Businessman, philanthropist turned down offer to become Manitoba’s first Muslim vice-regal ‘Great honour’ required too many sacrifices, El Tassi says; Indigenous leaders also declined opportunity, source claims
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A prominent Winnipeg businessman spent nearly a month wrestling with an offer to become Manitoba’s first Muslim lieutenant-governor, but after myriad family discussions and many sleepless nights, ultimately turned down the prestigious appointment.
“It would’ve been a great honour,” Abdo (Albert) El Tassi said Monday. “I was very sorry to decline.”
The owner of Peerless Garments Inc., and founder of Manitoba’s first Muslim school confirmed that he was approached by the Privy Council Office in Ottawa about becoming the Queen’s next representative in Manitoba last winter. The position has been held by Lt.-Gov. Janice Filmon for more than seven years, well beyond the traditional four-year term.
In her Nov. 23 speech from the throne, the vice-regal appeared to be saying her goodbyes and telling the legislative assembly it would probably be her final address. Local sources have said that she and her husband, former premier Gary Filmon, have both dealt with health issues and are keen to retire. Those sources said the announcement of a new lieutenant-governor is expected within weeks.
A statement Monday from the Privy Council Office confirmed that “an announcement concerning a potential successor in the role will be made in the near future.” In the meantime, Filmon “continues to do an exemplary job as lieutenant-governor of Manitoba,” spokesman Pierre-Alain Bujold said in an email. “Her outstanding commitment to the people of the province is deeply appreciated by all.”
Finding someone to take over for her hasn’t been easy.
The Privy Council Office has been searching for a suitable replacement for Filmon for at least six months.
“It would’ve been a great honour,” El Tassi told the Free Press, explaining that while accepting the appointment would have been a tremendous opportunity, it would have required him to step away from Peerless — where he began working on the loading dock 52 years ago — as well as give up his work on various boards in the community, including Al Hijra Islamic School and the Winnipeg Foundation.
“You have to resign from all of that,” said the businessman and philanthropist, who immigrated from Lebanon in 1969.
El Tassi said he has no doubt the federal government will find the right person to become Manitoba’s vice-regal.
“There’s a lot of qualified people,” said El Tassi, who was invested as an Order of Canada member in 2004 and this year to the Order of Manitoba..
Speculation has also included prominent Indigenous leaders, including former grand chief of the Assembly of First Nations Phil Fontaine and former NDP cabinet minister and Manitoba Business Council executive Kevin Chief.
But the vice-regal appointment comes with too much colonial-history baggage, an anonymous source told the Free Press, adding Indigenous leaders who were being considered for the lieutenant-governor’s role also declined.
On Canada Day 2021, demonstrators toppled statues of Queen Elizabeth and Queen Victoria on the grounds of the Legislative Building as the country was coming to grips with the then-recent discovery of unmarked Indigenous children’s graves on the grounds of former residential schools.
The head of the Aboriginal Council of Winnipeg said it’s understandable that the job of representing the queen would be a tough sell with Indigenous Manitobans.
Passage of the Indian Act of 1876 did more than just strip away the rights of First Nations people and force children to attend residential schools, said Damon Johnston.
“We were relegated to subhuman status,” said the urban leader who has worked with all levels of government to create opportunities for Indigenous people. “That kind of treatment really hurts deep into your soul,” said Johnston.
“All your life you’re torn. I sometimes really struggle with accepting some of the things in our current society.”
“All your life you’re torn. I sometimes really struggle with accepting some of the things in our current society.”– Damon Johnston
But Johnston said the only way to change racist attitudes is through relationships and getting to know people, citing Canada’s first Indigenous governor general, Mary Simon, as an example of someone using their vice-regal post to build such bridges.
An Indigenous lieutenant-governor could do likewise for Manitoba.
“I think it’s a real opportunity, at the highest levels in our society,” he said. “At this stage in our development, we’re we’re gaining ground. It’s slow but it’s steady.”
After 20 years of reporting on the growing diversity of people calling Manitoba home, Carol moved to the legislature bureau in early 2020.
Updated on Monday, August 8, 2022 7:26 PM CDT: Updated info on El Tassi
Updated on Tuesday, August 9, 2022 10:20 AM CDT: Adds related stories