Full moon at Camp Macehcwik. Macehcwik sipohsisol, meaning 'where the brooks begin.' (Ramona Nicholas photo)

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In 1978, a site near the headwaters of the Naskwaak River was identified as having potential for a tungsten and molybdenum mine. It remained a potential site for development until more test drilling was done in 2010 and 2011 and in the summer of 2013, Northcliff Resources, a Vancouver-based mining company, applied for environmental approval from the provincial and federal governments to create the Sisson Mine.

The New Brunswick government approved the project in the winter of 2015 with conditions, and the federal government announced its approval two years later. The Sisson Partnership still needs to obtain additional environmental permits and meet the province’s conditions before it can operate.

Tungsten and molybdenum are used in the manufacture of steel. They are also used in rocket engines, watches, jewelry, golf clubs, fishing lures, guitar strings, cellular phones, flat screen TVs and computers, stainless steel pots, scalpels and other surgical instruments.

The Sisson Mine would operate for an estimated 27 years and cover 1,253 hectares of land. The provincial government says the mine will create 300 jobs and generate $280 million in mineral royalties and $245 million in tax revenue.

Artist’s rendering of the proposed Sisson Brook mine.

The federal government approved the mine despite concerns outlined in a 2016 report on the project by the Canadian Environmental Assessment Agency. Among other things, the Agency expressed concerns about the effect of the mine on Wolastoqiyik communities in New Brunswick. The report noted that a limited number of large Crown land blocks in the Saint John River Valley remain to be used by the communities of Tobique, Kingsclear, Woodstock, and St. Mary’s First Nations.

“St. Mary’s First Nations stated that the project development area and local assessment area are used to pass knowledge about traditional land use from one generation to another, as well as being valued as a spiritual area, known to First Nations as being productive and peaceful. Archaeological finds in the open pit and tailings area also provide evidence of the long history of First Nations in the project area and strengthen the cultural importance of the site for First Nations,” the Agency concluded.

Stantec, a consulting firm, reported on the site’s archaeological significance, identifying a rare recovery: a “Stark-like” projectile point from the Middle Archaic period, dating back 8,000 to 6,000 years. There have been few intact Middle Archaic finds in the region.

“Although older sites have been recorded and subject to limited excavation in the province, the site at the Sisson Project would be the first systematically excavated Middle Archaic Stark-like component in New Brunswick,” the Stantec report stated. “The information that could be obtained from a systematic excavation would help to inform First Nations, New Brunswickers and archaeologists about the history and cultural heritage of this area.”

The federal Agency’s final report noted the New Brunswick government and Maliseet First Nations were discussing accommodations for impacts on potential or established Aboriginal or Treaty rights.

“With respect to Maliseet First Nations, the Agency considers that the measures proposed fail to address the permanent loss of access to an area of high value and the associated use of that area. The Agency concludes that the Project is likely to result in significant adverse environmental effects on the current use of lands and resources for traditional purposes by Maliseet First Nations,” the report concluded.

“The Agency considers that the Project would result in the long-term (permanent and irreversible for the pit and tailings storage facility) loss of 1,442 hectares of land that is a preferred resource use area and has high cultural value for Maliseet First Nations.”

In January 2017, the provincial government signed an Accommodation Agreement with the six Wolastoqiyik communities in New Brunswick. It promises to share 9.8 per cent of provincial royalties from the mine with First Nations, and requires the province to purchase private land to replace the Crown land that will be used for the mine. This was the first provincial accommodation agreement with the Maliseet for a project that affects Maliseet rights.

The Chiefs released a statement following the signing of the agreement emphasizing opposition to the Sisson Mine, but noted the province had already approved the mine in December 2015. The Chiefs said they decided they had no choice but to sign.

“The Chiefs were very unimpressed with the accommodations presented by the Provincial government and believe that in no way do these accommodations make up for the adverse impact that the Sisson Mine will have to our Aboriginal and Treaty Rights,” the statement reads. “However, not signing the accommodations agreement would leave us with zero benefits from a project that has already been approved and would result in the provincial government thinking they can continue to degrade our territory without accommodating us in any way.”

