New Brunswick

Chantel Moore inquest shows 'urgent need' for inquiry into systemic racism, say chiefs

The six chiefs of the Wolastoqey Nation in New Brunswick have renewed their call for an Indigenous-led inquiry into systemic racism, saying this week's coroner's inquest into the police shooting death of Chantel Moore in Edmundston in 2020 has demonstrated the "urgent need."

Jury recommendations fail to address 'root cause' of her death and other tragedies, Wolastoqi chiefs say

Chantel Moore, 26, was shot and killed by police officer Jeremy Son in the northwestern New Brunswick city of Edmundston in June 2020 during a wellness check at her apartment. (Chantel Moore/Facebook)

The six chiefs of the Wolastoqey Nation in New Brunswick have renewed their call for an Indigenous-led inquiry into systemic racism, saying this week's coroner's inquest into the police shooting death of Chantel Moore during a wellness check in Edmundston has demonstrated the "urgent need."

On Thursday, following four days of testimony in Fredericton, the inquest jury concluded that the death of the 26-year-old  Tla-o-qui-aht First Nation woman in 2020 was a homicide.

The jury recommended, among other things, that a single body oversee use-of-force incidents in New Brunswick, and that police take steps to improve their relationship with First Nations, such as cultural sensitivity training or appointing a First Nation community liaison.

The jury's finding and recommendations "do not address the serious nature of the tragedy, or the systemic issues embedded in the justice system," the chiefs said in a news release.

"This reflects a failure by the Blaine Higgs government to address the root cause of Chantel Moore's death, and tragedies like it."

Ask commissioner to recommend inquiry

The chiefs have called for an Indigenous-led inquiry for two years — since Moore's death on June 4, 2020, and the police shooting death of Rodney Levi of Metepenagiag First Nation about a week later.

"Unlike a government commission or a coroner's inquest, an inquiry would compel government departments and agencies to provide witnesses, testimony, and any documents necessary to fully investigate systemic racism," Chief Gabriel Atwin of Pilick (Kingsclear First Nation) said in a statement.

The chiefs contend there are "deep-rooted, fundamental problems related to racism against Indigenous people" and are calling on the province's systemic racism commissioner, Manju Varma, to publicly recommend an inquiry.

Although they have declined to participate in Varma's ongoing review of racism against Indigenous people, immigrants and people of colour in New Brunswick, calling her mandate "impossibly broad," the chiefs were encouraged to see her and her team attend the inquest, said Chief Tim Paul of Wotstak (Woodstock First Nation).

"Now we ask: Is what she has seen this week enough for her to join our call?"

No recommendations until fall, says commissioner

Varma declined to endorse the chiefs' call for an inquiry at this point. She won't be making any recommendations until the fall, she told CBC News on Friday.

But she suggested she plans to make more than one recommendation related to justice.

"I have way too much information of people's — whether they are Indigenous, the Black community is another one, even many of our new immigrants — real fear of the police and seeing the police as a threat to their personal safety," she said.

"There is an overall sense that you are not safe in the system that is supposed to keep you safe."

Varma said she couldn't speak to Moore's personal level of mistrust of the police before her fatal encounter with Const. Jeremy Son, but she believes racism did play a role in Moore's death.

"I've heard it said by police officers that once it was discovered who it was that had shot Ms. Moore — that he himself is a visible minority — that it could not be racism."

"That, to me, shows a huge misunderstanding of what systemic racism is.

"It's not about individual people being overtly racist. It's about working in a system that creates and festers biases against certain groups."

Son, who shot Moore, was not asked at the inquest if he knew that Moore was Indigenous, but it came out during testimony that he was familiar with the family and had been called to Moore's house before.

Neither was anyone asked about Moore's experiences as an Indigenous woman or her previous dealings with police and how those may have informed her actions before the shooting.

Manju Varma, New Brunswick's first commissioner on systemic racism, says the province needs to change its 'brand.' (Supplied by Government of New Brunswick)

Varma said what gives her hope is that the jury's recommendations are very "doable."

Tactical training, de-escalation training and building relationships can start now, she said. There are already known best practices.

The sad thing, she said, is that the recommendations are familiar — from the Rodney Levi inquest of last fall and even further back.

"We've been talking about cultural sensitivity and anti-racism training … for all sectors, not just the police, but for health … for education. This is not fresh and new thinking.

"This is what we need to do."

It's up to decision makers and the public to ensure it happens, she said.

"We had two police shootings in 2020, both of Indigenous people. We have one visible minority deputy minister in New Brunswick. We have recently an elected official who out publicly said there is no systemic racism in New Brunswick. This is our brand. We need to change that brand."

'No justice, no peace'

Chief Allan Polchies Jr., of Sitansisk (St. Mary's First Nation) in Fredericton, who commended the "strength and perseverance" of Moore's family in their pursuit of justice, said he agrees with Moore's mother, Martha Martin, that "bold change is necessary."

Systemic racism in the province is real, he told reporters after the inquest.

"We need action, we need justice. … No justice, no peace."

It's up to the provincial government whether to order an inquiry, said Polchies, but it's up to citizens to demand one.

"New Brunswickers give them the voice to carry our voices, to carry the voices of the children that don't have a voice … like Chantel," he said.

A man wearing Indigenous regalia.
St. Mary’s First Nation Chief Allan Polchies Jr. called for justice Thursday for 'every single Indigenous person across Turtle Island.' (Jennifer Sweet/CBC)

"So where are they? Where are they, is what New Brunswickers need to ask. You need to ask them. They are our decision-makers in this province, just like I'm a decision-maker in my community. You know, we have to take ownership based on the decisions we make.

"So I tell all New Brunswickers to keep your MLAs and Premier [Blaine] Higgs … accountable. Let's give dignity."

'Community members at risk'

Chief Ross Perley of Neqotkuk (Tobique First Nation) has long argued an inquiry is the only way to "deliver a credible and independent process that can lead to a justice system in which we can have faith."

Nothing he saw this week changed his mind, he said.

"This traumatic inquest, which the Moore family attended faithfully, didn't give them standing to participate. It has no power to get at the root causes of failures in the justice system that continue to leave our community members at risk."

In addition, the chiefs have "no faith" that recommendations made by the inquest jury — or by the commission into systemic racism — will "receive due care or attention from the Higgs government."

Chief Patricia Bernard of Matawaskiye (Madawaska First Nation), questioned whether any of the any of the recommendations from last October's inquest into Levi's death have been acted on.

"How could any fair-minded observer believe this inquest or the ongoing commission will bring change that reduces the risk our community faces during interactions with police?"

Higgs has refused to order an independent inquiry into systemic racism against Indigenous people in the justice system, saying there are already many recommendations to address the issue, and they just need to be implemented.

Varma's report is scheduled to be submitted to government in October and is expected to include recommendations to address systemic racism in areas such as health care, education, social development, housing, employment and criminal justice.

With files from Information Morning Fredericton