New Brunswick

Systemic racism commission not a replacement for Indigenous inquiry, commissioner says

New Brunswick's systemic racism commissioner says her work is not a replacement for an Indigenous inquiry into the justice system, but the commission is still a valid way to address and make recommendations on issues of systemic racism in the province.

Manju Varma says she can only hope her recommendations are taken up by government

Manju Varma was appointed in September as New Brunswick's first commissioner on systemic racism. (Supplied by Government of New Brunswick)

New Brunswick's systemic racism commissioner, Manju Varma, says her work is not a replacement for the inquiry Indigenous people want into the justice system, but it's still a valid way to address and make recommendations about  systemic racism in the province.

On Wednesday, six Wolastoqey chiefs said they would not participate in the commission because it's an "ill-equipped and ineffective alternative" to an inquiry into systemic racism in the justice system.

They've been calling for such an inquiry since the deaths of Chantel Moore and Rodney Levi at the hands of police in June 2020. 

Premier Blaine Higgs said no and instead appointed Varma to review systemic racism facing all people subjected to it, including Black people and immigrants as well as Indigenous people.

She is to make recommendations by September 2022 that address barriers to opportunity, equitable access to programs and services, and systemic racism in health care, education, social development, housing, employment and criminal justice.

The chiefs said having a catch-all commission for all people of colour is a form of systemic racism.

"Dr. Varma and her team are being set up to fail from the outset by a disingenuous, disrespectful provincial government and we have no faith that the government will take the commission's findings seriously," the chiefs said in a news release.

Is the commission a 'useless exercise'?

Varma, the head of the inclusion, equity and anti-racism office of the Atlantic Canada Opportunities Agency, said that when she saw the job posting, she felt "jaded" and did not consider applying. 

She thought, "Here we go again ... another government attempt to do something, and then the report's going to go on the shelf," she said in an interview Thursday.

"I fully was not planning on participating, let alone applying for the job."

But after speaking to colleagues, she realized the commission would be a way to formally reflect the experience of marginalized communities that have not been put on record yet. If her recommendations are not followed, it would be a way to hold governments to account, she said.

"[My colleagues] said, 'If you don't participate, then you can't say anything about the recommendations … You are essentially saying, I don't want to have a voice in this.' And that really hit home."

When she took the job, she immediately heard from different people and organizations who want to see everything from a curriculum overhaul to more access to job opportunities. 

"This is not an opportunity to be part of some useless exercise. This is an opportunity to maybe lead a very fruitful exercise."

Varma said just because she was hired by the province doesn't mean the province is driving her report. How she runs  the commission is up to her, not the province. The province gave her a budget of $500,000 and two employees to produce the report, which she considers enough for the job.

Because our histories are so incredibly different, it does not make sense that the recommendations would be the same for everyone.- Manju Varma, commissioner

Varma said she understands the chiefs' hesitation to participate in the  commission.

She said she feels the same frustration when thinking about systemic racism, and how it's deeply rooted and difficult to address without the power to call people to testify or make fundamental changes.

When she received the letter from the chiefs declining to participate, Varma said, her immediate reaction was disappointment, not surprise.

"I understand the chief's wanting an inquiry," she said. "So I was disappointed that I did not have a chance to sit down with the of chiefs and explain the process and answer their questions."

She's interviewing many different groups with different needs, but she's not planning to make broad recommendations with no nuance, Varma said.

"Yes, there will be recommendations for everyone, because there are some things that we all share," she said. "But because our histories are so incredibly different, it does not make sense that the recommendations would be the same for everyone. That's anti-racism 101."

Having an Indigenous inquiry into the justice system would probably be one of her recommendations, Varma said, if she is able to speak to the people who think it's essential.

"At the end of the day, our shared interest is to make New Brunswick a better place. It is to dismantle systemic racism in the ways that it impacts us separately, differently."

Varma is a child of parents who were displaced because of the colonialism that caused India and Pakistan to separate.

She said she understands first-hand the long-lasting impact of settlers interfering with a people's way of life, but she also knows this experience is not the same.

"I am not Indigenous, I can't bring an Indigenous lens to this report," she said. "I was hoping to have a conversation so that they could guide me."

She said she is still speaking with other First Nations members who agreed to be part of her review, and they will be reflected in her recommendations.

What will recommendations achieve?

When denying the request for an inquiry, Higgs said many recommendations have been made already, especially by the National Inquiry into Missing and Murdered Indigenous Women and Girls, and they just need to be implemented.

However, the chiefs said the recommendations were made years ago, and they've seen little change because of it. 

When asked how her recommendations would be different, Varma said her work is "built on hope."

"If there was no hope that racism is not going to be challenged, then of course I wouldn't be doing this work," she said.

She said her goal is to make New Brunswick safer for her children and other people who are not white, or were not born in this country.

"Finally, finally, we're able to sit down and have those conversations. So the ask is out there, now we need to sit down and explain why we want that."


Hadeel Ibrahim is a reporter with CBC New Brunswick based in Saint John. She's been previously awarded for a series on refugee mental health and for her work at a student newspaper, where she served as Editor-in-Chief. She reports in English and Arabic. Email: Twitter: @HadeelBIbrahim