FREDERICTON — New Brunswick Premier Blaine Higgs is facing a growing backlash to his government’s new policy on Indigenous land acknowledgments, and some of the opposition has come from within his own cabinet.
A leaked series of emails reveals Education Minister Dominic Cardy and Transportation Minister Jill Green wrote to the premier on Oct. 15 complaining that the new policy is causing unnecessary conflict and “creates the impression of a government intentionally reinforcing racist behaviour.”
The policy, announced just a day earlier by Attorney General Hugh Flemming, forbids government employees from making territorial or title acknowledgments in reference to Indigenous lands.
It has become common across Canada for politicians and others to begin events by stating they are standing on unceded territories of various Indigenous Peoples.
The new policy in New Brunswick says employees can make reference to ancestral territory but not use terms like “unceded” and “unsurrendered.”
Flemming has cited a land title claim, filed last year by the province’s Wolastoqey chiefs, as the reason for the new policy. But Green and Cardy took exception and said the policy did nothing to reduce tensions around the First Nations file.
“This memo is the furthest thing from a sensitive approach to a delicate issue,” they wrote. “Actions like this make it impossible to talk with our First Nations constituents from a position of respect.”
The email went on to say the policy needed to be rescinded and an appropriate apology made. However, the two ministers were called to a meeting later that day with the premier, and a subsequent email described the meeting as “productive.”
Cardy was not made available for an interview Tuesday. Higgs said Tuesday both ministers have apologized for sending the email. He said a caucus meeting was held Oct. 19 to discuss Indigenous issues in the province.
Aboriginal Affairs Minister Arlene Dunn issued a memo after that meeting, saying her department has been doing a complete review of all initiatives with First Nations to ensure the province is meeting its obligations, and that meetings with First Nations would be scheduled once that is complete.
But Madawaska Maliseet First Nation Chief Patricia Bernard said Dunn’s work has included no consultation. “They are talking and doing things about us, without us,” Bernard said in an interview Tuesday.
Bernard applauded the two cabinet ministers for speaking out, and agreed the government’s behaviour appears racist. “These ministers within their own (Progressive Conservative) caucus, they see it, and they’re shocked. It appears somewhat vindictive,” she said.
Bernard called on the premier to apologize, but Higgs said he has nothing to apologize for.
“We are being sued as a province. We didn’t start this lawsuit,” Higgs said in an interview, referring to the Wolastoqey court action. “We are in court being challenged with an unprecedented case of 60 per cent of our land being challenged for ownership. We had to be clear on the government’s position.”
Naiomi Metallic, an assistant law professor at Dalhousie University, said the province’s policy to cease some aspects of land acknowledgments makes little sense because it wouldn’t be relevant to courts.
“It has no legal significance,” she said in an interview Tuesday. “The legal test doesn’t include any aspect of acquiescence by settlers as part of the question of whether there is Aboriginal title or not.”
Metallic said the Supreme Court of Canada has made clear the original treaties with Indigenous Peoples in the region didn’t include any land surrender.
She said the test for Aboriginal title revolves around issues such as whether the Indigenous group can provide evidence they occupied the land prior to the Crown taking possession of it, as well as whether there’s been continuity of Indigenous occupation of lands, both before and after the arrival of settlers.
She said the only importance of land acknowledgment statements is as an act of reconciliation towards Indigenous Peoples.
“They show another group of people respect. They’re significant for that. But they won’t sway whether a court finds Wolastoqey has legal title, either way,” Metallic said.