Indigenous groups slam “centralization” of relationship with N.B. government

Click to play video: 'Indigenous groups says ‘strained’ relationship with N.B. province and First Nations causing challenges'
Indigenous groups says ‘strained’ relationship with N.B. province and First Nations causing challenges
WATCH ABOVE: Two groups representing first nations chiefs say that a growing trend of centralizing negotiations in the Department of Aboriginal Affairs is harming the relationship with New Brunswick's provincial government. Silas Brown has more – Oct 1, 2023

The relationship between premier Blaine Higgs’ government and First Nations in the province has long been strained, but groups representing chiefs say that relationship is at an all-time low.

According to Gillian Paul with Wolastoqey Nation in New Brunswick, the growing trend of centralizing all dealings with first nations through the department of aboriginal affairs is making it much harder to move negotiations forward.

“We used to have great working relationships with individual departments and now with the move to centralization where everything goes through aboriginal affairs, we have seen it become harder to have relationships with individual departments,” she told the legislature’s environment and climate change committee earlier this week.

“Quite frankly it just seems to slow down the process now that everything has to go through aboriginal affairs.”

The province’s relationship with First Nations took a nose dive in recent years, in part due to Higgs’ refusal to call a public inquiry into systemic racism faced by Indigenous people in the province and the cancellation of tax agreements that provided crucial funding to first nations governments.

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Environment minister Gary Crossman questioned Paul’s claim that government dealings have been centralized and said that there was a weekly meeting between the premier, aboriginal affairs minister and Indigenous chiefs in the province, but WNNB executive director Darrah Beaver said that there were not regular meetings with Wolastoqey chiefs.

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Beaver said that the increasingly centralized approach is the opposite of what has happened in provinces that have better working relationships with First Nations. The best practice, Beaver says, is to ensure people working in all departments have sensitivity training and an understanding of how to respectfully engage with Indigenous nations, not just send everything through one department.

Paul said that the Wolastoqey do not currently have any open negotiations with the province and noted that consultations often appear to be an afterthought.

“For us, consultation needs to happen as early in the process as possible,” she said.

“Oftentimes, we find that when we’re consulted is at the end of the project, when the decision on a project has already been made and consultation is merely a blowing off steam process for First Nations and another hurdle or a check box process to get approval for a project.”

In his assessment of the state of the relationship between the province and Mi’kmaq chiefs, Pabineau First Nation chief Terry Richardson, was even more blunt. He says there’s been a lack of effort on the part of the government to engage with First Nations and work to build a relationship.

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“Getting back to the relationship side of it, we have to instill that relationship and develop that relationship, because presently there is no relationship,” he said. “We just can’t get onto that range of negotiation. We’re trying, we really are.”

Richardson says that dealings with the provincial government aren’t negotiations, and fail to live up to the ideal of nation to nation respect.

“It should be government to government. We end up meeting with lawyer, we end up meeting with, I call them people who just come with a message, ‘Here’s what we’re offering.’ There’s no negotiation,” he said.

“This is it, this is what we’re offering. That’s not negotiating, that’s not developing a relationship.”

Both groups say the best place to start to improve things is with basic dialogue and respect.

“An elder once told me it takes a hundred cups of tea to develop a relationship. I’m still waiting for this government to have that first cup of tea with us,” Richardson said.

“Come and have that cup of tea, we’re ready. We want to sit down and talk.”

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