Chiefs walk out of meeting after Higgs doesn't agree on inquiry into systemic racism
First Nation chiefs says they're 'losing faith' in Premier Blaine Higgs
First Nation chiefs walked out of a meeting with Premier Blaine Higgs on Thursday afternoon after the premier refused to agree to an inquiry into systemic racism in the justice system and policing in New Brunswick.
"As a collective, New Brunswick chiefs, we're losing faith in Premier Higgs," said Chief Ross Perley of Neqotkuk First Nation at a press conference held following the meeting.
"His inaction is unacceptable. We have waited over three weeks for this meeting and we still have no firm commitment for an inquiry."
The chiefs had hoped the second meeting on the matter would have actionable results after they presented terms of reference for an inquiry, which Higgs asked for in a previous meeting.
Perley said the premier "wouldn't answer direct and kept wiggling around the question" during Thursday's meeting.
"Five weeks since the tragic killing of, Chantel Moore, Rodney Levi and, of course, the decision with Brady Francis, the premier's message is still the same, that 'our plans are better than your plans.'"
Moore and Levi were both shot by police recently. The man charged in the hit-and-run death of Francis was found not guilty.
It's a federal issue, Higgs says
Higgs said the issue of system racism in the justice system is bigger than New Brunswick.
"This is a national issue, every province is dealing with these issues," Higgs said after the meeting. "And why don't we make it that?
"Many of the concerns that we're talking about here are federally, it's federal jurisdiction. Certainly in relation to the court system, in relation to policing, in relation to the requirements or activities on the First Nations."
The chiefs said their next step is to look to members of the legislative assembly when they continue meeting in September.
"We call on all opposition parties in the legislature to hold a vote on an inquiry and help us end systemic racism in the province of New Brunswick," Perley said.
"It seems it's the same old 'they know what's best for us,' even though we have 15 of the chiefs standing here asking them for one simple thing and they still refuse," said Chief Bill Ward of Metepenagiag First Nation.
Ward said the Mi'kmaq, Wolastoqey and Peskotomuhkati chiefs all stand firm in wanting an inquiry.
Chiefs proposed policing alternatives and solutions
"We proposed tribal policing in some of our communities as a solution for some of our communities that don't have policing or are scared of the RCMP," Perley said was one of the actionable items.
Mi'gmawel Tplu'taqnn Inc., an organization representing nine Mi'kmaq communities in New Brunswick, said in a press release following the conference that the chiefs proposed the creation of unarmed peace officers in the communities who would be trained in de-escalation tactics and to address issues of mental health, addiction, poverty and trauma.
Other proposals include additional training for police officers on cultural competence and de-escalation techniques approved by Indigenous peoples, Indigenous representation on police commissions, and the creation of a New Brunswick-based independent investigation body with Indigenous representation.
"We've revisited many of these things with successive provincial governments, and we never seem to get to the point where the talk actually becomes action," Chief George Ginnish of Natoaganeg First Nation said.
"We have an understaffed RCMP trying to provide a multitude of services that need to happen for our communities," Ginnish said. "We need community peacekeeping, we need people that can interact with our members on the ground, work with our mental health teams, work with our health centres and have a comprehensive approach to what our issues are."
Ginnish said the chiefs are concerned about the state of the justice system, specifically within New Brunswick at the moment.
"We don't need to look at bringing other federal partners in to expand [the inquiry], which would only make it larger and more cumbersome and longer," Ginnish said. "So we said, 'Let's do a short, 90-day initial study of where things are."
He said the chiefs are looking for a glimmer of hope from the premier, but Higgs isn't giving them anything to work with.
"We've shared in our traditional territories; we need to be equal partners," Ginnish said. "That's the systemic racism, it's meant to belittle our people. We are equal partners, we need to be treated that way. It's overdue."
Premier explains hesitation
Higgs said he thought the meetings were going quite well until the chiefs walked out.
Higgs spoke with media after the meeting with the chiefs while wearing a T-shirt that read "End Systemic Racism," which was also worn by Perley.
The premier chalked up his reservations about an inquiry to his being an engineer and needing all the facts beforehand.
"You need to know what you're actually signing up for, what is going to be achieved, what are the questions we're going to be asking, what is it gonna entail, how does it reflect nationally on federal programs," Higgs said.
He said he only received the chiefs' letter of recommendations about the inquiry the night prior and hadn't had the time to evaluate how it would work.
The premier said he suggested a small group move on implementing recommendations from previous inquiries and push for a national inquiry into the systemic racism in the justice system and policing.
"We could do parallel paths," Higgs said. "We could do one to have a quick action on a number of issues that are affecting communities every day. And we could do an inquiry on a larger scale that the federal government actually have the biggest role to play in."
Higgs said federal Indigenous Services Minister Marc Miller expressed interest in the discussions to New Brunswick's Aboriginal affairs minister, Jake Stewart.
He said he is focused on trying to build an organization that is "chief-to-cabinet" and that can have ongoing decision making processes on results-based actions.
"I was committed, and I was going to be part of it. It wasn't me just showing up and walking away.
"Unfortunately, and I don't know whether it was part of the plan or not, but I didn't walk out on them, they all walked out on us. I didn't end the meeting."
Higgs said his government plans to proceed on some of the recommendations on self-policing, crisis management and an Atlantic investigation agency.
The chiefs have no future meetings planned with the premier.