Senior adviser to systemic racism commissioner resigns, questioning independence

·4 min read
Robert Tay-Burroughs, a senior policy adviser to the commissioner of systemic racism, says he's resigning his position and questions the independence of the office. (Submitted by Robert Tay-Burroughs - image credit)
Robert Tay-Burroughs, a senior policy adviser to the commissioner of systemic racism, says he's resigning his position and questions the independence of the office. (Submitted by Robert Tay-Burroughs - image credit)

A senior policy adviser to Manju Varma, the New Brunswick commissioner of systemic racism, has announced his resignation, saying he questions whether government leadership respects Varma's independence.

That comes after Varma's mid-term report, and a recommendation for the government to call a public inquiry into systemic racism against Indigenous peoples in the policing and criminal justice sector, were shelved.

Her plan to make the report public changed just hours following a meeting between Varma, Premier Blaine Higgs and Aboriginal Affairs Minister Arlene Dunn. Higgs and Dunn have steadfastly refused to call a public inquiry.

Robert Tay-Burroughs is one of two staff working with Varma. He'll stay in his position until July 4.

In a resignation letter made public on Tuesday, Tay-Burroughs said he's been troubled by "the false pretences under which we are expected to do our work."

"The limits placed by external forces on what we can and cannot say in your final report has compromised our already fragile independence," Tay-Burroughs wrote in his letter to Varma.

"It remains unclear to me that the leadership of this government can respect your independence, which raises my doubts that it will — if it ever intended to — receive your recommendations in good faith and with an open mind."

Tay-Burroughs declined an interview request. His letter describes how he's no longer convinced the work from the commissioner's office will meet the needs of the First Nations in the province "as they have articulated them to us."

The letter was posted to Twitter on Tuesday afternoon, and Varma has not responded to a request for comment. The premier has also not responded to an interview request.

The chiefs of nine Mi'kmaw communities in New Brunswick announced Monday that they'll no longer participate in the commissioner's process, alleging her report was "suppressed."

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

In his resignation letter, Tay-Burroughs said he wants "to live with integrity in peace and friendship with the people of these nations" and his obligation to those treaties "as a scholar, as the son of an immigrant, as a New Brunswicker, are paramount."

"My continued work with this commission does not allow me to meet these obligations in an ethical or morally acceptable way."

'Everything is on the table'

In an interview with CBC News on Tuesday, Varma said she shared a mid-term report with several stakeholders and had two weeks of feedback "before I decided I need to look at even more information."

Pierre Fournier/CBC
Pierre Fournier/CBC

"I need to reach out to more people, because there are some things here that are surprising me, that based on my own assumptions and also my own biases — I am human — and I need to go and look at more information," Varma said.

That mid-term report was supposed to be made public on April 19, but it remained under wraps, until Mi'kmaw leadership shared a copy with the public on Monday.

Varma wouldn't say what happened at an April 13 meeting with Higgs and Dunn, describing it as confidential.

"What happened in that meeting is confidential in the same way I would hope that no one would ask me, 'Well, what happened in that meeting with the 12-year-old who sat down and shared with you their trauma?" Varma said.

"Or what happened in that meeting with that Indigenous chief that you met with?"

Varma was appointed last fall for a one-year term, with a promise to present a final report this coming fall.

She said "everything is on the table" for that report and she'll stand by her recommendations, which will come from information she's gathered, including personal stories she's heard along the way.

"It will be a collection of the voices that have been silenced thus far," Varma said.

A call for an inquiry

Speaking to reporters on Monday, Dunn said she was concerned Varma's report didn't include input from various government departments.

"I guess it was alarming from my perspective when I asked the question about some of the work that's being done within the respective departments around policing, and she wasn't aware of those things," Dunn said.

Indigenous leaders in New Brunswick have been calling for a public inquiry for the last two years, following the police shooting deaths of Chantel Moore and Rodney Levi. Separate coroner's inquest juries found their deaths were homicides.

They say it's the only forum to properly investigate systemic racism against Indigenous peoples because it could provide the power to compel government bodies to provide information.

"Unless you have that process, we're never going to get those answers," Natoaganeg First Nation Chief George Ginnish said earlier this week.

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