CBC later reported that Chief Patricia Bernard of the Madawaska Maliseet First Nation said the New Brunswick government threatened to cancel tax deals with her band and other Indigenous communities if they didn’t sign the Sisson mine agreement.

She said she doesn’t support the mine, but couldn’t risk losing the revenue from provincial gas, tobacco, and sales taxes.

“The province wanted the chiefs to sign off on Sisson and made it pretty clear that if the Sisson agreements are not signed, they would not sign tax agreements with the First Nations,” she told CBC News.

“They left it a little bit vague. But as you know, these tax agreements are vital to the programs and services that we provide to our community members. So we had little choice.”

The same day the province announced the accommodation agreement, it also announced new 10-year gas and tobacco tax deals with the six communities.

On June 29, 2017, St. Mary’s First Nation Chief Candice Paul wrote to CBC explaining the reasons for the signing of the Sisson Mine Agreement.

“The Sisson Mine Agreement does not provide Maliseet support for the Mine,” she wrote. “To this day, most of the Maliseet communities and our members oppose the Sisson Mine. But under current Canadian law, the courts allow New Brunswick and Canada to decide what happens on our Territory. New Brunswick gave its main approval for the Mine in December 2015. Fighting the mine would have involved very expensive litigation, and as with most litigation, the outcome would have been uncertain. The elected leadership of the Maliseet communities therefore consulted with the membership and advisors, and a few months ago, after lengthy negotiations, we ultimately made the hard decision to accept accommodation to try to offset the Mine’s adverse effects on our constitutional rights.

“For most of the Maliseet communities, the Sisson Accommodation Agreement does not reflect comfort with or acceptance of the Mine. Rather, it reflects the hard reality of a Canadian legal system that, on its 150th birthday, remains fundamentally inadequate in respecting and meaningfully protecting our Treaty rights, Aboriginal rights, and Aboriginal title.”

In the summer of 2017, Ramona Nicholas went out to the Sisson Mine site with the Wulustukyik (Maliseet) First Nation grandmothers and mothers to set up camp. They built cabins and lived through the winter of 2018 with a winding, treacherous logging road as their only path to the world beyond the forest.

“Here I am, sitting in a project that most of my people are opposing and trying to figure out why and realizing that you need to break down some barriers to understand and there’s resistance, a lot of resistance to colonialism when it comes to Indigenous people,” she said. “But there’s also an understanding that you need to develop with it all too.

“This is stuff that we want to learn. We want to know how our ancestors lived on the land and we want to look at the past and learn from it but also connect that traditional knowledge to what they were doing.”

“Consultation isn’t just about going to the Chief and asking more permission. Consultation is a lot more in depth … In Jemseg, things were starting to kind of blossom into something that could have been really good. But after that it started to wilt a little bit until the point where this project with Sisson [is] just completely off the rails.”

Nicholas and the other women at the Sisson camp do a lot of reading, talking and crafting to pass the time. They’ woke up each winter morning to talk about the day’s tasks over a coffee. They often strap on their snowshoes to explore the wilderness and maze of roads around them.

“We talk a lot about politics, the archaeological aspect and how we can proceed on changing things instead of it being what it is. ‘Let’s stand up and do something about this,’ and ‘How are we going to do this?’” Nicholas said.

They hold full moon ceremonies and sweat lodges. The deep woods can be isolating, Nicholas admits, and it’s a change to be away from the busy world. But being out on the land is worth it.

“I don’t plan on moving anywhere. My plan is to utilize the land that we have left so we can bring new people there to help them reconnect.… bringing us back as Indigenous people to where we need to be. Not only that, but non-Indigenous people, bringing them here and having them understand, as Indigenous people, this is what’s important to us.

“We’re going to continue to stay and we’re going to get the work that we need done. I just have a hope that things will change. I just don’t know how long it will take.”

The Nashwaak River. (Atlantic Salmon Federation photo)

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