First Nations chiefs and N.B. premier meet to discuss systemic racism
Met Wednesday to talk about an overhaul of the justice and policing systems.
Representatives of the New Brunswick provincial government met with First Nations chiefs Wednesday morning to discuss the issue of systemic racism in the province's justice system and the need for broad structural change.
The meeting comes on the heels of the deaths of Rodney Levi and Chantel Moore at the hands of police officers, as well as the Crown's decision to not appeal the not guilty verdict in the hit and run death of Brady Francis.
First Nations leaders in New Brunswick are calling for an independent inquiry into systemic racism in New Brunswick's justice system.
Following the video-conference with the premier and his cabinet ministers, the Wolastoqey Nation in New Brunswick released a statement on behalf of the six Wolastoqey chiefs to express their disappointment in the discussions.
"We were very disappointed with Premier Higgs' response."
"The Chiefs raised our concerns about systemic bias and racism against Indigenous people in our police and justice systems. We reiterated our call for an independent inquiry into these problems that would be Indigenous-led and have tight timelines to ensure prompt action," the Wolastoqey Nation in New Brunswick statement said.
"Our people have participated in national inquiries and we have heard words spoken by governments, and still we come back to the same point we reached these past weeks. We need action now."
"Despite the fact that his minister of aboriginal affairs has recognized that bias and racism exists, Premier Higgs is not prepared to recognize that. And even though his minister believes an inquiry should be called, Premier Higgs refuses to support it," the statement said.
Tobique First Nation Chief Ross Perley said that the chiefs felt they had a "pretty strong case" for an inquiry today.
"Unfortunately, today the Premier wasn't ready to make a decision on whether or not he was going to support an inquiry" Perley said.
Perley said the province proposed a task force to review past inquiries and try to implement some recommendations, but the Wolastoqey chiefs felt it wasn't enough.
The Chiefs felt that that was too weak, it didn't have enough teeth," Perley said. "We would like something with more strength to it with a stronger mandate and that would be an inquiry."
"For once, listen to the leadership of our nations" Perley told the premier. "Not doing that is a prime example of the systemic problems that exist and unfortunately that seems to be the road that we're going on."
Perley acknowledged that Higgs had not completely shut the door on an inquiry and remained hopeful that things would change in the next meeting in two weeks
Perley said the Wolastoqiyik, Mi'kmaw and Peskotomuhkati chiefs, as well as the Green and Liberal leaders, support an inquiry.
Status quo is not an option
Mi'gmawe'l Tplu'taqnn Inc. also released a statement on behalf of the Mi'kmaw chiefs following the meeting with the provincial government.
"Over the past fifty years, there have been inquiries, research papers and reports that have examined what is wrong with the justice system in this province and country, and particularly the way in which the justice system has failed Indigenous peoples," the Mi'kmaw chiefs' statement said.
"Indigenous people are overrepresented in the jails; underrepresented as policy and change makers; and more likely to [be] victims of homicide and violent crimes."
Mi'gmawe'l Tplu'taqnn said they developed a discussion paper to present to the province which includes options to explore relating to Indigenous justice.
Those options include the need for Indigenous-led alternatives to policing in communities, and improving supports for those struggling with mental health, addiction, and generational violence.
They plan to present the discussion paper when the First Nations leaders reconvene with the premier and his cabinet in two weeks.
The Mi'kmaw chiefs also acknowledged that immediate action is needed and an independent inquiry would enhance the process.
"It is our feeling moving ahead with implementing the calls and recommendations from past reports and having a New Brunswick focused inquiry are not mutually exclusive."
"There are systemic issues that are specific to New Brunswick that cannot be addressed until an independent party reviews the system in this province. Otherwise, we risk departments, governments and citizens denying the discrimination."
"We know the Marshall Inquiry in Nova Scotia led to the implementation of actions that have resulted in significant changes in how the justice system in that Province deals with Indigenous people."
"The status quo is not an option. This is a government-to-government relationship and we have to work together in partnership to address the systematic discrimination that currently exists."
"Today was a stepping stone"
Premier Higgs acknowledged that he doesn't support an inquiry into systemic racism in the justice system at this time.
"The reason I said that is because I'm referencing over the last 24 years about just around 800 recommendations that have been made through various inquiries, public inquiries and commissions," Higgs said. "I asked the question like, how many of those recommendations have actually been followed through?"
Higgs said he didn't know the exact number, but was told that less than 15 per cent of the 800 recommendations have been implemented.
Higgs said while BEI conducts the independent investigations into the deaths of Moore and Levi, that First Nations and provincial leaders could look at what action they can do now to implement past recommendations.
"We want a full investigation, which is happening now," Higgs said of the two police shootings.
"Why don't we look at all of the things that have been done in the past and how many can we implement, how many can we actually make a change and move the bar," Higgs said.
Higgs said the provincial and First Nations leaders decided to meet again in two weeks.
In the meantime, he said the province will flesh out what previous recommendations can be implemented, and First Nations leaders can think about what a public inquiry looks like to them.
Higgs said he disagreed with the Wolastoqey chiefs' statement saying he doesn't recognize that systemic racism exists.
"I do not agree with that statement that I don't recognize that racism exists or we have a systemic problem here that needs to be addressed because I absolutely do agree we have a systemic problem that needs to be addressed," Higgs said.
"I believe in it and I believe we must have change, but I'm not one to just keep studying something. I'd like to get something accomplished," Higgs said.
"We can measure performance by how much we say or we can measure performance by how much we do, and I am more inclined to be measured on what we actually do." Higgs said.
Higgs said he is looking at pilot programs like having social workers accompany police officers to domestic calls.
New Brunswick Minister of Aboriginal Affairs Jake Stewart was optimistic about the outcome of the meetings with the First Nations chiefs this morning.
"Today was a stepping stone. It was a meeting where as a government we did a lot of listening to try to understand the issues faced by Indigenous peoples with respect to the justice system and the public safety systems of New Brunswick," Stewart said. "I actually think it was a positive first step."
Stewart said not all the chiefs on the call were hoping for an inquiry, contrary to the statements released by the chiefs organizations.
"One thing that's important is that there are variations from both the province and from the chiefs on what should happen," Stewart said. "Some chiefs are exclusively hoping for an inquiry, but there is variation and that's important."
Stewart said that both sides were able to come to agreements on some of the topics discussed.
"We agreed that there's systemic bias and racism in our provincial systems. We agreed that we understand how Indigenous peoples don't feel the trust in both the justice and public safety systems. We also agreed that we need action and we need to implement items that actually work," Stewart said.
Stewart echoed the premier's statement in saying that he wants action.
Other parties support First Nations' inquiry request
Green Party Leader David Coon was critical of the premier not supporting an inquiry, though he wasn't invited to the meeting.
"I think there's a total disconnect here because I agree we need action and yet he has failed to say what his plan of action is. I don't hear it," Coon said. "I, and my party, completely support the chief's call for the inquiry."
Coon said that an inquiry would be the mirror New Brunswick needs to reflect upon it's own biases, stereotypes and prejudices.
"For the most part across this province we do not see the racism that exists, those of us who are non-Indigenous."
Liberal Party MLA Lisa Harris said First Nations are still not being listened to.
"The meeting today obviously didn't go well according to the chiefs. However, it seems in the minds of Premier Higgs and Minister Stewart that it was successful and that just stems right back to proof that they're not being listened to and what they're asking for is not a priority of this government," Harris said. "And it's a sure sign of systemic bias, systemic racism, happening right here before our eyes, and it's very disappointing and it's very unfortunate."
Harris said that the Liberal Party would be raising the issue of an inquiry.