Call for immediate public inquiry shelved after systemic racism commissioner met with Higgs

·8 min read
After a meeting with Premier Blaine Higgs and Aboriginal Affairs Minister Arlene Dunn, systemic racism commissioner Manju Varma shelved plans to release a mid-term report, which recommended the government call a public inquiry into systemic racism against Indigenous peoples.  (Mike Heenan/CBC - image credit)
After a meeting with Premier Blaine Higgs and Aboriginal Affairs Minister Arlene Dunn, systemic racism commissioner Manju Varma shelved plans to release a mid-term report, which recommended the government call a public inquiry into systemic racism against Indigenous peoples. (Mike Heenan/CBC - image credit)

For the last two years, Indigenous leaders in New Brunswick have steadfastly called on the provincial government to launch a public inquiry into systemic racism against Indigenous peoples in criminal justice and policing.

Premier Blaine Higgs has just as steadfastly refused to do so, saying there are recommendations from other reviews that could address some issues.

Manju Varma, New Brunswick's commissioner on systemic racism, was poised to publicly call on the government to launch an inquiry this past spring.

But Varma's plan to release a mid-term report, which urged the government to call a public inquiry, came to a halt after an April 13 meeting with Higgs and Aboriginal Affairs Minister Arlene Dunn.

Chiefs say commissioner isn't independent

That has prompted the chiefs of nine Mi'kmaw communities in New Brunswick to say they will no longer participate in the commissioner's process.

On Monday, the chiefs released a statement saying the process isn't independent from the provincial government and alleging the government suppressed Varma's report.

"We need that inquiry," Natoaganeg First Nation Chief George Ginnish, who also co-chairs Mi'gmawe'l Tplu'taqnn Inc., or MTI, a non-profit made up of the nine Mi'kmaw communities, said in an interview with CBC.

"That's got to happen. Regardless of what government thinks, it has to happen or we're not going to be satisfied that our reality is being given the attention that it deserves, and that there will be change that will give us that hope."

They join the six chiefs of the Wolastoqey Nation, who had declined to participate in the systemic racism commissioner's work, describing it as an "ill-equipped and ineffective alternative to an inquiry."

In a statement, Varma said the report was meant to be a draft and only begins to reflect observations from some meetings she's had with organizations and individuals.

"As I continue with my consultations, I expect that my findings will continue to evolve until my final report is prepared and released upon completion of my mandate," the statement says.

"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."

Hadeel Ibrahim/CBC
Hadeel Ibrahim/CBC

The statement doesn't say whether Varma supports a public inquiry or explain why her recommendation changed after meeting with Higgs and Dunn.

"I have little to no confidence that there's actually going to be a call for a full inquiry," Ginnish said. "And that's troublesome.

"We're back to where we started."

Five recommendations

Varma was announced as commissioner in September 2021. She was given a one-year term and a deadline of this coming October to file a final report with recommendations.

A mid-term report from her office was provided to CBC News in April, under the condition CBC not publish its contents until it is made public.

The commissioner's office never published the report, but on Monday, Mi'kmaw chiefs released a copy they received during consultation with Varma's office.

The update, written at the halfway point of Varma's one-year mandate as commissioner, makes five recommendations to the provincial government.

The first recommendation is to "launch, without delay, an Indigenous-led, co-managed public inquiry."

"The overarching conclusion is that the relationship between Indigenous peoples and New Brunswick's justice system is broken," Varma's report says.

"Indigenous peoples not only mistrust the criminal justice system, they fear it and its agents. The communities and individuals we have heard from note that they are scared that if something happens to them, 'it won't matter because it hasn't.'

"The failed prosecution in the trial for Brady Francis's death, the murders of Chantel Moore and Rodney Levi by police in the summer of 2020 underline this point, and the death of Skyler Sappier in a carceral institution this year underline this point."

Jennifer Sweet/CBC
Jennifer Sweet/CBC

The report also calls for the province to change place names with racist terminology against Indigenous peoples to original or traditional Wabanaki names, or names recommended by First Nations.

It also recommends a racial analysis be part of a review into how the government handled the COVID-19 pandemic. In April, the province's auditor general said his office will conduct that review.

