The Daily Gleaner (Fredericton)
Forestry, education and health were on the agenda Wednesday when the minister responsible for aboriginal affairs Ed Doherty met with most of the chiefs from New Brunswick's 15 First Nations.
"Today is really a listening day for me," Doherty said of the meeting in Fredericton.
"It is a chance for me to listen to the concerns of the aboriginal people of New Brunswick ... and show them that our government is going to work in close co-operation to solve problems that exist," he said.
There are about 13,000 First Nations people in New Brunswick.
Doherty said the economic development of New Brunswick is paramount in the Liberal Charter for Change and that includes the economic development of First Nations.
"I am very, very excited and enthusiastic about having the privilege of working with First Nations people," he said.
"They have made a tremendous contribution to this county and they are going to make a tremendous contribution going into the next century."
He said he wants to meet with the chiefs on a regular basis. Premier Shawn Graham promised he will meet with the chiefs soon, he said.
"It is much better to manage things with everyone around the table than in a crisis and have regular dialogue regarding various issues," said Doherty.
Forestry is always a sensitive topic in the relationship between the provincial government and First Nations in New Brunswick.
A court case on aboriginal logging rights is before the Supreme Court of Canada. Doherty said he expects a ruling soon.
"Then we will have a strategy to deal with it at that time," he said.
Another issue is the money some First Nations owe the provincial government for education. First Nations people receive money from Ottawa to pay for education and some have fallen behind on their transfers to the province.
Doherty said that will be discussed when an aboriginal education strategy is developed.
He said he also wants to meet with chiefs to talk about gaming laws and taxation, he said.
St. Marys First Nation chief Candice Paul said the meeting was positive.
"A lot of the chiefs shared their issues and concerns," she said. "It is the beginning of dialogue. Minister Doherty shows a lot of concern for the aboriginal file."
She said he comes from a riding in Saint John that has a lot of low-income families so he can relate to the issues facing First Nations.
Paul said she talked to the minister about health issues facing aboriginal people.
"I told him about the deplorable situation that we have," she said. "Infant mortality is higher. Diabetes is higher.
"Our standard of living is 63rd in the world due to shortage of housing and a lot of issues like mould and unsafe drinking water."
Paul said the way to address those problems is meeting with the ministers involved and the chiefs and working on solutions.
She also said the First Nations want to be involved in pandemic flu preparations.
"We have to make sure communities are ready," she said. "We need to know the province's plan.
"We have been doing it on our own. We need to partner up."
Chief Susan Levi-Peters of Elsipogtog First Nation, formerly known as Big Cove and the largest First Nation in the province with 2,800 people, also said the meeting went well.
"They are really very pumped up," she said. "It is a little bit scary because we have been burned so many times before. We are hoping that now there is going to be action."
Levi-Peters said she would like to see a forestry agreement worked out before the Supreme Court of Canada ruling.
"No matter what the courts say, the bottom line is we all live in New Brunswick and we all live in partnership," she said.
She also said she liked the idea of having more regular meetings with government.