Opposition MLAs say they are frustrated by what they're calling evasive answers from the top civil servant overseeing the province's relationship with Indigenous people.
Cade Libby, the deputy minister at the Department of Aboriginal Affairs, spent the morning Tuesday fielding questions from the legislature's Public Accounts committee.
But his responses about a range of sore spots between the Higgs government and First Nations fell short, according to Liberal and Green MLAs.
"I found the department quite evasive, actually, in their answers," Liberal MLA Rob McKee said.
Green Leader David Coon said he was "very frustrated about the unwillingness to be much more transparent and open with New Brunswickers about what Aboriginal Affairs is doing with respect to government's interaction with First Nations."
During the meeting, McKee asked Libby about any consultations the province held with First Nations before its May 2019 decision to exempt the Sussex area from a moratorium on shale gas development.
"We just discussed whether or not we actually had any information on that particular file or the consultation record with us, and we don't," Libby responded.
The shale gas decision was one of several that have created a strained relationship between Premier Blaine Higgs and First Nations chiefs.
Tuesday's meeting was held to discuss the department's activities in the fiscal year that included that decision, but Libby said he and his staff had not brought any documentation with them to the legislature.
"On that particular file, we don't have it with us," he said.
Coon pressed Libby on how the department could provide more information about how the province was living up to its obligations under peace and friendship treaties signed with the Mi'kmaq, Maliseet and Passamaquoddy peoples in the 18th century.
Libby said the the department is "looking at" how to communicate its work to the public, but added "I wouldn't necessarily say it's focusing on the treaty side of it so much but more on strategic initiatives and other projects that are happening.
"How do we communicate what we've done to date? What are the good news stories? Where do we stand on certain topics?"
Coon said during a break in the session that Libby's answers fell short.
"We're all part of the treaties and we have no way of knowing if we're upholding our side of the bargain or not," he said.
Questions about systemic racism issue
McKee also tried to get Libby to reveal what his advice had been last year when Higgs was being urged to hold an inquiry into systemic racism following two separate fatal police shootings of Indigenous people.
The government has instead opted to appoint a commissioner to look at the issue.
"I agree that there are options in terms of addressing the issue, and the path of a systemic racism commissioner is certainly one way to address the issue," Libby said.
A commissioner still hasn't been appointed five months after the decision was announced, and Libby would not say Tuesday whether the appointee will have the time to meet a March 31, 2022 deadline for a report.
"Obviously there would be some discussion with the appointee in terms of what time frame would be required to produce the result that we're looking for," he said.
Libby also said there was an upside to him and cabinet minister Arlene Dunn juggling several different departmental duties.
In 2018, Higgs appointed Jake Stewart as the first-ever standalone minister of Aboriginal Affairs.
But after the 2020 election, he made the job one of four portfolios belonging to Dunn.
Libby is Dunn's deputy minister in her other roles, and he told People's Alliance Leader Kris Austin he devotes about 25 per cent of his time to his Aboriginal Affairs position.
"The focus of the department hasn't shifted," he said. "We're still advancing on files. We're still trying to move forward and work on First Nations-related matters."
Libby said that having several different departmental duties has an upside because "you get to see the synergies between the different portfolios and you get to make those linkages," such as spotting economic development projects that can benefit First Nations.