The role of the elected: extinguish hate, don’t fan the flames…
As the federal representative for our capital city, I have made it my responsibility to work collaboratively on issues of mutual interest with my colleagues at other levels of government and with Wolastoqey leadership, both elected and traditional on whose territory I live and work. On multiple occasions I have offered Premier Higgs and Minister Dunn of Aboriginal Affairs to help close gaps in understanding, to share perspectives that may not have been considered, and to encourage the necessary bridge-building to ensure a prosperous and inclusive New Brunswick for all.
The Premier’s decision last week to cancel tax agreements with 13 First Nations communities moves in the wrong direction for improving relationships with Indigenous and non-indigenous peoples. The manner in which Premier Higgs delivered this decision – at a press conference without notifying Mi’kmaw and Wolastoqey leaders in advance – shows a complete lack of respect.
Last week I was quoted in an article of the Telegraph Journal as saying that our Premier was “fanning the flames of racism, with lies and ignorance”. I have received a lot of feedback on this statement from those asking me to explain myself, to show more respect or less emotion, to work toward solutions behind the scenes. I ask these critics to consider their responses again. Has the Premier explained himself? Has he given an evidence-based justification for this unilateral action? Where is the respect he needs to show to the first peoples of this land?
His comments in defense of his actions contribute to myths and stereotypes. Premier Higgs has blamed the woes of New Brunswick on First Nations people and given license to the hate and disdain that bubbles under the surface in our province.
I believe that elected officials should hold themselves to a higher standard of truth and professionalism. And I believe that our Premier has failed to do so.
Premier Higgs talks about “super wealthy” reserves and argues that canceling these agreements will somehow be about wealth distribution. In a list of the poorest postal codes in Canada, several are located in New Brunswick First Nations communities. The 2016 census found the average income of a member of a First Nations community in New Brunswick to be $11,000, less than the provincial average income. These agreements funded the education, training, housing, language, and culture initiatives that were helping these communities combat that income gap. If the Premier is interested in wealth distribution, he would be going after the billionaires who have enriched themselves from this unceded land rather than perpetuating their subsidies and tax breaks.
The reserves are not provincial jurisdiction. There is no law that requires First Nations communities to pay provincial taxes. The tax agreements ensured a level playing field for businesses both on and off reserve: canceling the agreements means uncertainty for the business community.
We operate under the Peace and Friendship treaties signed in 1725 and 1726 which formalized the notion that settlers and First Nations would live in peace and friendship. The premier needs to seriously reevaluate his definition of friendship. Rather than celebrating the growth and prosperity in Indigenous communities, our Premier wants to punish that success and demoralize the residents.
Just days before he made his announcement, Madawaska First Nation won a landmark settlement concerning the illegal transfer of lands that were originally reserved for the First Nation in 1787. The
settlement will bring $145M in federal dollars into New Brunswick. It also enables the community to apply to have that land added to the reserve. This is a win for the people of this province even if the Premier doesn’t see it that way.
First Nations communities have been targeted and I will not be silent.
I will gladly work with my provincial colleagues to help repair the damage done, but healing must occur before this work can begin. And this is the important part: the onus of reconciliation is not on Indigenous peoples. Minister Dunn cannot sit at an empty table and say she is doing her best to work toward a solution. There must be reparations and accountability. We are not there yet and I fear this Premier has no interest in getting there.
Jenica Atwin is Member of Parliament for Fredericton. Her husband and children are members of Oromocto First Nation.