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The six chiefs of the Wolastoqey Nation in New Brunswick are turning to the courts to resolve their communities' long-standing claim for legal title to their traditional lands in the province.

They’re suing the provincial and federal governments for compensation related to the Peace and Friendship Treaties, a series of agreements signed between 1725 and 1778 with the British Crown. Under those treaties, the Wolastoqey people, also known as the Maliseet, say they never ceded ownership of their lands and formalized a legal process for settling on these lands.

Those agreements were never honoured, the Wolastoqey Nation says, and their people were moved onto six reserves along the Saint John River in northern and central New Brunswick. Their lawyers filed a notice to file a statement of claim at the Court of Queen’s Bench in Woodstock, N.B., on Monday.

“We are not interested in kicking any regular folks out of their houses or off their farms. That’s not what this is about,” Chief Shelley Sabattis of Oromocto First Nation said. “But for three centuries the Crown has been selling off our land even though they don’t own it. They need to stop doing that and they need to compensate us for the parts of our land that they have given away and that can’t be returned to us.”

The chiefs, who gathered along the water in Fredericton to announce their claim against the governments of New Brunswick and Canada, say they have been trying to negotiate their aboriginal and treaty rights for years without success. They argue Canada and New Brunswick had a fiduciary duty to protect their lands, but did not honour that commitment.

“Going to court to fight to have our rights clearly acknowledged in the treaties recognized and implemented was never our first choice,” said Chief Allan Polchies, Jr. of St. Mary’s First Nation. “We have attempted to resolve this through negotiation, but we have been rebuffed at every attempt and there is clearly no good faith desire to negotiate. This is unfortunate, but it appears to be the only option left to us.”

The provincial and federal governments said they couldn’t comment on the lawsuit. Mary-Anne Hurley-Corbyn, a spokesperson for New Brunswick’s Department of Aboriginal Affairs, said Premier Blaine Higgs remains willing to work with the province’s Indigenous people.

“As Premier Higgs has said, government is willing to sit down any time with First Nations leaders and work toward real solutions to the issues facing Indigenous people and communities in New Brunswick," she said, in an e-mail.

Christina Tricomi, a spokewoman for Crown-Indigenous Relations and Northern Affairs Canada, said that Ottawa “respects the decision of the leaders of the Wolastoqey Nation to pursue their claims through the courts, but Canada believes that the best way to address outstanding issues and achieve reconciliation with Indigenous Peoples is through negotiation and dialogue.”

The chiefs say the provincial and federal governments “carved up the land” and gave it to private landowners, benefiting from taxes, royalties, leases and fees, while many of their people have been left in poverty. There are about 7,700 Maliseet people in New Brunswick today.

The chiefs are seeking acknowledgment from the courts that their communities have legal title to their traditional lands. They are also asking both governments to stop giving away what they argue is Wolastoqey land to private parties. A statement of claim that puts a monetary amount to damages they are seeking has not yet been filed.

“While others have used our lands and rivers to create great wealth for themselves, our people have been left struggling to feed and house their families in their own homeland. That’s not what we agreed to in the treaties,” Chief Ross Perley of Tobique First Nation said.

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