New Brunswick racism commissioner calls for public inquiry into Indigenous treatment

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FREDERICTON — A report by New Brunswick's commissioner on systemic racism calls for a public inquiry to be held "without delay" into racism against Indigenous people in the justice system.

The interim report is dated April but was released Monday by the province's Mi'kmaq chiefs.

In a statement, the Chiefs of the Mi'gmawe'l Tplu'taqnn say they expected commissioner Manju Varma to release her interim report earlier, but believe the report was suppressed after she met with government officials to share the contents.

"Since that meeting took place, it seems there is no intention for the commissioner to release the midterm report that was shared with us," the chiefs wrote. "We are concerned that the government appears to be interfering with the commissioner's work and dictating what recommendations the commissioner can make."

As a result, the chiefs say they will no longer participate in Varma's work.

Varma issued a statement late Monday to say the report released by the chiefs is a preliminary draft document and she continues to meet with various stakeholders as she works to prepare her final report.

"I expect that my findings will continue to evolve until my final report is prepared and released upon completion of my mandate. That final report will contain my final recommendations, and any suggestion that any of the proposals contained in any update released prior to that are my final recommendations, is pure speculation," she wrote.

The interim report released Monday contains five "immediate" recommendations, including a call for the provincial government to launch "without delay, an Indigenous-led, co-managed public inquiry into systemic racism against Indigenous peoples in New Brunswick's criminal justice and policing sectors."

It also recommends restoring all place names that contain racist terminology against Indigenous peoples with their original Wabanaki names, or names recommended by First Nations, by no later than June 21, 2022, which is National Indigenous Peoples Day.

The report recommends that the government's review of management of the COVID-19 pandemic — as well as discussions around mental health initiatives — include an analysis through a lens of racial inclusion. It also calls for the establishment of a permanent office to combat systemic racism in New Brunswick to be announced in fall 2022.

In the report, Varma said her office has taken steps to build a relationship with Mi'gmawe'l Tplu'taqnn and Mi'kmaq leadership as well as Peskotomuhkati leadership. The six Wolastoqey chiefs in New Brunswick announced last fall they would not participate in Varma's work.

Those chiefs have been calling for an Indigenous-led inquiry into systemic racism, and repeated the call last month following the coroner's inquest into the death of Chantel Moore.

Moore, a 26-year-old Indigenous woman, was fatally shot by police in Edmundston, N.B., in June 2020 during a wellness check after she advanced toward an officer with a knife.

Arlene Dunn, the province's minister responsible for Aboriginal affairs, told reporters Monday that the government did not ask Varma to hold off on releasing an interim report. In fact, Dunn said she wasn't expecting an interim report, just the final report in October.

Dunn said Varma met with the government in April, and as minister she was concerned the commissioner had not met with many government departments.

"In order to do a proper investigation in terms of systemic racism, part of her mandate was to engage with government departments ... to really get a good understanding with respect to what's happening within those systems," Dunn said.

The minister said she wants to take action, but the government needs the information in order to make good legislation and good policy.

New Brunswick Green Leader David Coon said he has reviewed Varma's interim report and expected that she would have made it public.

"The recommendations in the interim report say it all," Coon said in an interview Monday. "The public needs to get behind those recommendations, and the government needs to adopt the recommendations and implement them swiftly."

This report by The Canadian Press was first published June 20, 2022.

Kevin Bissett, The Canadian Press

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