Two Progressive Conservative cabinet members strongly criticized the Higgs government’s new policy on land acknowledgements, saying it could create a perception the government is racist.
In an internal email Oct. 15, Transportation and Infrastructure Minister Jill Green and Education and Early Childhood Minister Dominic Cardy urged Premier Blaine Higgs to withdraw the policy and apologize for it.
“The memo sent to all GNB employees on Thursday, October 14, has added an unnecessary conflict that is creating confusion and justifiable anger toward our government,” Green and Cardy wrote in the email obtained by CBC News.
But they backed down within hours after an urgent meeting with the premier, according to a second email.
The new policy bans government officials from acknowledging that New Brunswick sits on “unceded” and “unsurrendered” Indigenous land.
The two ministers wrote in their first email that they saw “no plan” to improve the relationship with First Nations and said the memo, and other government moves, “raise questions about our sincerity, our competence, and whether we are the racists our opponents claim.”
In another passage, they said government moves like the new policy “create the impression of a government intentionally reinforcing racist behaviour.”
The ministers sent the email to the premier just before 4 p.m. on Friday, Oct. 15. It was addressed to Higgs and was copied to his chief of staff Louis Leger, clerk of the executive council Cheryl Hansen and all PC MLAs.
The criticism prompted an immediate meeting with Higgs and his deputy minister of strategic initiatives and communications Nicolle Carlin, according to the second email.
Shortly after 6 p.m. the same day, Green and Cardy thanked Higgs “for the productive meeting … and for understanding and listening to our concerns.”
In the second email they tell Higgs they “share your commitment to build a new relationship with First Nations and the need for a strategy to broaden the conversation beyond a purely legal focus.”
They also refer twice to the need to work together, and they invited Higgs to set aside time at the next PC caucus meeting “to share your vision for a province where all citizens, no matter their backgrounds, feel a part of one New Brunswick.”
Green said the meeting with Higgs was “very heated” but satisfied her.
“We were all able to be heard and talk about our concerns, and talk about the balance between the legal suits and the human side of things, and how it’s important for us to try to recognize both in our pathway forward. … It was a very good discussion.”
She said in an interview she was concerned the memo would create “confusion” among her departmental staff and would also hurt her ability to deal with St. Mary’s First Nation in her Fredericton North riding.
The reference to a perception of racism “was an echoing of what I’d been hearing in messages from my constituents and others around me,” she said.
Cardy, whose Fredericton West-Hanwell riding includes Kingsclear First Nation, said he was hearing the same thing.
He said the second email wasn’t a retraction of his criticisms but a way of telling the PC caucus that Higgs had followed up.
“Something that I’ve always admired about him is a tolerance for discussion, dissent and debate,” Cardy said.
Higgs said in an interview that Green and Cardy had “genuine concerns” and he didn’t insist they fall in line or resign.
But he also said they had “overreacted” to the new policy and were “apologetic” after the meeting with him.
“There was certainly a regret that the letter was sent.”
Higgs’s office also released a detailed response from Aboriginal Affairs Minister Arlene Dunn in which she said recent land title litigation, “by its very nature, implies something is broken” but said there is a plan to improve the relationship.
Officials have been reviewing all Indigenous initiatives to ensure they comply with the law and respect First Nations’ rights to set the stage for new discussions, she said.
“I am pleased to report that this process is nearing completion.”
This is an enormously complicated file with all kinds of elements around it that are just starting to to be discussed– Dominic Cardy, minister
She said while some decisions in the early part of the review “are difficult or uncomfortable,” they would allow the province to create “a solid foundation” for a better relationship in the future.
Green said in an interview she hadn’t been aware of the breadth of that review.
“Do we each know everything about each other’s files? No. And her email was fantastic. It’s a great summary of all the work that’s ongoing … I didn’t know all of everything, so I’m definitely glad she sent that to us.”
Cardy said he was familiar with Dunn’s work already but wanted Higgs to articulate “a broader vision” of what an inclusive New Brunswick would look like, including a better relationship with First Nations.
Following the email exchange and a “really good caucus conversation” on Oct. 19, “we’ve certainly moved quite a long way down that road, and that’s all for the good,” he said.
“This is an enormously complicated file with all kinds of elements around it that are just starting to to be discussed, and we have to be very careful in the way we handle it.
“There was clearly an understanding from he premier’s side that that was understood, and MInister Dunn’s been doing a lot of incredible work behind the scenes.”
Wolstoqey land claim filed
Attorney General Ted Flemming sent the new land acknowledgement policy to all government employees on Oct. 14.
Land acknowledgments have become common at many events, ceremonies and performances in the province.
But Flemming wrote that referring to New Brunswick as “unceded and unsurrendered” territory could hurt the province’s case in land title litigation filed by Wolastoqey chiefs that covers 60 per cent of the province.
The memo said government employees are allowed to refer to the province as “the ancestral homelands” of those nations but would not be punished for talking about unceded or unsurrendered territory.
The memo sparked angry reactions from Indigenous people and others, but Higgs said it was necessary to clarify legal issues raised in the lawsuit as a way of getting to a better relationship.
“Yes, it involves tough discussions, especially when we’re being sued, and it involves us putting all the facts on the table, so I think emotions run high sometimes, and some folks are more emotional than others, as we know,” he said.