3 N.B. political parties back calls for justice inquiry that Blaine Higgs doesn't want
Chiefs see issue of systemic racism as important issue in September election
As the New Brunswick election campaign rolls on, calls by First Nations leaders for a public inquiry into the justice system continue, and they've drawn commitments from three political parties.
Allegations of systemic racism have grown louder since the fatal police shootings of two members of the Indigenous community this summer and Progressive Conservative Leader Blaine Higgs's rejection of appeals for a provincial inquiry.
Chantel Moore, 26, from Tla-o-qui-aht First Nation in British Columbia, was killed by Edmundston police during a wellness check on July 4. Eight days later, 48-year-old Rodney Levi or Metepenagiag First Nation near Miramichi was killed by RCMP.
Two party leaders say they'd make an inquiry in the justice system one of their first acts if they formed a government after the election Sept. 14.
"That is overdue now," Green Party Leader David Coon said. "We're talking about our neighbours, we're talking about our friends, we're talking about people who are part of the fabric of the overall society in New Brunswick, and we have a responsibility."
Liberal Leader Kevin Vickers's position showed a similar urgency.
"When I become premier, definitely we'll have a public inquiry with regards to systemic discrimination and systemic racism in our justice and police systems," said Vickers, a former RCMP officer. "I would announce within the first 30 days after I became premier, that we'll be conducting a public inquiry into these matters."
Vickers said he knows from his time as a chief superintendent in the RCMP who looked after operational policies that those policies can use an update.
"It's time to review that model of use of force," he said. "It hasn't been updated since the early 1990s."
Nathan Davis, the New Democratic Party's communications director, said the NDP also supports an inquiry and believes it could further reconciliation efforts.
"I would hope and expect that in the efforts of true reconciliation that it moves forward quickly," Davis said.
People's Alliance Leader Kris Austin was contacted but did not respond.
In July, all the chiefs of the province met with Higgs to discuss how to move forward after the deaths of Moore and Levi and the not guilty verdict for the man accused in the hit-and-run death of Brady Francis of Elsipogtog First Nation.
The chiefs, who represented the Mi'kmaq, Wolastoqiyik and Peskotomuhkati, walked out of talks with Higgs over a standstill on the issue of an inquiry.
"As a collective, New Brunswick chiefs — we're losing faith in Premier Higgs," Chief Ross Perley of Neqotkuk First Nation told reporters at the time.
The chiefs had also called for other quick "actionable" items, such as the creation of New Brunswick's own independent investigation body with Indigenous members, tribal policing alternatives and increased police training in de-escalation and cultural competency.
Higgs said many of the chief's concerns fell under federal jurisdiction, and "every province is dealing with these issues."
"It's definitely a provincial issue, the jurisdiction of justice is within the province," said Bill Ward, chief of Metepenagiag First Nation. "Pushing off to the federal government is a cop-out."
Vickers said jurisdiction could be both federal and provincial, depending on the concern being addressed.
He suspects Higgs's opposition to an inquiry has to do with finances.
"Is this another issue where he is always dictated by not investing and not coming forth with monies that are necessary to ensure the proper functioning of our society?" Vickers said. "I believe it is the issue why he's not calling a public inquiry; it's because of the finances that would be incurred because of it."
Coon said systemic racism in the justice system is a provincial issue.
"We're talking about addressing some fundamental injustices that exist in the system that are directed against Indigenous peoples, and we need to fix those," Coon said. "We cannot fix them unless we hear from Indigenous people who live and experience on a regular basis, so that they can provide us as a government with the guidance we need to fix the problem."
Coon said Higgs needs to accept responsibility.
"All chiefs from all communities agreed together that this was a priority, and the premier took a disgraceful position, which was to kind of shift it off on to the federal government rather than taking responsibility for it here. Even his minister of Aboriginal affairs has abandoned his former position."
Aboriginal Affairs Minister Jake Stewart publicly supported the call for an inquiry but has since stepped back from it.
"The premier made his decision," Stewart said recently. "He's the premier and that's going to be the decision."
But Stewart said the premier was still committed to making changes based on recommendations from Mi'kmaq chiefs.
He also said there were "variations" in what the chief's wanted, believing the Wolastoqey chiefs were more focused on an inquiry and the Mi'kmaq chiefs on changes proposed in a 27-page document they provided the premier.
However, Chief Ward said the Mi'kmaq chiefs are committed to an inquiry.
"We stand with all the other chiefs in the province, united on this, and we want it just as bad as they do. It's unfortunate Minister Stewart backpedalled on his word that he would support this."
Ward said the proposed justice reforms can still happen, and it should not be an issue of one or the other.
This election is an important one for First Nations peoples, he said.
"I know that my community and other communities are definitely going to mobilize their people to go and vote, as we see it as a pivotal election."