N.B. 'working group' not a substitute for inquiry into systemic racism, Tobique chief says
2 people named in the announcement of group says this is the first they've heard of it in 12 months
Tobique First Nation Chief Ross Perley says a new "working group" formed by Arlene Dunn, the Aboriginal affairs minister, is a good first step toward reconciliation but is not a replacement for an inquiry into systemic racism in New Brunswick.
The group, named the All Nations and Parties Working Group on Truth and Reconciliation, was announced in a news release on Thursday. Its mandate is to address the 94 calls to action identified in the Truth and Reconciliation Commission report released in 2015.
Dunn and Regional Chief Roger Augustine will co-chair the panel, whose members will also include three other chiefs and members of four political parties. The release said the group "will be supported" by other politicians and First Nations leaders.
But in a written response Friday to the committee announcement, Perley said, "the engagement of this committee yesterday by the new minister was news to me."
Perley wrote that activating the committee, last discussed in 2019, when Jake Stewart was the minister of Aboriginal affairs, "is a step long overdue."
But, he said, "this measure does not replace the need for a New Brunswick inquiry into systemic racism, and we can't lose sight of that fact."
First Nations stepped up their calls for an inquiry after Rodney Levi of Metepenagiag First Nation and Chantel Moore, a member of the Tla-o-qui-aht First Nation who had recently moved from B.C. to Edmundston, were shot and killed by police this year in separate incidents.
Premier Blaine Higgs has rejected an inquiry.
The New Brunswick panel announced this week will have nine members and two co-chairs. Eight people are listed as a members of a "guiding group," including Grand Chief Ron Tremblay, representing the Wolastoqewi Grandmothers.
Tremblay, too, was also surprised to see his name listed as a member.
"Strangely, I didn't confirm to be a part of this working group," he said.
He said Stewart had mentioned it to him, but Tremblay would need to consult with the Wolastoqewi Grandmothers to see if they wanted him to participate.
Dunn apologized for the confusion.
"I was under the assumption that they were contacted," she said.
Dunn said she hopes the committee can meet before Christmas to start discussions and getting to know each other.
"So that's priority number one, is to build the relationships, build the trust — that's huge," she said.
"And then from there [start] looking at the individual recommendations."
Dunn said 31 recommendations that came out of the Truth and Reconciliation Commission fall under the purview of the province. She wants to start there.
When asked about systemic racism, an issue Dunn previously called a "cancer in our province," she said this is a separate issue but related to the committee's mandate to address the commission's report.
"I'm going to be dealing with both of them, to be perfectly honest with you," she said.
'The systemic racism piece is something that is an issue that we need to really take a good look at."
Chief has faith in group's members
Roger Augustine, regional chief of New Brunswick and Prince Edward Island for the Assembly of First Nations, is the committee's co-chair. He said he has high hopes for the working group because of the people who are participating.
"I don't have faith in the system, I have faith in the people that are sitting around the table," said Augustine.
They are Chief Rebecca Knockwood of the Fort Folly First Nation, Chief Ross Perley of the Wolastoqey Nation, Chief Hugh Akagi of the Peskotomuhkati Nation at Skutik, Barry Labillois, president of the New Brunswick Aboriginal Peoples Council, St. Croix MLA Kathy Bockus, Miramichi Bay-Neguac MLA Lisa Harris, Green Party Leader David Coon and Miramichi MLA Michelle Conroy.
Augustine agreed that the committee is not a replacement for an inquiry into systemic racism, but it's a necessary move toward addressing Indigenous rights.
"We just have to now focus on New Brunswick and review some of the attempts in the past and find out where they failed," he said.
Augustine said he's feeling hopeful real change will be made.
"We can't screw this one up," he said.