Chiefs fail to get a deal on racism inquiry following meeting with N.B. premier

People walk to honour Rodney Levi in Red Bank, New Brunswick on Friday June 19, 2020. Indigenous leaders in New Brunswick are renewing a call for an independent, Indigenous-led public inquiry to investigate systemic racism and two recent police shootings in the province. THE CANADIAN PRESS/Stephen MacGillivray

FREDERICTON - Indigenous leaders in New Brunswick say they are losing faith in Premier Blaine Higgs and his provincial government after a second meeting failed to produce an agreement for an inquiry into systemic racism and two recent police shootings.

Wolastoqey and Mi'kmaq chiefs joined Higgs and members of his cabinet Thursday afternoon for a two-and-a-half-hour meeting in Fredericton.

The Indigenous leaders said they insisted the provincial government establish an inquiry to look at how the justice system in New Brunswick is failing Indigenous peoples. They left empty-handed and without any commitment on another meeting.

"His inaction is unacceptable," said Chief Ross Perley of the Tobique First Nation at a news conference following the talks. "We have waited over three weeks for this meeting and we still have no firm commitment for an inquiry."

The last time the two sides met was in June. The chiefs left that meeting disappointed after Premier Higgs turned down their request for an inquiry and instead suggested a task force to review recommendations made from previous inquiries.

Chief George Ginnish, of Eel Ground First Nation, said there has long been systemic racism in the justice system, and when it comes to policing, the RCMP is not prepared to deal with First Nations' issues.

"We need community peacekeeping," Ginnish said Thursday. "We need people that can interact with our members on the ground and work with our mental health teams, work with our health centres, and have a comprehensive approach to what our issues are."

The chiefs say they're united in their call for a independent provincial inquiry.

Higgs, however, told reporters after the meeting he thought the concerns of the Indigenous leaders should be addressed with a national inquiry.

"I said this is bigger than New Brunswick," Higgs said. "This is a national issue. Every province is dealing with these issues, and why don't we make it that?"

The premier said problems involving policing by the RCMP require a national perspective. "I just believe that we have to make it a bigger national issue because so much of it is related to the federal government."

The chiefs say they want Opposition members to call for a vote in the legislature as a way to order an inquiry. But Liberal member Chuck Chiasson says it would be late September at the earliest before they could debate the issue.

He said the Liberals already introduced a motion on June 25 calling for an inquiry into systemic bias against Indigenous people in New Brunswick, but the legislature doesn't sit again until September.

The chiefs' calls follow the fatal shootings of Chantel Moore and Rodney Levi — two Indigenous people killed by police in June.

Mi'kmaq leaders are also calling for immediate reforms to the justice system, including improved police training and standards and increased Indigenous involvement in police oversight.

In a letter to the premier dated July 2, they demanded a change in the approach to law enforcement including the creation of a community-based initiative they are calling Mi'kmaq Peacekeepers.

"This will be a system of unarmed safety officers from our communities, trained in de-escalation tactics and to address issues of mental health, addiction, poverty and trauma," they wrote.

Levi, 48, was attending a barbecue on June 12 near the Metepenagiag Mi'kmaq Nation when someone allegedly called police to complain about an "unwanted person."

The Mounties have said a suspect carrying knives was jolted with a stun gun, but that failed to subdue him. He was shot when he charged at officers, police said.

Moore, 26, was fatally shot June 4 when an officer from the Edmundston Police Department was conducting a "wellness check." Police allege she lunged at an officer with a knife.

Quebec's independent police watchdog agency — the Bureau des enquetes independantes — is investigating the killings, because New Brunswick does not have its own police oversight agency.

The Mi'kmaq leaders say the results need to be made public, so they can be subject to public scrutiny.

This report by The Canadian Press was first published July 9, 2020.

The Canadian Press. All rights reserved.