5 months after promising systemic racism commissioner, N.B. has yet to name one
Indigenous leaders were already skeptical of commissioner plan, seeing it as diversion from need for inquiry
The New Brunswick government has yet to appoint anyone to fill the role of commissioner of systemic racism, five months after the new position was announced.
In March, the government said an independent commissioner was expected to be appointed within three months.
But with that target now missed, Indigenous and Black community leaders, who were already skeptical about the government's plan, are further questioning its commitment to tackling systemic racism.
"The province has not been doing much to try and do anything to improve the relationship with First Nations and in fact, is not even attempting to reach out to us to to do this jointly, even though our request to have a full [public] inquiry is still there," Chief Patricia Bernard of Madawaska Maliseet First Nation said in an interview.
Bernard was among the Wolastoqiyik and Mi'kmaw leaders who criticized appointing a commissioner, citing a lack of consultation by the province and accusing Premier Blaine Higgs of trying to circumvent calls for a public inquiry into systemic racism against Indigenous people in New Brunswick.
Demands for an inquiry followed two separate killings of Indigenous people last summer: Chantel Moore of Tla-o-qui-aht First Nation in British Columbia was shot and killed by a police officer in Edmundston, and Rodney Levi of Metepenagiag First Nation was shot and killed by an officer near Miramichi.
Last December, calls grew for the resignation of Aboriginal Affairs Minister Arlene Dunn when the minister amended a legislature motion and removed a call for a public inquiry into systemic racism.
The Department of Post-Secondary Education, Training and Labour says it is still working on choosing a commissioner. In a similar statement in June, the department said it was focused on finding the right person for the job.
"We understand that there might be delays, but at minimum for transparency purposes, some updates should have been provided to our communities to know what's going on," Husoni Raymond, one of the organizers with Black Lives Matter Fredericton, said in an interview about the commissioner's job.
Raymond agrees with Indigenous leaders, saying Black Lives Matter Fredericton also was not consulted by the province.
"We would stand by the critiques of Indigenous communities that they were calling for a commission on systemic racism within the justice system, and the government ignored what they had to say, and came up with their own remedy for systemic racism."
In a statement to CBC News in July, the Department of Post-Secondary Education, Training and Labour said the hope was to have a commissioner already but "we are focused on getting the right individual to lead this work and we are being diligent in reviewing the applicants."
The department now says it is continuing the application process.
What the role entails
When chosen, the commissioner will be conducting public consultations with various groups representing people who are Indigenous, Black or immigrants and people of colour.
A public report is due by March 31, 2022, with recommendations to address systemic racism in areas such as health care, education, social development, housing, employment and criminal justice. A total of $500,000 has been set aside, with staff expected to assist the commissioner in their work.
Given the delay filling the job, the province was asked if the deadline for the public report would be shifted but did not answer that question.
"The timeline is very crucial, and here we are, almost to the end of the summer going into fall," said Chief Allan Polchies Jr. from St. Mary's First Nation in an interview.
"We don't have time for lip service. I'm in a position of leadership to get things done and to have people accountable, especially the government of New Brunswick, to the Indigenous files around systemic racism."
Both Bernard and Polchies were also disappointed the province did not make National Day for Truth and Reconciliation Truth and Reconciliation Day on Sept. 30 a statutory holiday.
Polchies said appointing a commissioner before Sept. 30 could foster a show of good faith but ultimately the public inquiry is of highest importance.
Saint John lawyer Neil Clements said the appointment of the commissioner is one of the most important tasks facing the province.
"I think the person who sits in this chair needs to be able to speak truth to power and I think they need to be arm's length from the premier in order to do this job properly," he said. "They need to have complete authority over the project."
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Clements added that the initial allotment of one year would have to be extended, perhaps to three years, depending on the timeframe for recommendations for tangible change.
Applicants are being screened for such things as their level of familiarity with obligations under the Canadian Charter of Rights and the New Brunswick Human Rights Act, their ability to interact well with senior government officials, and their expertise in intersectionality analysis, which takes into account the multiplie identities a person might have, each playing a part in their experience of discrimination.
An ideal candidate would also have at least 10 years of expertise on the subject of systemic racism, including personal experience of it.
The Executive Council Office, chaired by Higgs, is leading the recruitment of the commissioner. This prompted Raymond to question whether grassroots advocates will be considered as candidates in the final decision and who exactly will be choosing the person hired.
"If it's a predominantly white group of people making a decision as to who the commissioner will be, sometimes they might even appoint racialized people who will uphold the status quo."
Desire for a tangible outcome
If a report is ever released, Raymond said, it should make concrete short-term and long-term recommendations to provoke tangible change. He also said creating those recommendations will be difficult given the lack of information available on issues such as racial profiling done by authorities.
"It's really hard to demonstrate the disproportionate impacts that these colonial institutions are having on our communities, if the data is not being collected," he said. "So I think that's important whether or not the recommendations will be implemented.
"Our communities are skeptical because we've heard these promises over and over, we've seen these reports happen, we've seen these recommendations come to the forefront, and then it takes years or nothing happens."
For more stories about the experiences of Black Canadians — from anti-Black racism to success stories within the Black community — check out Being Black in Canada, a CBC project Black Canadians can be proud of. You can read more stories here.