A legislative committee bringing together government, opposition MLAs and Indigenous chiefs to guide the implementation of the Truth and Reconciliation Commission’s calls to action hasn’t met since early this year.
The All Nations and All Parties Working Group was announced in December 2020, but met only twice before all of the Indigenous representatives pulled out.
New Brunswick’s minister of aboriginal affairs wants to see the group revived.
“We really do want to reconvene those meetings. I think that they’re extremely important,” Arlene Dunn said in an interview Thursday.
“There’s a lot of work going on, but ideally you want the Indigenous people at the table working with you. I mean, that’s imperative. It really adds validity, integrity and credibility to the whole process.”
Dunn’s relationship with First Nations leaders has been rocky since she first took over the portfolio in September of 2020.
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.
Prior to the first meeting of the working group, Fort Folly Chief Rebecca Knockwood and Tobique Chief Ross Perley said they would not participate. Lisa Harris, the Liberal representative in the group, said she would also boycott the first meeting.
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AFN regional Chief Roger Augustine, who was supposed to co-chair the group with Dunn, also said he wouldn’t participate. Augustine said he was initially optimistic about the group, but feels that the decision to leave was for the best.
“I honestly thought I could help,” Augustine said.
“I accepted the offer to sit in the circle and see how we could resolve it. Now, in thinking back, it was a wise move for us to walk away and reorganize.”
That left Chief Hugh Akagi of the Peskotomuhkati Nation and Wolastoq Grand Chief Ron Tremblay as the only Indigenous participants, but they, too, walked away after two meetings.
Green Party Leader David Coon said he participated in those two meetings, along with Fredericton MP Jenica Atwin.
In May, Dunn tabled a progress report on the province’s work to implement the TRC calls to action. She said it’s an effort to be transparent about the work the government has already done on the 31 calls that fall under provincial jurisdiction.
“Though the process is ongoing, government departments have been engaging with Indigenous organizations, Elders and community stakeholders and working hard to respond to the Calls to Action that fall under provincial jurisdiction,” Dunn writes in the introductions to the report.
But Coon questions how much engagement is taking place with Indigenous leaders in the absence of the working group.
“It’s just not true that lot’s of work has been going on with First Nations leadership to implement anything regarding the calls to action,” Coon said.
“It’s not been happening. I’ve said there shouldn’t be anything with First Nations that’s about them that doesn’t include them, but that seems to be how this government is trying to proceed.”
Dunn admits that true progress on the calls to action and, more broadly, the process of reconciliation isn’t possible without engagement with First Nations.
“It’s imperative that you have First Nations with you, collaborating and moving forward. I think for this work to be validated, for this work to continue, for this work to be something that we look at in the future and be proud of we really have to have First Nations with us,” she said.
But Dunn hopes other initiatives can begin to heal the relationship between the government and Indigenous leaders, which has been strained by a refusal to call an inquiry into systemic racism and the cancellation of gas tax agreements earlier this year.
On Thursday Dunn met with chiefs about a promised investigation into Indian day schools in the province. She called the meeting preliminary, but hopes that work will serve as a bridge to other issues.
“It’s difficult to move forward,” Dunn said.
“One of the priorities has to be to build that relationship and to see if we can bridge some of those divides. That’s going to be extremely important both for me personally but also to the government of New Brunswick. For us to continue this work we need to build on this relationship and better that relationship.”