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Working group’s success depends on N.B. mending relationship with Indigenous leaders: opposition

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WATCH: There is lingering tension following the first meeting of New Brunswick’s working group on reconciliation. Three First Nations chiefs, including the co-chair of the group, pulled out of Monday's meeting after the government refused to back calls for an inquiry into systemic racism. Silas Brown reports. – Dec 23, 2020

Opposition members say New Brunswick’s All Party and All Nations Working Group on Truth and Reconciliation is doomed to fail unless the government can bring all Indigenous leaders back to the table.

The working group met for the first time on Monday without co-chair Chief Roger Augustine, Chief Ross Perley or Chief Rebecca Knockwood, who pulled out after Aboriginal Affairs Minister Arlene Dunn refused to back calls for an inquiry into systemic racism.

Liberal representative Lisa Harris says she also decided not to participate. She says the group will not be effective until Premier Blaine Higgs works to mend the government’s relationship with Indigenous leaders.

Read more: Government amends motion calling for inquiry into systemic racism in New Brunswick

“There’s a pattern here with this premier and this minister of disrespect and a paternalistic approach that they’re taking with Indigenous leaders,” Harris said.

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“To me, it didn’t feel right to be part of a truth and reconciliation committee that Indigenous leaders don’t want to participate in themselves.”

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N.B. forms working group to address reconciliation report – Dec 4, 2020

Global News reached out to Chief Hugh Akagi of the Peskotomuhkati Nation at Skutik and president and Chief Barry Labillois of the New Brunswick Aboriginal Peoples Council to ask if they attended the meeting, but has not received a response.

Two weeks ago, Wolastoqiyik and Mi’gmaw chiefs called for Dunn to resign after the government gutted an opposition motion calling for an inquiry into systemic racism to remove any mention of an inquiry. The amended motion acknowledged that systemic racism exists and says the legislative assembly will work to eradicate it in all its forms.

Not long after, Knockwood and Perley said they would not be participating in the working group. Global News was unable to reach either for comment.

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Green Leader David Coon said he decided to participate in the first meeting after learning that Akagi and Wolastoq Grand Chief Ron Tremblay were both attending. Tremblay is part of the eight-member guidance council for the working group.

But Coon says if the group is going to have any success in its mission of addressing the TRC calls to action, it needs to have full participation from Indigenous leaders around the province.

“To have any legitimacy, this working group has to include Indigenous leadership from around the province,” Coon said.

“It’s not possible to even develop proper terms of reference without that kind of comprehensive participation.”

Coon also doubts that much progress can be made until New Brunswick commits to introducing legislation enshrining the United Nations Declaration on the Rights of Indigenous Peoples, which the TRC report of 2015 calls the essential framework for reconciliation.

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Read more: Talks about New Brunswick public inquiry into systemic racism remain stalled

According to the Globe and Mail, Dunn was one of six Indigenous Affairs ministers to write to Ottawa asking that it delay the implementation of federal UNDRIP legislation.

Dunn, the other co-chair of the working group, was not made available for an interview. In a statement, Dunn said a summary of progress on the government’s implementation of the calls to action will be presented at the next meeting.

“Government departments have been working hard behind the scenes on the Calls to Action that fall under provincial jurisdiction. A summary of these efforts will be shared with the working group at the next meeting,” Dunn wrote.

“The meeting was very preliminary with introductory discussions about how to determine the best path forward. I confirmed the province’s commitment on acting on the Calls to Action and I was encouraged by the fact that participants on the call were eager to get to work.”

When asked if the minister would commit to publicly reporting the government’s progress on the calls to action, a spokesperson for Aboriginal Affairs said “the working group will report to the Standing Committee on Social Policy, which is a permanent committee of the Legislative Assembly.”