“Pack Up and Get Out”
Why the Tobique First Nation took control of their territory’s hydro dam
TOBIQUE FIRST NATION, NB—A group from the Tobique First Nation walked peacefully into the hydro station just outside their reserve on the morning of Monday, June 8. Stephen (Red Feather) Perley approached the New Brunswick Power Corporation (NB Power) employees and said, “You guys have fifteen minutes to pack up and get out.” The employees left. Perley and others wrapped a chain around the gate and locked it. The dam was now the property of the Tobique First Nation.
Tobique, the largest Maliseet reserve in the province, first rejected a developer’s bid to build a hydro dam on its territory in 1844. The next such bid came in 1895 and was also rejected. As New Brunswick’s Telegraph Journal reported in a series of historical pieces, the Tobique River was then “part of what may well have been the greatest salmon river system in the world;” hundreds of thousands of fish swam up these rivers each year to spawn. The abundant salmon defined the community’s way of life, providing food and employment—many worked as guides in the summer months.
Individual developers eventually gave way to provincial and federal agencies. In 1950 New Brunswick’s premier approved the construction of a dam at Tobique, this time without consulting the land’s Maliseet owners. By the end of that year, construction on the dam had begun.
When Tobique’s chief learned of the plan, he wrote to Indian Affairs, demanding “suitable action to protect our rights.” He continued, “If the building [of the dam] cannot be stopped, we demand compensation,” suggesting “free electricity for all domestic uses [and] business on the reservation.” This was never honoured—as soon as the community had power lines, they received power bills. The Band Council paid these bills for Elders and people on social assistance.
Today, few wild salmon make their way up the Tobique river. The dam has eroded the reserve’s riverbanks, leading to “trees being washed away and homes in danger of falling into the river,” according to Maliseet activist Terry Sappier. Many of the edible and medicinal plants are gone—the islands they grew on are underwater. And ironically, because they are considered a rural area, Tobique residents are charged among the highest electricity rates in the province.
The Tobique Band Council is currently around $20 million in debt and, last spring, Canada’s Department of Indian and Northern Affairs put Tobique’s finances under third party management. The new manager stopped paying the power bills of Elders, and in April of 2008 these households began receiving bills for thousands of dollars.
Despite its troubles, Tobique remains a lush, picturesque locale, with many proud residents deeply devoted to their land and to each other. When NB Power threatened to cut off an Elder’s electricity in May 2008, the community stepped in. They set up a blockade, denying NB Power access, first to the reserve and soon after that to the dam. Almost all band members stopped paying their power bills pending a negotiated agreement.
In July 2008, the Tobique First Nation began allowing NB Power access to the dam to do repairs and maintenance on the condition that NB Power employees check in with them first and that a band member escort the employees into the dam or reserve.
That month, NB Power “forgave” over $200,000 in hydro bills, but they were not willing to negotiate a long-term arrangement to the community’s satisfaction. Women sat at the blockade every day until November, when New Brunswick’s annual no-disconnect policy came into effect. (The policy prevents NB Power from cutting off anyone’s electricity from November to April, which is all the more poignant since the death in 2008 of Paul Durelle, a man in Baie-Ste-Anne, NB, whose power was cut off by NB Power when he couldn’t pay his bills over the winter.)
This spring, the struggle resurfaced. In May, band members discovered an NB Power employee on the reserve reading meters. The community mobilized and, on June 8, took over the generating station. The 2008 blockade went back up, this time by the highway in front of the dam.
Tensions escalated on June 26, when a truck rolled by the blockade and into the station. When the blockaders caught up with it, the driver was talking on his cell phone. Perley told him to hang up. “You’re trespassing,” Perley said, “On behalf of Tobique First Nation, I’m seizing the truck.”
They escorted the flustered driver up to the blockade, where they gave him food and water. He phoned his employer to pick him up, but NB Power refused. The RCMP drove him home.
At the time of writing, negotiations continue. Maliseet women sit at the blockade every day playing cards and watching for NB Power trucks as cars drive by, many honking in support. The dam continues to operate; NB Power continues to profit from Tobique’s land, and the blockaders continue to allow workers in for maintenance and repairs.
The First Nation has made some gains: on June 30 the provincial Minister of Aboriginal Affairs committed New Brunswick to funding the restoration of eroded riverbanks and to cleaning up toxic and other wastes dumped at and around the dam.
Additionally, Ottawa’s Department of Justice recently validated Tobique’s specific land claim, which will likely be the largest in Atlantic Canada, and negotiations are underway for compensation.
However, the dam, and now a truck worth $170,000, are in the hands of the Tobique First Nation. They say they are not giving them back without an equitable settlement. In addition to riverbank restoration and toxic waste cleanup, the Maliseet activists have asked NB Power to compensate them for the damage done to their land, royalties on the electricity generated and a share of it for their reserve, as well as training for Tobique First Nation members in operating the hydro station. Given NB Power’s interactions with the First Nation so far, such a solution seems unlikely in the near future, and Tobique’s unpaid power bills now total over $800,000.
Daniel Thau-Eleff is a playwright, activist and journalist based in Winnipeg.