Indigenous leaders looking to get issues on the table during Higgs’ new mandate

People walk to honour Rodney Levi in Red Bank, New Brunswick on Friday June 19, 2020. Indigenous leaders in New Brunswick are renewing a call for an independent, Indigenous-led public inquiry to investigate systemic racism and two recent police shootings in the province. THE CANADIAN PRESS/Stephen MacGillivray.

On Monday night, Premier Blaine Higgs was handed a second mandate by voters and with it the stability afforded by a majority mandate.

Higgs said that stability was the reason for sending the province to the polls in the first place, and some of the province’s Indigenous leaders are hoping it will lead to more progress on issues faced by First Nations across the province.

“I think it’s been four or five one-term governments in a row,” said Chief George Ginnish of Eel Ground First Nation.

“We’ve worked really hard, there’s been bilateral agreements in the past that were signed and work that was initiated, only to fall right off the table when the political leadership changed,” Ginnish said.

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N.B. premier Blaine Higgs secures majority government in snap election – Sep 15, 2020

Higgs is the first premier to win a second term since Bernard Lord in 2003. Ginnish said he is hopeful that stability in political leadership can help spur some momentum for change.

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“This can’t continue. We’re the first peoples of this land and yet we’re so marginalized, we’re so excluded, and the province can’t keep passing us off to the federal government,” Ginnish said.

“We really need to sit to talk.”

The relationship between Higgs’ Tory government and Indigenous leaders in the province is somewhat strained.

The Wolastoqey chiefs sent out a release during the election campaign urging community members to consider strategically voting for either the Green or Liberal parties.

A questionnaire on Indigenous issues circulated by the chiefs received no response from the PC campaign, according to a Wolastoqey community newsletter.

Read more: Protesters call for inquiry into systemic racism to be campaign issue during N.B. election

After two young Indigenous people were shot and killed during encounters with police over the summer, Higgs met with Indigenous chiefs to discuss ways to address systemic racism. Talks broke down after just two meetings, when Higgs refused to commit to a provincial public inquiry.

Instead, Higgs had pitched a task force to examine recommendations from old reports and said the federal government would need to take the lead on any sort of public inquiry.

On Wednesday, the Wolastoqey chiefs congratulated Higgs on winning reelection but are asking to meet in the near future to talk about what the province can do to address systemic issues in New Brunswick.

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“We hope to meet with the premier and minister (of Aboriginal Affairs) soon. These are trying times where our people not only have to continue to live through systemic racism, but also in which the livelihood and quality of life of our people is threatened by government action and inaction,” the chiefs said in a statement.

“We extend the hand of cooperation to premier Higgs. We hope he will join us in building a better relationship between our governments.”

Read more: Wolastoqey First Nation calls for racism inquiry, Jake Stewart to remain Indigenous affairs minister

The Wolastoqey are also asking that Miramichi-Bay-du-Vin MLA Jake Stewart return to his position as Aboriginal affairs minister.

Stewart broke ranks with Higgs earlier this summer when he came out in support of a public inquiry. However, Stewart abandoned that position on the campaign trail, falling in line with the party position.

“We urge Minister Stewart to continue to be engaged on our issues and to return to his previous position in favour of an independent, Indigenous-led inquiry into systemic racism. We urge Premier Higgs to join the minister in taking this view,” read the statement.

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