Province, Norway House Cree Nation sign historic timber deal
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NORWAY HOUSE CREE NATION — The scent of freshly cut white spruce and the buzz of two saws tucked away off a gravel road signal potential for the northern Manitoba community of Norway House Cree Nation, after it inked an historic agreement with the province to share profit from timber harvested on its territory.
About 15 minutes north of the sprawling, 9,000-person community on the shore of Little Playgreen Lake, where York Boat Days festivities were underway, Norway House Chief Larson Anderson toured newly minted Natural Resources and Northern Development Minister Greg Nesbitt around a fledgling sawmill Tuesday.
Over the past four years, the band has steadily built up its capacity to produce lumber from timber cut on treaty land, with the ability to process enough raw wood to construct as many as 50 homes for residents each year.
Nesbitt’s stop in the community — his first to a northern Manitoba First Nation since being appointed to the position in June — came after the province and Norway House hammered out a multi-pronged agreement to guarantee the sawmill will provide a long-lasting benefit to the community.
“We’ve been slowly building our skill level to do more, so now that we have access to quite a bit more timber, we’d be able to escalate that level,” Anderson said. “We want the challenge. We want to push our youth, our people to take that challenge.
“We can’t just sit back.”
Over a lunch of fried pickerel and bannock at the band’s council chamber, Nesbitt and Anderson signed a memorandum of agreement to guarantee up to 45 per cent of revenues from timber cut in the local resource management area will be returned to Norway House over a two-year pilot period.
The province and the First Nation also agreed to establish a community-run tree planting program to train and employ youth and community members, with a $150,000 contribution from the Manitoba government.
The government will also kick in $190,000 for a multi-phase, traditional land-use study; the development of a Crown-Indigenous consultation and accommodation protocol; and a full-time consultant for the band.
The province will also provide an allocation of timber to the First Nation to build as many as 500 homes in the community, with support for harvesting and forest renewal, with additional logs to be provided as needed for non-commercial purposes.
“One thing that Norway House wants to be able to do and is proud to do is speak up and take care of our own resources,” Anderson said during the signing event. “If you look at the future and the wealth of our province, it is going to be in our territory.”
The agreement also resolves a claim against the province filed by Norway House in the Court of Queen’s Bench last November, with the province providing the First Nation $160,000 to withdraw the claim within 30 days of signing the agreement.
Anderson said the province did not properly consult with the First Nation when issuing cutting permits in the resource management area, and taking the matter to the courts was a last recourse. He attributed the province’s change of course to “having leaders understand that we exist, that we live here, that we don’t want handouts. We want solutions.”
“With the province’s willingness to listen, to sit down with the First Nations people, Norway House Cree Nation, I think we have a very bright future for Norway House,” Anderson said.
Nesbitt said signing a revenue sharing agreement with Norway House was the right decision, adding the provincial government prefers to keep matters out of the court if possible.
“It should have happened earlier,” Nesbitt said.
The minister said the First Nation can expect to see significant revenues under the agreement, but did not provide a specific dollar amount.
“It’s a fair agreement for both sides,” he said, praising chief and council for their focus on economic development in the community. “I’m certainly encouraged by that.”
The Manitoba government has also finalized similar agreements with Opaskwayak Cree Nation and Mosakahiken Cree Nation to return up to 45 per cent of timber revenues to the communities. The province and MCN inked the memorandum of understanding July 29; Nesbitt was scheduled to travel to OCN Wednesday to sign off on its agreement.
The memorandums will lay the ground for a longer-term forestry management plan between Manitoba and the three First Nations, the province said.
“What we want to do is ensure supply for our forest industry, for Canadian Kraft Paper in The Pas, for Spruce Products at Louisiana Pacific in Swan River,” Nesbitt said. “We want to sign these agreements, which are fair… and I just think it’s a long time coming and I’m happy to be a part of that now.”
OCN Chief Sidney Ballantyne said his community near The Pas has been pushing the province to engage First Nations on forestry management for years, and the memorandum of understanding is a result of the band asserting its rights with respect to timber dues.
“To finally see this come to action gives us hope for the future of all First Nations, for leadership and for our administration,” Ballantyne said. “We see it as a good first step towards the true spirit of reconciliation.
“The added revenue will definitely help with improving our essential services in our community for our people.”
Danielle Da Silva
Danielle Da Silva is a general assignment reporter.
Updated on Wednesday, August 3, 2022 12:38 PM CDT: Fresh photos added.