Indigenous leaders have denounced the provincial government's plan to address systemic racism in New Brunswick, saying they weren't consulted or even advised.
"It's another classic case of a project about us, without us, which in itself is a form of racial discrimination," said Tobique First Nation Chief Ross Perley.
The government will appoint an independent commissioner to examine systemic racism, Aboriginal Affairs Minister Arlene Dunn announced Wednesday.
"The intent here is to really do a very good review of what's happening with respect to systemic racism. And once that is done, to actually come up with recommendations that can be presented to government so we can actually start changing things for people who live this every single day," she said.
The full-time commissioner is expected to be appointed within three months and conduct public consultations with Indigenous people, as well as Black people, people of colour and immigrants.
A public report is due by March 31, 2022, with recommendations on the development of a provincial strategy and action plan to address concerns such as barriers to opportunity and equitable access to programs and services, and systemic racism in health care, education, social development, housing, employment and criminal justice.
A total of $500,000 has been set aside.
The announcement comes just three months after the government used its majority to gut a Liberal motion calling for an inquiry into systemic racism in justice and policing in the province following the shooting deaths of two Indigenous people by police in separate incidents last summer.
Dunn, who is also minister responsible for immigration, told reporters the commissioner's scope will be broader.
"With inquiries, typically it's one very specific element that you're looking at," such as justice, she said.
"Systemic racism is institutionalized racism, which means that there's a number of factors that we have to consider. Education is one of them. Social development is another one. Justice is another one. So we want to take a whole of government approach."
It's also "really important for us to understand that systemic racism actually doesn't just apply to Indigenous populations in our province," she added.
Discrimination is 'deeply rooted,' says chief
Perley said discrimination against Indigenous people is "deeply rooted" in New Brunswick and warrants its own inquiry.
"We don't want to take anything away from any other cultures or ethnic backgrounds that experience racism. We know what that feels like because we've been experiencing it since time immemorial. And that's the difference," he said.
"And I think … it's kind of disrespectful, to be honest, that the government would ignore calls from the leaders of the Indigenous communities and go on with their own paternalistic plan that we don't think will yield results for our nations here in New Brunswick."
The province claims they value their relationship with the First Nations of this province. They have a strange way of showing it. - George Ginish, chief of Natoaganeg First Nation
The leadership of Mi'gmawe'l Tplu'taqnn Incorporated (MTI) and the Wolastoqey Nation in New Brunswick (WNNB) issued a joint statement expressing "profound disappointment."
"There could be no better example of what systemic racism looks like than non-racialized people setting out a process to address racism without consulting those most affected — First Nations people," said St. Mary's Chief Allan Polchies on behalf of WNNB.
Chief George Ginish of Natoaganeg First Nation, speaking on behalf of MTI, said the surprise move represents the sad state of relations between First Nations and the Higgs government.
"The province claims they value their relationship with the First Nations of this province. They have a strange way of showing it," he said.
In December, three Mi'kmaw and Wolastoqiyik chiefs pulled out of a provincial working group set up to address Truth and Reconciliation Commission recommendations, saying the government was using the group to avoid having a public inquiry into systemic racism.
Mi'kmaw and Wolastoqiyik chiefs had previously called for Dunn's resignation after she amended a Liberal motion calling for a public inquiry into systemic racism, removing any reference to an inquiry.
Indigenous communities had been calling for such an inquiry since Chantel Moore, a member of the Tla-o-qui-aht First Nation who had recently moved from B.C. to Edmundston, and Rodney Levi of Metepenagiag First Nation, were shot and killed by police less than two weeks apart last June.
During the house debate, Dunn reworded the motion to focus on tackling recommendations already made by previous studies. That motion later passed with the amendment.
"The intent of the entire motion was an inquiry," Metepenagiag Mi'kmaq Nation Chief Bill Ward said at the time. "It wasn't to recognize systemic racism, we all know it exists already. We wanted action on it, and that's the appropriate action, and they took that away."
On Wednesday, Green Party Leader David Coon repeated calls for a public inquiry.
"Let's remember that in my lifetime … Indigenous people were not permitted to leave their reserves without a pass. I mean, that's where we're coming from," he said. "So this deserves and demands a specific inquiry. The inquiry needs to happen."
Independence, powers questioned
Interim Liberal Leader Roger Melanson questioned how independent and effective the commissioner will be.
The province said the Executive Council Office will lead the recruitment of a commissioner to ensure an independent process.
But Melanson noted the Executive Council office is chaired by the premier. "It should have been done through the legislative assembly to be fully independent," he said.
It's not under the Inquiries Act either, he said, so the commissioner won't have the power to compel people or institutions to participate.
Dunn said she doesn't anticipate any problems.
"This is not a criminal element. This is not a need for subpoenas. This is a need to really engage with the folks who experience this reality every single day. And I don't see any reason why they wouldn't come and talk about this," she said.
"So if the RCMP, for example, decides that they don't want to speak about this? Well, we have lots of people in this province who've had experiences with the RCMP so they can personally speak about their experiences."
And while the commissioner has no power to force people or institutions to hand over any data, Dunn believes police forces will be willing to share their information.
"I think that, you know, based upon the discussions that we've had with a number of folks in the province, I think that there's opportunities for us to engage with them," she said.
"I do know in speaking with the RCMP that the RCMP are very much, I guess, concerned about the relationships, concerned about doing better with respect to racial discrimination."
Job will be posted
The position will be posted publicly and applicants will be screened against the required competencies, which have not been released. The Executive Council Office will then prepare a submission to cabinet for the appointment of the commissioner.
Asked whether she believes it's important the commissioner be a person of colour, Dunn said she thinks it's important they have "some insight with respect to racism.
"It's very difficult for folks to speak about racism when they haven't experienced it or can't experience it."
The commissioner will have staff for policy and project management support.
"Ensuring New Brunswick is a place where everyone feels welcome and accepted is critical to our social and economic growth," Post-Secondary Education, Training and Labour Minister Trevor Holder said in a statement.
"We have a lot of work ahead of us in terms of addressing systemic racism that has been ingrained over many generations and within our institutions. But we are confident that this work is an important step in the right direction."