First Nations leaders slammed the Government of New Brunswick on the eve of the inaugural National Day for Truth and Reconciliation, calling out the province's inaction on repairing strained relations with Indigenous peoples in New Brunswick.
In a letter addressed to Premier Blaine Higgs released Wednesday, First Nations chiefs called it "profoundly disappointing" and "disrespectful" that the Higgs government decided against recognizing Sept. 30 as a provincial holiday.
"Few New Brunswickers are aware that this province had some of the earliest schools established to separate Indigenous children from their families, language, and culture," reads the letter signed by Esgenoopetitj chief Alvery Paul, Elsipogtog chief Arren Sock and Neqotkuk chief Ross Perley, who are the leaders of the province's largest Indigenous communities
"New Brunswick may not have had residential schools, but day schools in the province, such as the Sussex Vale Indian Day School, shared the same mission – assimilating Indigenous children into colonial culture."
During a press conference Wednesday, when asked about his response to the First Nations chiefs' letter, Higgs said he's more interested in concrete actions where "people can actually see a relationship repaired in tangible ways." He added he's disappointed that not recognizing Sept. 30 as a provincial holiday has been "seen as a slight."
"Having more people take a day off is not necessarily going to encourage (them to) learn more about the challenges we're facing together in our country and how we can manage them together," Higgs said.
In their letter, the Indigenous leaders reiterated a call for an in-depth investigation at the sites of New Brunswick’s day schools. The province had 12 Indian day schools, which were operated by the Roman Catholic Church between 1880 and 1992 and located near First Nations communities.
“It is imperative to recognize the injustices of the past. As a people, we need healing and forward-thinking. Uncovering hidden history is a first step that cannot be taken lightly. The First Nations peoples of New Brunswick deserve the truth,” said Paul in a media release.
In June, Higgs and Aboriginal Affairs Minister Arlene Dunn met with First Nations chiefs and elders to discuss how an investigation into day schools should happen. The Telegraph-Journal reached out to the Department of Aboriginal Affairs Wednesday for an update on the status of that planned investigation, but it did not receive a response as of press time.
In an emailed response from the Indigenous chiefs, they said the premier's comments are similar to what he said more than a year ago when he rejected calls for an Indigenous-led inquiry into systematic racism.
"The mistreatment and abuse of Indigenous people in Canada deserves to be acknowledged and openly talked about," the response states. "Most importantly, our history, culture and languages are worthy of being celebrated.
"Our children are still feeling the inter-generational effects of forced removal from their homes and communities. This trauma is slowly being recognized and Sept. 30th – Truth and Reconciliation Day – is a start."
In a media release, Wolastoqey nation chiefs said they were also disappointed about the province's decision but expressed "immense gratitude" to those who decided to close and observe Sept. 30.
“We encourage everyone to attend any of the planned ceremonies around the province,” said Chief Ross Perley of Tobique First Nation. “If you are unable to attend a ceremony, we hope that you take the time to educate yourself and learn the true history of the atrocities the Crown government has committed, and continues to commit, towards Indigenous peoples on our homelands.”
The letter to the premier comes as several municipalities across the province are set to recognize Sept. 30 as a statutory holiday, designed to learn and reflect on the intergenerational trauma caused by residential schools.
Last week, the province appointed Manju Varma as the commissioner on systemic racism, five months after announcing the creation of the position.
Robin Grant, Local Journalism Initiative Reporter, Telegraph-Journal