Welamukotuk (Oromocto First Nation) Chief Shelley Sabbatis, left, and Indigenous Affairs Minister Arlene Dunn have signed a development agrreement for $291,082.Submitted

New Brunswick’s Progressive Conservative government has made another deal with a First Nation, despite several Indigenous chiefs expressing outrage over its decision to single-handedly cancel their lucrative tax agreements.

The provincial government announced last week it had signed a development agreement with Welamukotuk (Oromocto First Nation) for $291,082. The signing took place Nov. 10 but wasn’t publicly disclosed until several days later.

The funding is far less than what two other First Nations secured in cutting their own deals with the province, but the government later clarified that more money would likely be coming Oromocto’s way.

“This is a first step for Welamukotuk to get a better understanding of the community needs and maximizing existing land,” said Indigenous Affairs Minister Arlene Dunn in a prepared statement. “The provincial government is fully committed to continuing discussions once the assessments are completed to determine how we can further support the community in achieving its priorities.”

Dunn wasn’t available for an interview.

Chief Shelley Sabbatis, whose small Wolastoqey community is about 20 kilometres southeast of the capital, did not answer messages.

“Our community has urgent priorities, and we are excited to move into the future with this project,” Sabbatis said in a statement released by the province last Friday.

A press release stated the province’s Regional Development Corporation would provide up to $291,082 to Welamukotuk in the 2023-24 fiscal year for an assessment of residential housing needs, site preparation for a tiny home development, a subdivision design, and a needs assessment for a youth centre.

The fiscal year ends March 31, leaving less than five months to use the funding.

The community along the river had 352 registered people living on the reserve in October, according to government figures.

A provincial government spokesperson told Brunswick News that more funding could be forthcoming.

“While we are not able to comment on the particulars of confidential negotiations, we can clarify that the development agreement reached with Welamukotuk is for a five-year term,” wrote Alycia Bartlett. “Discussions are on-going with respect to further funding and partnership opportunities for subsequent years of the agreement.”

This is the third development agreement signed between the Higgs government and a First Nation.

Earlier this month, the province announced it had signed a deal to provide L’nui Menikuk (Indian Island First Nation) $4.7 million over five years. The small community has 115 people registered as living on-reserve.

And in June, Neqotkuk (Tobique First Nation) signed a five-year, $22-million development agreement with the province. It had a registered on-reserve population of 1,606 last month.

Premier Blaine Higgs caused upset among Indigenous leaders last year when he said his Tory government would end tax agreements with First Nations.The old tax agreements, some extending back 30 years, allowed First Nations to recoup most sales taxes from retail stores on their federal reserve land. They gave Indigenous communities autonomy over how to spend the money. Between the 15 First Nations in New Brunswick, the agreements were worth about $47 million annually.

Higgs argued the benefits from the agreements were uneven, with some First Nations getting much more money than others had received. Instead, he said he wanted the First Nations to ask for funding to meet their communities’ individual needs.

Several chiefs described the premier’s approach as patronizing.

The first two signatories to the new deals received little from the old tax agreements.

Chief Ken Barlow of Indian Island said his small community never had such a tax deal. And he added that while he respected the other chiefs, he had to do what was best for his people.

Likewise, Chief Ross Perley of Tobique said his First Nation hadn’t benefited greatly from the old tax agreement. His community’s plans to open businesses by the TransCanada highway on new reserve land and take advantage of the tax refund were scuttled by the Higgs government.

But Tobique let bygones be bygones and forged a different agreement that will see it build housing and fix roads right away.

Unlike the first two First Nations to sign on, Oromocto did benefit greatly from the old tax agreements. The province said that last year, before the First Nation’s tax agreement was cancelled, it reaped close to $2.9 million from businesses that are close to the TransCanada highway.

By John Chilibeck, Local Journalism Initiative Reporter

Original Published on Nov 24, 2023 at 06:15

This item reprinted with permission from   The Daily Gleaner   Fredericton, New Brunswick

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