Tories too little, too late on embracing Indigenous issues

A little over a month ago, I wrote it was ironic that Manitoba Premier Brian Pallister’s views on Indigenous peoples, one of the things he was most proud of in his political career, would mark the end of it.

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Hey there, time traveller!
This article was published 24/08/2021 (642 days ago), so information in it may no longer be current.

A little over a month ago, I wrote it was ironic that Manitoba Premier Brian Pallister’s views on Indigenous peoples, one of the things he was most proud of in his political career, would mark the end of it.

Turns out I was right.

Canada has historically made statues, named buildings and created universities to honour politicians who mistreat Indigenous communities. But in the Manitoba of 2021, it apparently means one cannot be premier.

Brian Pallister has made various inflammatory statements about Indigenous people during his time in the premier’s chair. (Mikaela MacKenzie / Winnipeg Free Press files)

The breaking point, it appears, was in Pallister’s post-Canada Day comments about activists pulling down two queen statues at the Manitoba legislature.

“The people who came here to this country,” Pallister famously said, “didn’t come here to destroy anything. They came here to build.”

No, Mr. Premier, that’s just outright wrong. Read a textbook.

It’s among a litany of other incorrect statements he’s made about Indigenous (and frankly, non-Indigenous peoples) over his time in the premier’s chair.

The comment sparked the resignation of Eileen Clarke as minister of Indigenous and Northern Affairs.

Before this, no one in the Progressive Conservative Party publicly stood up to Pallister’s outdated, divisive and factually incorrect views on Indigenous peoples.

No one past or present publicly disagreed when Pallister accused Métis night hunters of inciting “a race war”; pronounced that First Nations getting vaccines put Manitobans “at the back of the line”; or intervened to stop Bill 57— criminalizing constitutional rights that clearly target Indigenous activists.

Many complained privately — Clarke reportedly told Manitoba Métis Federation President David Chartrand, “Be patient. He will be gone soon” — but none said anything publicly.

They are talking now.

Conservative MLAs across the province have been lining up to distance themselves from Pallister’s positions on Indigenous issues, even before he announced his resignation on Aug. 10.

The loudest has been backbench Tory MLA Shannon Martin, who openly rebuked Pallister after fellow MLA Alan Lagimodiere, moments after being appointed minister of Indigenous Reconciliation and Northern Relations, stated that those who ran residential schools thought they were “doing the right thing.”

On Twitter, Martin took Lagimodiere to task and wrote that residential schools were “re-education camps, designed not to benefit Indigenous peoples, but to erase their cultures (and) in too many instances, their lives.”

Pallister's comments sparked the resignation of Eileen Clarke as minister of Indigenous and Northern Affairs. (Mikaela MacKenzie / Winnipeg Free Press files)

Conservation Minister Sarah Guillemard and Families Minister Rochelle Squires also posted their own comments on social media criticizing Pallister and Lagimodiere.

Lagimodiere, meanwhile, has done a complete reversal and broke with long-standing views by Pallister, too.

At an event honouring the 150th anniversary of the signing of Treaty One, Lagimodiere said Prime Minister John A. Macdonald’s plan was to eliminate Indigenous people from Canada.

“It was genocide,” he said. “There’s no way we can defend those actions. And those actions continued for years and years until the 1990s and they destroyed generations.”

Lagimodiere then repeated the comment at an announcement that a statue of Chief Peguis would be located on the grounds of the Manitoba legislature.

So much for Pallister’s “they-came-here-to-build” statement.

Then came this week, when Heather Stefanson, Manitoba’s former health minister, made her announcement that she was seeking the leadership of the Tories. She started with a territorial acknowledgement — something Pallister has long refused to do or institute in the Manitoba legislature.

Stefanson then promised to “advance reconciliation and economic opportunity for Indigenous people” and scrap Bill 64, which, among many things, would have removed local control of education and a primary way Indigenous education enters schools.

Standing behind Stefanson was Lagimodiere and Education Minister Cliff Cullen, applauding as she spoke.

It’s almost like the Manitoba PC party is openly shaming Pallister over his opinions on Indigenous peoples.

Or Conservatives have made a realization: Indigenous peoples vote and make up around 20 per cent of the province.

JOHN WOODS / WINNIPEG FREE PRESS At the press conference to announce she was running to become the leader of the PC party, MLA Heather Stefanson promised to advance reconciliation and economic opportunities for Indigenous people. (John Woods / Winnipeg Free Press files)

The rest are working with, living beside or are married to that 20 per cent.

Holding divisive, archaic and illegitimate views of Indigenous peoples makes you irrelevant in the Manitoba of 2021 — and certainly unelectable.

The question is: why are Conservatives speaking up now?

Isn’t it a little late? Could they not have stood up before?

And, if they couldn’t stand up to Pallister, can they stand up to anyone else?

It’s good that leaders in the current ruling party of Manitoba are promising reconciliation — and not spreading falsehoods and dividing Indigenous and non-Indigenous peoples.

But it all seems so hollow, especially after five years of silence.

Niigaan Sinclair

Niigaan Sinclair

Niigaan Sinclair is Anishinaabe and is a columnist at the Winnipeg Free Press.

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