First Nation leaders met with the premier of New Brunswick Thursday to continue their push for a public inquiry into systemic discrimination against Indigenous people in the provincial justice system.
They left empty handed after their first meeting with Premier Blaine Higgs on June 17 following the police killings of Chantel Moore and Rodney Levi – as well as the April 2020 acquittal of a man charged in the hit and run death of Mi’kmaw youth Brady Francis.
Chiefs and representatives from Wolastoqey, Mi’kmaw and Passamaquoddy nations left again feeling disheartened and frustrated, according to one chief who was there.
“We’re very disappointed in the premier here in the province,” Chief Tim Paul of Woodstock First Nation told APTN News.
“The systems fail us every time, so it’s time for change. We had a chance to lead that change and again he’s not willing to take that step – so very disappointed in his not committing to an inquiry. Very, very disappointed.”
A statement released after the meeting says Higgs rejected their proposed reforms as well as their call for a provincial public inquiry.
Higgs told a different story as he answered questions from reporters after the meeting.
“I never at any point in time ruled out a public inquiry,” he said. “What I suggested was that we need to get federal government involved because many of these issues are directly related to the federal government and their control or operation in the process.”
“That statement is totally wrong. These things happened here in New Brunswick. So, it’s New Brunswick’s responsibility to address these issues of systemic racism within the justice system and policing,” he said.
The leaders want an Indigenous-appointed commission to be established immediately.
“For hundreds of years, a regime of systemic racism has been built up in this province and this country against its Indigenous peoples,” Chief Ross Perley said in a Wolastoqey release before the meeting.
“The tragic deaths of our sister and brother in June has opened the eyes of many to some of these challenges.”
Wolastoqey chiefs outlined their proposal in a seven-page letter emailed to the premier Wednesday.
“We stand firm in our belief that this province must have an independent inquiry that reviews the systemic discrimination against Indigenous people in the policing and justice systems in New Brunswick,” the chiefs wrote.
They also panned the Higgs government’s response when the chiefs raised this issue in their first meeting. Higgs suggested a task force to address recommendations from past inquiries would get results quicker.
“Your response to our call is just another example of the paternalistic attitude of your government towards our people and the systemic discrimination that exists (i.e., the government telling us what is best for us),” the letter said.
A task force has no teeth, it added, but an inquiry can compel governments to provide information they would rather hide.
“An inquiry is a process that government cannot manipulate, control or delay. Inquiries are established to conduct a comprehensive and transparent review that is independent from government.”
Higgs said again that this is not just a provincial issue.
“This is bigger than New Brunswick. This is a national issue, this is every province is dealing with these issues, and why don’t we make it that,” he said.
Paul remains unconvinced.
“For him saying that is just like passing the buck,” said Paul. “Nothing less than a public inquiry is going to make things better for us.”
The quest for answers continues across the country after a spate of police violence against Indigenous peoples.
Police violence grabbed headlines on both sides of the Canada-U.S. border in the wake of the Black Lives Matter and anti-police brutality movement that erupted after Minneapolis police killed an unarmed Black man named George Floyd.
Municipal police in Edmundson, N.B. shot and killed Tla-o-qui-aht mother Chantel Moore, 26, on June 4 during a wellness check.
RCMP shot and killed Metepenagiag Mi’kmaw father of three Rodney Levi, 48, after Levi became distressed at a barbecue at his pastor’s house.
The letter also cited the death of Brady Francis, 22, who was killed in a hit and run incident in 2018 as evidence of a systemic problem. Earlier this year, non-Indigenous driver Maurice Johnson was found not-guilty of failing to stop at the scene of an accident involving bodily harm or death in that case.
On Wednesday, federal politicians also called for an inquiry into why and how wellness checks turn deadly. Green party leader Elizabeth May cited Moore and Levi’s deaths, while Sen. Kim Pate demanded swift reform at the federal level.
The letter includes a detailed list of proposed terms of reference for the inquiry, and suggests it should consider past recommendations.
The government has hundreds of recommendations from dozens of commissions spanning decades that deal directly with policing and Indigenous communities.
Some of these are listed in the letter. With all these documents sitting on shelves, the chiefs defended their call for a new one.
“We are not suggesting that this work go to waste or not be considered. But, many of the recommendations of past inquiries are not implementation ready and do not specifically consider the administration of justice within New Brunswick,” the chiefs wrote.
Higgs said inquiries can take a long time and insisted money is not why he’s resistant.
“You need to know what you’re actually signing up for: What is going be achieved? What are the questions we’re going to be asking? What is it going to entail? How does it reflect nationally on federal programs?”
It’s not clear what the next steps will be for the First Nations leaders.
“But I know myself here as chief of Woodstock First Nation here in New Brunswick, I’m not going to waste my time sitting at a table with a premier that is not listening,” Paul said.