An $8 million debt that is the legacy of two previous band administrations, accompanied by severe social problems and high unemployment, are the reasons Tobique First Nation's chief and four councillors went against the majority in a plebiscite, and signed a $7.5 million fishing agreement with the federal Department of Fisheries and Oceans (DFO) on Nov. 22.
That's the view of councillor and vice-chief Ken (Scrappy) Perley when asked the reason some band members had issued a press release calling for the resignation of their chief, Patrick Francis, and the four councillors who signed with him.
The deal means that Tobique has to abide by DFO fishing regulations, which some members believe undermines their treaty rights. On the other hand it also gives them money to develop fishing capacity, which because Tobique is located 140 miles from the ocean, it did not have prior to signing.
At the end of November some dissatisfied band members said they would occupy the band office until DFO and the Department of Indian and Northern Affairs rescind what they term the "illegal" agreement.
Perley said only about 10 people out of a community of 1,500 people are actively involved in the protest.
Windspeaker was unable to interview the protest's media contacts, Terry St. Jacques and Hart Perley, before press time. The chief did not return our telephone call.
Ken Perley said that although he was and is opposed to what the chief did, he understands the reasons that were given to the community and he respects the chief's decision. He says the chief is "an honorable man" who acted the way he believes will benefit the community.
But he is essentially in agreement with the dissenters' statements that on Sept. 23 a community vote was held that went against signing with DFO, following which council agreed not to sign the Mackenzie deal, named for DFO negotiator James Mackenzie. On Nov. 22, however, the chief and four councillors changed their minds and signed.
Perley also said that although Indian Affairs' rules say five of 13 council votes makes a quorum, according to their own traditional practice that Indian Affairs won't approve, council needs seven.
Perley added band funds are being drained from social spending and development programs to pay down band debt and they were headed for third-party management. Even the $400,000 a year they make from logging goes toward debt repayment. The fishing agreement should ease that.
"There was no grounds for resignation," Perley said. "We did have an informal plebiscite on the signing of the Mackenzie agreement. The Mackenzie agreement consisted of dollars for capacity building, to get us into the fishery, and 51 per cent of the village voted, with a two to one margin, not to sign the $7.5 million offer.
"A lot of it had to do with what transpired with Burnt Church . . . a lot of the hard feelings I guess were the result of that. A lot of it had to do with people believing that we lost our right if we signed with DFO. I, myself, as one of the band councillors, voted against us signing.
It was kind of unusual that people came up to me and said 'why would the vice-chief go against the chief?' Well, you know, it's a matter of issue with us here. We're allowed to have a free vote."
Perley said he is opposed because of the "pigeon-holing," which puts the band under DFO's rules about "how, where and when to fish, instead of the process being in reverse, us informing them."
Perley added that the process is "too colonialistic," as is the mindset of Mackenzie himself, whom he characterized as "arrogant."
Perley added that Mackenzie's initial offer of just over $2 million