Aboriginal affairs minister promises action on systemic racism

·3 min read

New Brunswick's minister of aboriginal affairs is promising an announcement soon on a process for tackling what she calls the "cancer" of systemic racism in the province.

It's the strongest comment yet from the Higgs government, which has so far resisted calls for a public inquiry in the wake of the killing of two Indigenous people earlier this year by police in two separate incidents.

"We have a cancer in our province and it's called systemic racism," Minister Arlene Dunn said during question period.

"We are going to take on this initiative and we're going to do something about it, you can be assured of that. And you're going to hear lots from me over the next several days, guaranteed."

Dunn later told reporters that she considers systemic racism "something we really have to try to eradicate."

She said she was concerned that racism is "ingrained in a number of systems" and affects not just Indigenous people but other communities as well.

Dunn's the one, Facebook
Dunn's the one, Facebook

She would not say what she plans to put in place but said she "absolutely" believes that people who have called for an inquiry will be satisfied.

She said whatever she announces will operate independently of government.

"We want a very good solution, one that's going to come out with tangible opportunities, one that's going to allow us to do this very quickly and allow us to implement solutions immediately."

St. Mary's First Nation Chief Alan (Chicky) Polchies Jr. said he has heard nothing from the province about any looming announcement.

"We've never been consulted about what is going to be suggested," he said. "What that looks like, how we are part of this, who is going to lead it — those are all questions that we're going to have after an announcement."

Ed Hunter/CBC
Ed Hunter/CBC

Polchies said nothing short of an inquiry would satisfy him and other Wolastoqey chiefs.

"A public inquiry is what we asked for and it's what we want," he said.

Green Party Leader David Coon said he was surprised to hear Dunn be "so categorical" in the house about doing something, given Premier Blaine Higgs's reluctance.

After the two shooting deaths earlier this year, Higgs acknowledged that systemic racism exists, something he reiterated this week.

But he refused to order a standalone provincial inquiry, saying the federal government had to play a role.

His then-minister of Aboriginal affairs, Jake Stewart, said he would push for an inquiry, but during the election conceded the decision was up to Higgs.

Stewart was shuffled out of the job and to the backbenches after the provincial election in September. He said after the demotion that he would continue to push for an inquiry.

Logan Perley/CBC
Logan Perley/CBC

Coon said an inquiry has to happen so decision-makers "can understand what Indigenous peoples' experience is with racism in the system."

Liberal MLA Lisa Harris said she's not convinced Dunn will be able to persuade Higgs to act and said she hopes the new minister uses "the same gusto" she adopted in question period to convince him.

Higgs's decision to make Aboriginal affairs one of Dunn's four cabinet roles, rather than a standalone job like it was when Stewart held it, shows that it's not a priority for the Progressive Conservatives, Harris said.

"You see that there's no concern there," she said.