Three Mi'kmaw and Wolastoqiyik chiefs have pulled out of a provincial working group set up to address Truth and Reconciliation Commission recommendations, saying the government is using the group to avoid having a public inquiry into systemic racism.
A news release says Chief Ross Perley of Neqotkuk, or Tobique First Nation, Chief Rebecca Knockwood of Fort Folly First Nation and Regional Vice-Chief Roger Augustine will no longer be part of the All Nations and Parties Working Group on Truth and Reconciliation.
The move comes after Aboriginal Affairs Minister Arlene Dunn amended a motion calling for a public inquiry into systemic racism, taking out any reference to an inquiry.
"Unfortunately, in light of recent events, we no longer have confidence that Minister Dunn and her government were approaching this work with the good faith and spirit of co-operation that it requires," Perley said in the news release. "Based on last week's vote, it is clear the Higgs government is not interested in solutions from Indigenous leaders."
First Nations peoples in New Brunswick have been calling for the inquiry after Rodney Levi of Metepenagiag First Nation and Chantel Moore, a member of the Tla-o-qui-aht First Nation who had recently moved from B.C. to Edmundston, were shot and killed by police this year in separate incidents less than two weeks apart.
The working group was announced in early December and with three chiefs leaving, now only has two Indigenous representatives: Chief Hugh Akagi of the Peskotomuhkati Nation at Skutik, and president Barry Labillois of the New Brunswick Aboriginal Peoples Council, a group representing off-reserve Indigenous people.
The group is also drawing on support from four elders and traditional leaders, but it's not clear how much influence they will have and if they all plan to continue being part of it.
In an interview, Akagi said he hasn't stepped out of the group because he wants to gather more information.
"I just don't let the people make the decisions for me, and I need to look at the whole situation and I need to talk to others involved. And that would include the province," he said.
He said he has not yet decided if he will be attending a group meeting Monday.
Past inaction doesn't mean future inaction, Premier says
Dunn faced questions from opposition about the exodus at Wednesday's question period. She said the government is committed to "doing something about the recommendations in the TRC."
"It's unfortunate that the chiefs have stepped away, but I think that they will see that my actions are going to speak louder than words," she said.
Speaking to reporters Wednesday, Premier Blaine Higgs said reconciliation requires both sides be involved, and it's true there has been government inaction on Indigenous issues in the past.
"We know there's been lots of talk in the past," he said. "But you can't say the same about action."
He said just because his government hadn't done much on Indigenous issues in the past doesn't mean they won't get anything done in the future.
"We can look back generations, including my past ... two years and say, 'OK, well, you didn't do anything then or as much as you could have. So you won't do anything going forward.' Well, that's easy to say, but I assure you that will not be the outcome," he said.
The working group appears to have been used as a political smoke screen. - Ross Perley, chief
After Dunn amended the motion to remove references to an inquiry, chiefs called for her resignation, saying the province is being paternalistic and not adequately addressing systemic racism issues specific to New Brunswick.
Dunn said her amendments were "historic" because it recognized systemic racism exists for the first time, and committed to concrete action through the working group.
The chiefs said the province is using the working group as a way to avoid having a public inquiry. They said the group was not created to address systemic racism specifically.
"The working group appears to have been used as a political smoke screen. For us it's not political, it's personal. It impacts lives in our communities," Perley said in the news release.
The release also said the chiefs will instead be creating their own process to continue the work to implement the TRC calls to action, but does not explain what that process will be.