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Systemic racism report calls for N.B. task force, not the inquiry sought by First Nations

December 16, 2022

Indigenous leaders say a public inquiry into systemic racism against Indigenous peoples is still needed

Commissioner Manju Varma’s final report doesn’t specifically call for a public inquiry into systemic racism against Indigenous peoples. (Karissa Donkin/CBC )

CBC News: The province’s commissioner of systemic racism is calling for “a task force focused on dismantling systemic racism in New Brunswick policing” and more education for senior government officials and politicians “on the meaning of systemic racism.”

But Commissioner Manju Varma’s report stops short of recommending the province call a public inquiry into systemic racism against Indigenous peoples, something Indigenous leaders have been calling on the province to do for several years.

It’s left Indigenous leaders, such as Chief Allan (Chicky) Polchies Jr. of Sitansisk First Nation, also known as St. Mary’s First Nation, disappointed. Polchies believes a public inquiry is still needed. “Unfortunately it’s just going to fall on a desk and collect dust,” Polchies said about Varma’s report.

“We want some action. We’ve been calling for action for quite some time now, and the Higgs government is just not giving what we’re asking for.”

Varma released her final report Friday afternoon after more than a year of studying systemic racism and listening to difficult personal stories from people across the province, including the story of a child chased off a playground and a senior citizen who had her hijab pulled at the grocery store. Her report makes 86 recommendations in total.

“It would be a true disservice of our government to ignore the voices that are in this report, the voices that shared their traumatic experiences so that our province can go and be better,” Varma told reporters on Friday.

Premier has refused to endorse public inquiry

In spring 2020, a man was found not guilty of failing to stop at the scene of an accident that caused the death of Brady Francis, a 22-year-old Elsipogtog First Nation man. That verdict, and the Crown’s decision not to appeal it, prompted rallies at the legislature.

A couple of months later, the police shooting deaths of Chantel Moore, a 26-year-old Tla-o-qui-aht First Nation woman, and Rodney Levi, a 48-year-old man from Metepenagiag Mi’kmaq Nation, sparked calls for a public inquiry.

But Premier Blaine Higgs has refused to endorse an inquiry, saying recommendations from other reviews and inquiries could be implemented.

The government appointed Varma last year, and in the spring, it appeared she was poised to call for a public inquiry.

A copy of a mid-term report Varma wrote recommended the province “launch, without delay, an Indigenous-led, co-managed public inquiry into systemic racism against Indigenous peoples in New Brunswick’s criminal justice and policing sectors.

Manju Varma, New Brunswick’s commissioner of systemic racism, spoke with reporters Friday after releasing her final report.

“The overarching conclusion is that the relationship between Indigenous peoples and New Brunswick’s justice system is broken,” Varma’s mid-term report says.

“Indigenous peoples not only mistrust the criminal justice system, they fear it and its agents. The communities and individuals we have heard from note that they are scared that if something happens to them, ‘it won’t matter because it hasn’t.'”

The mid-term report was supposed to be released publicly, but those plans changed after an April 13 meeting with Higgs and Aboriginal Affairs Minister Arlene Dunn. Varma’s mid-term report was never publicly released, and she released a mid-term statement instead.

Higgs has said he didn’t interfere with the commissioner’s work, while Varma has said no one from the government asked her to change or shelve anything. But it prompted chiefs from nine Mi’kmaw communities to withdraw from the commissioner’s process, alleging political interference.

They joined the six chiefs of the Wolastoqey Nation, who declined to participate in the systemic racism commissioner’s work and described it as an “ill-equipped and ineffective alternative to an inquiry.”

Public inquiry should have been called in 2020, Varma says

When asked on Friday why her final report doesn’t recommend a public inquiry, Varma said she believes an inquiry should have been called two years ago, after the deaths of Moore and Levi.  “The government, the federal government, the provincial government, the justice system dropped the ball there,” she said on Friday.

Two years later, she said she believes a task force would be more forward-looking. “Nobody is being taken off the hook, so to speak,” Varma said. 

Her report says the co-chairs of the task force into policing should come from the Indigenous and Black communities, “as the communities most impacted by racism in the justice and public safety systems,” and from the Department of Justice and Public Safety.

“This recommendation also acknowledges past efforts by Indigenous and Black communities for police and justice changes.”

Chief Terry Richardson of Oinpegitjoig First Nation, also known as Pabineau First Nation, said he would participate in a task force, but questions whether government will listen.

He said the government has adopted a top-down approach of negotiating with First Nations, and he doesn’t feel Varma’s report was truly independent.

Chief Terry Richardson of Oinpegitjoig First Nation, also known as Pabineau First Nation, says he would participate in a task force but wonders whether government will listen. (Ed Hunter/CBC)

“As First Nations, we’ve made our recommendations already but they’re going unheard,” Richardson said.

“This government just doesn’t want to negotiate and it’s very unfortunate. It’s at the detriment of everybody in this province.”

A statement from Mi’gmawe’l Tplu’taqnn Inc. (MTI), a non-profit made up of the nine Mi’kmaw communities, says Varma’s report represents another “broken promise to First Nations, and an unfortunate conclusion to a process that could have done so much more to address systemic racism in the province.”

“While MTI welcomes some of the recommendations made by the commissioner, others fall far short of what is needed.”

Varma wants land acknowledgement directive rescinded

Varma’s report also calls on the government to address recommendations from two separate coroner’s inquests into the deaths of Moore and Levi “without delay.”

It also asks government to rescind a directive that told government employees to stop making Indigenous land title acknowledgements.

“To refuse to acknowledge the land on which we stand as unceded is unjust,” Varma’s report says. 

“Furthermore, to send such a directive, via email, to all employees, including Indigenous employees, without any regard to their response, mental health impact or previous trauma was also unjust and spoke to the systemically racist assumption that all of us experience history in the same way.”

Her report also suggests a mandate to collect “race-based data in health care” and to create a permanent body and lead person to focus on dismantling systemic racism. Varma, whose contract is set to end on Dec. 31, recommends that person be at a commissioner or deputy minister level.

That person can “advise the province on how to eliminate racism from government policy making and programs” and provide training for the government, among other roles, the report suggests.

Varma notes in her report that she met with “numerous departments and civil servants,” many of whom were passionate about fighting discrimination. But her report says she has a concern about government leadership’s understanding of systemic racism.

“The overall environment of leadership did not present systemic racism as a priority,” she wrote.

CBC asked for an interview with Higgs or Dunn to discuss the report’s recommendations. Neither were made available.

In an emailed statement, Higgs said the government will review Varma’s report and determine what steps to take.