New Brunswick

Indigenous leaders hope to work with Higgs following election

First Nations chiefs hope to work with Premier Blaine Higgs on addressing issues of systemic racism following the province's election results Monday. 

Indigenous leaders hope to work on addressing systemic racism despite pre-election relationship

Tobique First Nation Chief Ross Perley (Tobique First Nation)

First Nations chiefs say they hope to work with Premier Blaine Higgs on addressing issues of systemic racism following the province's election results Monday. 

Negotkuk First Nation Chief Ross Perley said the relationship between First Nations and the premier is fragile, but he hopes the two sides can work together for the next four years.

"I think that we can make some progress and I think first and foremost, we definitely need to get to the bottom of the systemic racism that's going on here in the province. That would be a good start."

George Ginnish of Natoageneg First Nation said he hopes to meet with Higgs soon after the premier has his new majority government up and running.

"They're going to be looking at setting their priorities for the next four years and we want to be on that priority list," Ginnish said.

He hopes meetings with Higgs become a regular part of the premier's plans.

Natoageneg First Nation Chief George Ginnish hopes to meet with Premier Blaine Higgs on a more regular basis following the election. (Vanessa Blanch/CBC)

"This can't be just once every couple of years," Ginnish said. "It's got to happen on a regular basis, but let's make some targets and work towards those."

Prior to the election, Indigenous leaders in the province called for an independent inquiry into the provincial justice system following the shootings of Rodney Levi and Chantel Moore by police officers, as well as the not guilty verdict in the Brady Francis hit-and-run case this summer.

"I think we've clearly shared a lot of the concerns that we do have," Ginnish said. "I guess where we differ is the premier feels that we can accomplish much without a full inquiry."

Higgs said his position on an inquiry is the same as it was when he met with the chiefs in July.

"My position has not changed in the last three or four weeks, and hasn't changed in the last three months," Higgs said. "I want to deal with the recommendations that have already been made — 797 recommendations have been made from past inquiries. Less than 20 percent have had any action at all."

Perley believes that solving the issue of systemic racism requires a multi-pronged approach.

"I don't believe it's a one size fits all approach. I think we can do an inquiry and do some of the things Mr. Higgs has proposed at the same time. That would achieve more results not only in the short term, but in the long term, and I think that's the approach we need to take." 

Higgs embraces his wife Marcia Higgs, right, and daughters Rachel Hiltz, left, and Lindsey Hiltz after winning the New Brunswick provincial election Monday. (Andrew Vaughan/The Canadian Press)

Perley said that deflecting responsibility to the federal government is an antiquated tactic, and the province is equally responsible.

"Both governments are responsible. There's no one that has more responsibility than the other because these are unceded territories. We signed Peace and Friendship treaties with the Crown, and the Crown is the province and the federal government."

Ginnish finds the premier's resistance to an inquiry baffling.

"In order to fully understand the nature of the racism, the areas that need to be changed, and to actually be able to modernize and do the deeper change within the system, the inquiry, it would bring us so much further down the road. I don't understand [the premier's] resistance to doing that."

Perley said that he would like to see Jake Stewart return as the minister of Aboriginal affairs. Prior to the election, Stewart was supportive of an independent inquiry into the provincial justice system, but later stepped back from his stance, saying the premier has the final say.

"Mr. Stewart has been great to work with. He's honest, which is probably one of the top values that you can ask for in a minister," Perley said. "We will be pleased if he's reassigned to the file, but I wouldn't be surprised if he was shuffled,  considering he went against the premier's position."

First Nations leaders met with Higgs in July but walked out on the meetings after a standstill in discussions. (Logan Perley/CBC)

Ginnish was less enthusiastic about Stewart's performance as minister.

"It's disheartening to have support, to actually have a minister come out and say, 'Yeah, an inquiry is needed' and then to have it withdrawn. That will be a challenge for him credibility-wise if he's put back in that position. How does he redeem himself in our eyes? Is it possible to redeem himself?"

Perley also said he would like to see the provincial government expand support for mental health in First Nations communities.

"Health is one area that Mr. Higgs had in his platform. That's something that we all value as humans," Perley said.

"That might be a starting point where we can work together on something and do something meaningful for mental health services in our community, because right now in our communities, our mental health services aren't equivalent to the mental health services that municipalities have."

ABOUT THE AUTHOR

Logan Perley is a Wolastoqi journalist from Tobique First Nation and a reporter at CBC New Brunswick. You can email him at logan.perley@cbc.ca or follow him on Twitter @LoganPerley.

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