N.B. appoints independent commissioner to address systemic racism

·3 min read
The province has appointed Manju Varma as commissioner on systemic racism. In March it was announced that the province was looking for an independent commissioner to conduct consultations with Indigenous, Black, people of colour and newcomers.    (Supplied by Government of New Brunswick - image credit)
The province has appointed Manju Varma as commissioner on systemic racism. In March it was announced that the province was looking for an independent commissioner to conduct consultations with Indigenous, Black, people of colour and newcomers. (Supplied by Government of New Brunswick - image credit)

Five months after announcing the creation of a commissioner on systemic racism, the province has appointed Manju Varma to take up the position.

"Having been an immigrant and having experienced racism growing up in this province, I personally know there is systemic racism here that must be addressed," said Varma in a news release. "As I embark on this journey, I do so with an open mind and no preconceptions."

Varma will be conducting public consultations with various groups representing people who are Indigenous, immigrants or people of colour.

She comes into the role with more than 30 years in facilitating workshops on diversity and inclusion, cultural competency and awareness training.

Varma has been the lead for the new office of Inclusion, Equity and Anti-Racism for the Atlantic Canada Opportunity Agency (ACOA) since 2020, a federal government initiative aimed at fostering its internal corporate diversity and inclusiveness.

She has worked with First Nations and communities of colour, refugees, Indigenous women, youth, and various levels of government and has published both nationally and internationally on topics such as systemic racism, mental health and inclusive communities.

"I've been fortunate, for example, I taught elementary school in Elsipogtog....I'm currently on the Truth and Reconciliation Action Committee for the Law Society...and so I'm really looking forward to honouring those relationships and accessing their expertise, the expertise of their elders," Varma told media Friday.

A public report is due by September 2022, with recommendations to address systemic racism in areas such as health care, education, social development, housing, employment and criminal justice. A total of $500,000 has been set aside, and Varma will have staff to assist in her work.

When asked about her independence in conducting her work, Varma said, "I am taking this role as an independent body, so I'm not an employee of the provincial government. That part was very important to the province to have at arm's length. It was very important to me as well."

The selection of Varma as commissioner was made by cabinet following an interview process that was led by the Executive Council Office, which is chaired by Premier Blaine Higgs.

'She has quite the task at hand'

Wolastoqiyik and Mi'kmaw leaders had criticized appointing a commissioner, citing a lack of consultation by the province and accusing Premier Blaine Higgs of trying to circumvent calls for a public inquiry into systemic racism against Indigenous people in New Brunswick.

Demands for an inquiry followed two separate killings of Indigenous people last summer: Chantel Moore of Tla-o-qui-aht First Nation in British Columbia was shot and killed by a police officer in Edmundston, and Rodney Levi of Metepenagiag First Nation was shot and killed by an officer near Miramichi.

Contributed/Charlene LaBillois
Contributed/Charlene LaBillois

Dean Vicaire is the executive director of the Mi'kmaw organization Mi'gmawe'l Tplu'taqnn and says the organization will work with Varma to the best of its abilities but says the task ahead of her is monumental.

"She has quite the task at hand. It's next to impossible to really get a full grasp and come to terms with the idea of our plight, which is systemic racism within the justice system," said Vicaire in an interview.

"To get a true understanding of our experience and that's a big statement...It's an open-ended sentence because where do we begin? How far back do we go? And how much time does she have? We know it's not much," said Vicaire, referencing the one year timeline.

Ultimately Vicaire hopes that Varma will champion the call for a public inquiry into systemic racism faced by Indigenous communities in the province.

"This sort of process should be by us for us, not for us by them [government], but nonetheless, it is what it is. We'll do our best so in the end we hope that there can be a call on her part to echo what the Chiefs have been saying into that inquiry...So if she's to say that, maybe it'll carry some weight, since they put her there."

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