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Justice (25-42)

‘Nothing about us without us’: Mi’gmaq group still waiting for Indigenous-led inquiry into systemic racism

June 11, 2024
‘Nothing about us without us’: Mi’gmaq group still waiting for Indigenous-led inquiry into systemic racism

A #JusticeForBrady sign in Elsipogtog First Nation, June 2024. Community member Brady Francis, 22, was killed in a hit-and-run on Saint-Charles South Road on Feb. 24, 2018. The acquittal of the man accused of striking him, Maurice Johnson of Saint-Charles, prompted calls for a public inquiry into systemic racism against Indigenous people in the justice system. Photo: Lisha Francis.

NationTalk: NB Media Coop – A non-profit organization that represents Mi’gmaq communities in New Brunswick has renewed calls for an independent Indigenous-led public inquiry into systemic racism in policing and the justice system.

Mi’gmawe’l Tplu’taqnn Inc. a rights-based organization whose name means “Mi’gmaq people’s laws” has repeatedly called for an inquiry, similar to the Marshall Inquiry in Nova Scotia.

“We want to find the solutions, and finally implement those solutions for a safer social environment for all Mi’kmaqi, for all New Brunswickers, that’s the end goal,” MTI executive director Dean Vicaire said in an interview earlier this year.

A string of tragedies has shown just how little justice is allotted to Indigenous people in New Brunswick.

Dean Vicaire, executive director for Mi’gmawe’l Tplu’taqnn Inc. Photo contributed by MTI.

Examples include the April 2020 acquittal of the accused in the hit-and-run death of Brady Francis of Elsipogtog First Nation (a close relative of my family), a ruling that prompted outrage in the community.

This ruling, along with two fatal police shootings — which claimed the lives of Rodney Levi of Metepenagiag First Nation and Chantel Moore of Tla-o-qui-aht First Nation, both in June 2020 — put a spotlight on longstanding Indigenous issues in New Brunswick.

MTI’s hope is that an Indigenous-led public inquiry could uncover the systemic problems and produce solutions appropriate for First Nation communities, as only people who know systemic racism first-hand can understand and fix it.

Vicaire related it to the role of a mechanic: to fix the car you don’t go to someone who doesn’t know cars. “It’d be like sending me and you to go repair a car. I don’t think you’re a mechanic I know I’m not…. Do you think that’s going to come out successfully?”

Indigenous people need to lead the inquiry because there should be “nothing about us without us,” he said.

The history of New Brunswick — established on land that Indigenous people never ceded in the Peace and Friendship treaties of the mid-1700s — makes racism against First Nations people unique compared to other groups.

“[Settlers] occupied it, they benefited from the natural resources with little to no success or appreciation or anything to First Nations people,” Vicaire said. With practically no land or even money to compensate, this has led to many problems including overrepresentation of incarcerated Indigenous people.

Indigenous people account for roughly five per cent of the adult population, but 32 per cent of all people in federal custody, according to the Correctional Service of Canada.

According to MTI, these problems have no single solution as many of the communities have different ideas and needs. So how could someone without first-hand experiences of systemic racism attempt to solve this issue?

A Mountie monitors a demonstration in Edmundston, on Jun. 13, 2020, after a member of the Edmundston Police Force shot and killed Chantel Moore, a 26-year-old Indigenous woman, during a wellness check. Photo by David Gordon Koch.

Premier Blaine Higgs refused calls from MTI and Wolastoquey Nation to launch an Indigenous-led public inquiry into systemic racism against Indigenous people. Instead, he opted to appoint a commissioner of systemic racism, Manju Varma, who is not Indigenous; nor was the rest of her team. The commission also lacked the legal authority of a public inquiry, which would be able to compel people to testify, for example.

Varma’s initial interim report included a call for a public inquiry into systemic racism against Indigenous peoples in the policing and justice system, and it was well received at the time, according to MTI.

But the mid-term report was withdrawn and watered down following a meeting between Varma, the Premier and then-Aboriginal Affairs Minister Arlene Dunn, according to reports. Higgs denied political interference in the process and Varma said she wasn’t asked to modify or shelve her report.

But nine Mi’kmaw chiefs pulled out of the commission’s process, joining Wolastoqey Nation chiefs who declined to participate from the start. One of Varma’s senior advisors also resigned over the issue of independence.

Ultimately, Varma released her final report in December 2020, calling in part for a “task force focused on dismantling systemic racism in New Brunswick policing.”

The lack of obvious action from the province has forced MTI to respond. “We felt the need to get that information out on behalf of leadership, and on behalf of all of our members,” Vicaire said.

The NB Media Co-op reached out to the provincial government for comment. The Department of Post-Secondary Education, Training and Labour is leading the government’s response to the report with a “data-driven approach,” according to a government spokesperson.

“Significant work has started on addressing the concerns that have been raised,” the spokesperson said in an email, without providing details. “We’ll have more to say about this in the future”

With the provincial government refusing to launch an inquiry, what can people do to help address the issue of systemic racism?

Vicaire said people should get informed about the issues and talk to elected officials and each other. He added that this kind of education should be implemented in institutions right down to elementary school.

As Vicaire puts it: “We [Indigenous people] are not going anywhere, the immigrants and the non-native people aren’t going anywhere, and if we don’t learn to work with one another, then these trying times will continue.”

The more that people pressure the government to deal with issues of systemic racism, the more easily those issues can be solved, Vicaire said. He added that people cannot give up the fight. “Quitting is the easy thing to do,” he said. 

Lance Francis is a St. Thomas University student and a member of Elsipogtog First Nation. He wrote this article as part of JOUR 2033, Local Reporting, Global Media, in St. Thomas University’s Aotiitj program in Elsipogtog, with files from David Gordon Koch.