Focus on the future, not the past, Higgs says on Indigenous issues
In year-end interview premier says he’s not a historian and wants to fix First Nations economy
Premier Blaine Higgs says he wants to understand why Indigenous communities in New Brunswick aren't doing better economically — but isn't interested in delving into the history of colonialism and injustice.
Higgs said in a year-end interview with CBC News that he's serious about addressing the problems facing Indigenous people.
But he said Canada's long history of settlement, including the creation of the reserve system and other measures imposed on Indigenous peoples, is not something he wants to focus on.
"I know there's going to be lots of debate about the injustices of the past, but right now I want to start fixing the future," he said.
The premier made the comments in an interview on Dec. 16, the same day First Nations chiefs quit a planned working group set up with government ministers and officials to address calls to action in the 2015 report of the Truth and Reconciliation Commission.
Higgs questioned why Indigenous communities don't have the same level of economic development as the rest of the province, despite what he considers to be large amounts of federal government spending there.
'Not an authority' on historic patterns of mistreatment
"We see First Nations communities in situations that would not be acceptable in other parts of the province," he said.
"If you look at it just on the [financial] resource side of it, you say, 'That shouldn't be a problem. There should be an improvement.' …
"You've got to have open and frank discussion about why. What is the reason we have not been able to see an improvement over the years?"
But he said the historical patterns of mistreatment and discrimination are not part of his analysis.
"I don't try to be a historian or in any way defend actions of the past," he said. "I'm not suggesting there hasn't been unjust treatment or whatever, because I'm not an authority to be in that position."
Two days after the interview, Higgs endorsed a plan by Aboriginal Affairs Minister Arlene Dunn to hold cultural sensitivity training sessions on Indigenous culture for all MLAs. She announced it in the legislature on Friday.
"The more we understand the cultural aspect of it all, the better decisions we can collectively make together, and so I'm in favour of that as well," Higgs said.
He also said he's considering a proposal by Green Leader David Coon to invite representatives from Indigenous nations to address a special session of the legislature.
We see First Nations communities in situations that would not be acceptable in other parts of the province.- Premier Blaine Higgs
First Nations chiefs in New Brunswick abandoned what was termed an "all nations working group" earlier this month after the government used its majority to gut a motion calling for an inquiry into systemic racism.
The final version of the motion passed by the Progressive Conservatives acknowledged systemic racism but made no mention of an inquiry.
Calls for an inquiry began after two Indigenous people were killed by police in two separate shootings earlier this year.
Federally regulated lobster fishery one of few bright spots
One of the few economic bright spots for First Nations has been the establishment of a federally regulated commercial lobster fishery in the wake of the Supreme Court of Canada's 1999 Marshall Decision.
A 2019 report by Indigenous rights expert Ken Coates said the growth in the sector has created jobs for young Indigenous people and led to on-reserve fisheries revenues of $152 million in 2016.
But that opportunity was the result of a legal battle that relied on historical context, including the Royal Proclamation of 1763, not negotiations with a willing federal government.
Higgs sees that as an argument for bypassing drawn-out meetings rather than for looking to history.
"That would be the same argument I would have for [not holding] a public inquiry," Higgs said during the year-end interview. "Let's actually do something. Let's actually build a process here."
Higgs said he had wanted the working group's first meeting to set firm timelines for the implementation of several recommendations chiefs made earlier this year about the justice system.
- Explainer: Why an old fight over Indigenous fishing rights is heating up again
- MPs hold emergency debate on N.S. lobster fishery dispute
"I would like to think that the recommendations they put forward before … would be discussed and timelines would be put on them," he said.
"In order to get the best end result, we would want them to help us if it involves their communities."
He said he hopes the chiefs will eventually agree to return to the working group.
"I do recognize the situation we have right now and I do believe that we can't keep talking about it. We've actually got to do something."