Two days after announcing he would represent Manitoba at ceremonies in France marking the 75th anniversary of D-Day, Brian Pallister was a no-show at the biggest event at Juno Beach Thursday, one that included at least two veterans from the Royal Winnipeg Rifles.
Instead, the premier was 350 kilometres away in Lestrem, France, meeting with representatives of the French agribusiness giant, Roquette, his press secretary confirmed.
Pallister announced on Tuesday he would head over to France to show his respects "for the valour and sacrifice of our veterans."
"We'll join in the 75th commemorative recognition of the Normandy invasion and combine that with a number of meetings looking for (business) opportunities for Manitoba...," Pallister told reporters in Winnipeg.
But the premier skipped the two biggest events commemorating Canadian Second World War veterans in Europe this week — a wreath laying at the Bény-sur-Mer Canadian War Cemetery Wednesday afternoon (local time) and Thursday's D-Day commemorative ceremony at Juno Beach.
Local representatives at the latter event included Mayor Brian Bowman and Manitoba Metis Federation president David Chartrand. St. Norbert MLA Jon Reyes, Manitoba's special envoy for military affairs, also attended, the premier's office said. And a source also observed Manitoba cabinet minister Blaine Pedersen at the event.
Pallister's office said that on Wednesday, the premier laid a wreath at the Canadian National Vimy Memorial, which commemorates Canada's contributions and sacrifices during the First World War.
They didn't explain why he chose to travel to Vimy instead of to Bény-sur-Mer, although Vimy is only a 45-minute drive from Lestrem, where he was to hold his business meeting the next day.
Bowman could not be reached for comment on Thursday. However, Chartrand said if Pallister was in France and did not attend Thursday's Juno Beach ceremony, "it would be pretty disrespectful."
A federal source said of Canada's premiers, only John Horgan of British Columbia and Bob McLeod of the Northwest Territories attended the ceremony. The source said Pallister had been invited but did not accept the invitation.
Olivia Billson, a spokeswoman for the premier, explained the premier's absence by citing Reyes's qualifications for representing Manitoba. Reyes served for a decade in the Canadian Forces including five years stationed on HMCS Winnipeg.
"The Premier was pleased to provide Mr. Reyes a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity to participate as the official representative for the Manitoba Government at Thursday’s International Ceremony at Juno Beach," she wrote in an email.
Others saw the premier's refusal to attend as an insult to those who served Canada in the Second World War.
Chartrand said it was "pretty disrespectful" of Pallister to be in France and not attend the event. He noted that two Royal Winnipeg Rifles veterans, seated in wheelchairs, were positioned prominently, their presence acknowledged at the event.
"If you don't go to the D-Day ceremonies and show respect to the people that saved our country and saved our world then we've got a problem," he said.
NDP MLA Nahanni Fontaine, whose grandfather Henry Charles Fontaine landed in the second or third wave at Juno Beach and was later captured, becoming a prisoner of war for nine months, also criticized the premier for failing to show up at Thursday's event.
Her grandfather enlisted in the Canadian army as a 17-year-old right after leaving residential school, she said. He was 18 when he was captured by the Nazis.
"To hear that he (Pallister) didn’t go there, that literally is a slap in the face to my grandfather, who fought for the premier’s right and the premier’s family’s right to live in freedom," Fontaine said.
On Tuesday, the premier's office was tightlipped about Pallister's itinerary when asked for details. Later, a spokeswoman said two cabinet ministers (Pedersen and Agriculture Minister Ralph Eichler), Reyes, a political staffer and two provincial officials would accompany him to Europe.
Pallister said he would participate in D-Day commemoration events and meet with agribusiness and other business officials while overseas. He said the trip would last for "the better part of 12 days." His office later said that he would also spend "some short private time with his wife at personal expense" before returning to Manitoba late next week.
Roquette announced plans to build a large pea-processing plant at Portage la Prairie two years ago. Since then, there have been construction delays. The plant is now scheduled to open in late 2020.
The premier is also scheduled to meet with officials from software firm Ubisoft while in Europe.
Meanwhile, Billson said that Pallister will be participating at commemorative events in Normandy at the Canadian War Cemetery at Bretteville-sur-Laize on Friday. He will meet with Manitoba regiments "distinguished by their own valour and sacrifice," she said.
—with files from Dylan Robertson
Larry Kusch didn’t know what he wanted to do with his life until he attended a high school newspaper editor’s workshop in Regina in the summer of 1969 and listened to a university student speak glowingly about the journalism program at Carleton University in Ottawa.
Updated on Thursday, June 6, 2019 at 11:31 PM CDT: Adds map to layout.