any large project N.B. Power has discussions with First Nations communities as part of its duty to consult. This is certainly the case with the Mactaquac Life Achievement project,” he said.

“N.B. Power remains committed to working with the Wolastoqey nation as the utility continues to explore a path forward for the Mactaquac Life Achievement project.”

Jason Hoyt, a spokesperson for the Department of Natural Resources and Energy Development, said the department has not been involved in any of those discussions with N.B. Power and has no information about it.

What we are seeking is the ability to pursue our own economic development- St. Mary’s First Nation Chief Allan Polchies Jr.

Polchies said the title claim over N.B. Power property such as the Mactaquac dam would give Wolastoqey leaders more “leverage” in any negotiations about how infrastructure gets developed.

However, he added that it could be as long as 20 years before the case is even heard in court, whereas the dam refurbishment is expected to begin within the next few years.

“What we are seeking is the ability to pursue our own economic development and to be able to generate revenue for ourselves … to have economic sustainability for our communities,” Polchies said.

“And the challenges that we that we’re up against from the province and N.B. Power is almost like setting us back … to the 1950s and 60s, you know, holding up progress for our communities.”