As representatives of the Wolastoqey Nation, comprised of six First Nations in New Brunswick, we are heartened by the recent outpouring of public support for our people.
This year has not been easy for many. Our fragile system of health care has taken on renewed focus in the face of a global pandemic. Marches and protests under the Black Lives Matter banner have brought people into the street in recognition of systemic racism. And, examples of that same systemic discrimination against Indigenous people have been front and center here at home and across Canada.
It was unbelievable when government refused to appeal a ruling that the hit-and-run death of an Indigenous man would not result in a penalty for the driver. We were shocked and troubled by the shooting death of Chantel Moore at the hands of police on our sacred, traditional territory. And our hearts sank when our brother Rodney Levi was struck down by police a short time later.
Out of these tragedies our people rose up to show the good that is within us. We marched in silent vigils in communities across the province. We celebrated our culture with zeal this month on National Indigenous Day. And, we advocated for our people against a government that is just now beginning to listen.
The history of our struggle is long. It was 295 years ago that our ancestors signed the first of the Peace and Friendship Treaties with the British Crown. Those treaties made many promises that have since been broken. We did not surrender our land under these treaties. In fact, by entering into treaties with us, the Crown recognized our sovereignty and rights to the land. Instead, governments broke their own laws and took our lands. Then they removed our right to self-government. Then they designed regimes like the residential schools that eroded our culture and language. They have created a system that is inherently biased and holds our people back. They have created a system that invites racism and divides all of the people living in our province along racial lines.
We were pleased to sit in solidarity with the Chiefs of the Mi’kmaq and Passamaquoddy Nations two weeks ago to call on Premier Blaine Higgs to end systemic racism and bias in government against Indigenous people.
As Wolastoqey leaders, we know real change does not come in a day and our path is long.
We are, however, turning a corner. We are very appreciative of the support we are receiving from many New Brunswickers. Our voice is being heard by MLAs, Senators and the province’s Minister of Aboriginal Affairs Jake Stewart as we call for an independent inquiry into systemic discrimination and bias.
Mr. Higgs is the leading advocate for a lesser option; a task force that reviews old reports and recommendations that have failed to be implemented. It is a sad irony that the man who appointed the first full-time Minister of Aboriginal Affairs is also the man who most ignores our challenges. He refuses our outstretched hand as we offer to collaborate on change that would better our province for all peoples.
A task force would not be equipped with the muscle needed when it comes time for action. An iron-clad mandate will ensure government will not be allowed to shelve implementation as it has in the past.
As recently as Friday, Mr. Higgs said that even his own proposal of a weak task force may go too far for his liking. Instead of sympathizing with the uneven and unfair treatment our people receive, Mr. Higgs sympathized with the difficulty armed police face when they confront Indigenous people. Instead of examining how the system creates root causes to many problems that include violence against our peoples, he wondered aloud whether all of our problems relate back to drug use. The time has come to recognize that even our highest leaders have so much inherent bias that they can speak these words without realizing what they are really saying.
We are asking for an independent inquiry that will mandate governments to work with First Nations and to collaborate on solutions. We also call on the leaders of all political parties to commit to implement any and all recommendations for real, immediate and meaningful change that such an inquiry would make. At a time when the government sits in minority, and we do not know which of our four political parties could be leading the province in the near future, this guarantee is vital.
The inquiry should be Indigenous-led and the terms of reference developed by Indigenous nations. It must report back in a short time frame with specific, implementation-ready action items. This inquiry has to act fast and be laser-focused, not general or idealistic. We will be developing proposed terms of reference to ensure that this inquiry creates the conditions for our people to finally receive fair and equal justice rather than delays, excuses and perpetual bias and inequity. The editorial published Saturday by Brunswick News recognizes this need, as do the opinions of other writers published in these pages in recent days.
Mr. Higgs has shown time and again that justice for Indigenous peoples is not his priority and that we do not have his respect. When Chantel Moore was killed, he refused to accept that systemic racism exists. When Rodney Levi was killed Mr. Higgs said a problem probably exists, but hedged when asked to confirm this view later. He didn’t attend either funeral. He did not participate in any of the many healing walks around the province. On National Indigenous Day he didn’t attend an event and unlike other political leaders, he didn’t even issue a statement. He held a condescending meeting with us and demanded we meet again within two weeks. Instead, Mr. Higgs said he was too busy to meet us before July 9th, 22 days after our last meeting. This man is not showing our people respect.
We know Mr. Higgs is an obstacle we must overcome. What we ask for can not be reduced to a list of tasks. And, we should not have to negotiate when lives hang in the balance.
We appreciate the leadership and honesty of Minister Stewart, as he has shown an understanding of our history and our struggle for equality. Unfortunately, the premier is not following the lead of his more insightful minister.
Mr. Higgs views us as a problem to be solved instead of a people who need a partner. He must stop thinking like an engineer. He is not working his way down a to-do list. Our issues are socially embedded. Our challenges are woven in the fabric of our history.
This has been a tough year for many people on many fronts. If there is a high point to 2020, it is that finally the voice of our people is being heard by the majority of New Brunswick’s political leaders. We thank New Brunswickers for standing in solidarity with us. With your support perhaps we will finally achieve equality and justice.
Woliwon / Wəliwən
Ross Perley is Chief of Neqotkuk (Tobique), Alan Polchies Jr. is Chief of Sitansisk (St. Mary’s), Patricia Bernard is Chief of Matawaskiye (Madawaska), Shelley Sabattis is Chief of Welamukotuk (Oromocto), Gabriel Atwin is Chief of Pilick (Kingsclear), Tim Paul is Chief of Wotstak (Woodstock)