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An Irving Pulp and Paper Ltd. mill in Saint John, N.B., on March 7, 2019.Andrew Vaughan/The Canadian Press

The six Wolastoqey communities in New Brunswick filed a new version of their title claim in court Tuesday, focusing on corporations such as NB Power and forestry giant J.D. Irving that exploit resources on their traditional lands.

“It’s time to take a stand. It’s time to protect our land so that it can continue to protect us,” Madawaska Maliseet First Nation Chief Patricia Bernard told a virtual news conference. “This not only rights wrongs that we have endured for centuries, but it also protects this land for all of us, Indigenous and non-Indigenous.”

The claim filed in Court of Queen’s Bench names companies that operate on about 20 per cent of the more than 50,000 square kilometres identified in the claim as traditional lands of the Wolastoqey in New Brunswick.

The new defendants include J.D. Irving Ltd. and 18 of its subsidiaries or related entities, NB Power, Acadian Timber, Twin Rivers Paper, H.J. Crabbe & Sons and A.V. Group. The companies are named in addition to the governments of New Brunswick and Canada.

“It has never been in the public interest to give away land for free to large corporations,” Chief Ross Perley of the Tobique First Nation said.

In their original claim filed last year, the communities sought title to the land. Their new claim also seeks compensation from the Crown for allowing commercial operations on their traditional territory.

“This is our traditional, unceded and unsurrendered land, and we are owed compensation for the last 200 years of land and resource theft, authorized and overseen by the New Brunswick government and its predecessor Crown governments,” Bernard said.

The chiefs say a ruling in favour of the Wolastoqey would allow forestry to continue, as long as corporations had an agreement with the local First Nation.

“It leads to something that should have happened in the first place — a requirement that these companies enter into agreements with the Wolastoqey Nation that include fair compensation and give us a voice when it comes to decisions about industrial operations in our territory,” Bernard said.

Officials with J.D. Irving Limited did not respond to a request for comment Tuesday.

Kingsclear Chief Gabriel Atwin told reporters the title claim does not seek to displace New Brunswickers from their homes and farms.

The chiefs conceded that the title challenge might take a decade or more to work its way through the courts, but they said it could benefit their children and grandchildren.

New Brunswick Premier Blaine Higgs told reporters at the legislature on Tuesday that he had just learned of the new filing with the court and didn’t know all its details. Higgs said that when it came to treaty rights and obligations, an examination by the courts is necessary.

“I think for a long time we’ve been questioning back and forth who is responsible for what, and what the obligations are,” he said. “If we are going to have truth and reconciliation going forward on all issues, we need to understand exactly what our obligations are and ensure that we fulfil them. It seems that is only going to be accomplished through a legal process.”

Higgs said he hoped to have a meeting with the chiefs before the end of the year.

In October, the province ordered government employees to stop uttering public land acknowledgments that refer to unceded lands. It is common across Canada for politicians and others to begin events by stating that they are standing on unceded territories of various Indigenous Peoples.

Attorney General Hugh Flemming said the directive was in response to the original claimfiled by the Wolastoqey communities, which sought title to more than 60 per cent of the province.

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