When the recommendation for inquiry disappeared

In an interview with CBC on April 4, Varma said writing a mid-term report isn't part of her mandate, but she felt some findings or recommendations "need to start now."

"We need to start thinking about them now in order to implement them in the most efficient way," Varma said in the interview.

She said her decision to recommend a public inquiry was based on conversations with individuals and stakeholders, including leaders of the nine Mi'kmaw communities.

"There's a lot of fear among Indigenous nations regarding justice, regarding a lack of justice, regarding fear of the police, regarding fear of a fair process," Varma said in the April CBC interview.

"Those collective voices are what informed my recommendation that there be a public inquiry to do with criminalization, justice and policing."

The report, and CBC's interview with Varma, were scheduled to be published on April 19.

But before that happened, on April 13, Varma told a CBC reporter she planned to meet with Higgs about the report.

Later that afternoon, after Varma met with Higgs and Dunn, CBC was told a public inquiry would no longer be a recommendation in the report and later that the report wouldn't be made public after all.

In May, Varma provided CBC with a written statement designed to replace the mid-term report she previously planned to release. It doesn't mention any of her recommendations and includes no reference to a public inquiry.

CBC asked Higgs for an interview, but he wasn't made available.

When asked on Monday, Dunn said no one asked Varma "to shelve anything."

Ed Hunter/CBC
Ed Hunter/CBC

Dunn said the government was "astonished" to see a mid-term report, and she was alarmed to see Varma didn't have input from some government departments.

"For her to produce a report and not actually speak to the departments or them not to engage with her with regards to the work that's being done, to me would be falling short on what the expectation was in her mandate, which is to look across all those departments and to determine is there opportunities to identify the gaps and improve on processes," Dunn said.

Indigenous leaders have called for an inquiry because it would compel government departments to provide information. Varma's mid-term report also says she encouraged government departments to provide formal submissions to her office.

"Unless you have that [inquiry] process, we're never going to get those answers," Ginnish said.

"And I think that suits government a whole lot more than it suits First Nations."

Rallies, calls for change

In spring 2020, Maurice Johnson was found not guilty of failing to stop at the scene of an accident that caused the death of Brady Francis, a 22-year-old Elsipogtog First Nation man.

That verdict, and the Crown's decision not to appeal it, prompted rallies at the legislature.

A couple of months later, the police shooting deaths of Chantel Moore, a 26-year-old Tla-o-qui-aht First Nation woman, and Rodney Levi, a 48-year-old man from Metepenagiag Mi'kmaq Nation, sparked calls for a public inquiry.

Several First Nation chiefs walked out on a meeting with Higgs in June 2020, after he refused to agree to a public inquiry. Higgs said it was a federal issue.

In December 2020, Mi'kmaw and Wolastoqiyik chiefs called for the resignation of Dunn, who amended a house motion in the legislature to remove reference to a call for a public inquiry.

A few months later, the government announced it would appoint a commissioner of systemic racism.

But that appointment hasn't stopped calls for an Indigenous-led public inquiry.

A renewed call for an inquiry

The six chiefs of the Wolastoqey Nation renewed their push for an inquiry in May, after a coroner's inquest jury found Moore's death was a homicide. A separate coroner's inquest jury also found Levi's death was a homicide.

In a news release, the chiefs said the Moore inquest jury's findings and recommendations "do not address the serious nature of the tragedy, or the systemic issues embedded in the justice system."

"This reflects a failure by the Blaine Higgs government to address the root cause of Chantel Moore's death, and tragedies like it."

While Ginnish said Mi'kmaw leaders weren't sold on the process of the commissioner's work, they agreed to participate to have their reality on the record. He said they saw it as an opportunity to right historic wrongs.

"We're looking for justice for Rodney, we're looking for justice for Chantel, and every other First Nation individual, every other youth that is trying to find themselves and is stuck in a system that is stacked against them," he said.

Now, Ginnish said he always has hope, but he also has a lot of doubt.

"How do you go forward with a government that absolutely refuses to see what is right in front of them? How do you work, how do you continue to pretend that there's any justice for Mi'kmaw, Wolastoqey and Passamaquoddy in New Brunswick?"

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