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Higgs says mending relationship with Indigenous leaders requires ‘interest’ from both sides

Click to play video '2020 year-end interview with N.B. Premier Blaine Higgs' 2020 year-end interview with N.B. Premier Blaine Higgs
WATCH: In 2020, New Brunswick has weathered a pandemic, sealing itself off from the rest of the country. It also held an election that turned a precarious minority government into a majority, and it saw the tragic deaths of two indigenous peoples at the hands of police. Premier Blaine Higgs joined Silas Brown for a year-end interview. – Dec 31, 2020

New Brunswick Premier Blaine Higgs says that both sides need to be willing to participate in the process of creating a nation-to-nation relationship between First Nations and the provincial government.

Higgs made the comments during a year-end interview with Global News when asked how he planned to begin mending the strained relationship with some Indigenous leaders.

“Relationships are something that requires both parties to have an interest in building,” Higgs said.

“When you walk out on meetings, that doesn’t necessarily foster a working environment.”

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

Representatives from the Wolastoqey Nation and Mi’gmawe’l Tplu’taqnn Incorporated (MTI) decided not to participate in the All Nations and All Parties Working Group on Reconciliation following the government’s refusal to support a public inquiry into systemic racism in justice and policing.

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In response to Higgs’ comments, MTI called on the premier to abandon what they call a “paternalistic” attitude.

“In order for this relationship to develop and be functional, the Premier needs to be willing to listen and understand he doesn’t have all the answers on his own and we need to develop plans together,” reads a statement provided by MTI.

“We want a positive working relationship with our Treaty partners. In order to have this, it will require individuals to come to the table with an open mind and be willing to listen and learn.”

Both organizations, representing the Mi’gmaq and Wolastoqiyik nations, have also called for Aboriginal Affairs Minister Arlene Dunn to resign, just weeks after she took over the portfolio from Jake Stewart. Stewart was outspoken in his support for an inquiry over the summer and was left out of cabinet after a post-election shuffle.

The co-chair of the committee, AFN regional Vice-Chief Roger Augustine, also pulled out of the working group.

The fallout came after the government amended and passed an opposition motion urging the government to call an inquiry to remove any mention of an inquiry. As amended, the motion recognizes that systemic racism exists and vows to eradicate it in all its forms.

Higgs said he will not be asking Dunn to resign and has not changed his mind when it comes to an inquiry.

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“We’ve said all along that we didn’t want to wait two years in public discussion on a formal inquiry to address issues that are already identified in past inquiries and recommendations that we can move forward on,” Higgs said.

“The minister is very, very committed to seeing that happen and I would just ask the First Nations chiefs to give her a chance.”

Talks between Indigenous leaders and the government broke down earlier this year after just two meetings when Higgs refused to back an inquiry, saying the federal government should take the lead, pitching the working group instead. The first meeting was just weeks after Chantel Moore and Rodney Levi were shot and killed by police.

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

Prior to those meetings, MTI had sent a letter to the government with suggestions for immediate action in four areas, pulled from a larger discussion paper. These included changing the approach to law enforcement in Indigenous communities, changing police training and standards, increased Indigenous involvement in police oversight and an independent body to investigate police conduct.

Higgs says he is aware of the proposals and would like to begin working on them in the new year.

“The things that are being asked for there are things that are on the radar for justice improvement,” he said.

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“Those are all things that we can do and I can’t make any excuses for (why) we haven’t gotten any of those across the bar over this last year or earlier, but I would only say … there’s a lot of things in 2020 that we had hoped to move on but didn’t because of COVID.”

During the interview, Higgs also spoke about how reforms planned for education had to be put on hold. Health-care consultations, planned in the wake of sweeping reforms that were abandoned after public outcry, have also been postponed.

But Higgs also spoke about the COVID-19 Cabinet Committee and the good work that can happen when politicians put politics aside for a greater goal.