On Thursday evening, as a part of the provincial government’s weekly newsletter to Manitoba’s public service, chief of the executive council and cabinet secretary David McLaughlin issued "A Statement from the Clerk" on the government’s next steps on reconciliation.
For a government historically light on policies surrounding reconciliation — and one that seems to only be stepping into controversy when using the word — it was a sign of life in a void.
In the statement, McLaughlin first explains why the government changed the name of the department — something that hasn’t really been explained to Manitobans.
McLaughlin says the change is a commitment to Manitoba’s Path to Reconciliation Act (passed by the Selinger NDP government), signalling a "whole of government approach to building meaningful relationships with Indigenous nations and people" while making reconciliation "part of the department’s formal mandate."
(One wonders why reconciliation wasn’t a "formal mandate" of the Department of Indigenous and Northern Relations before, but I digress.)
Then, the statement becomes a manifesto: "Reconciliation is both a goal and a journey… That means listening, all of us. It means seeking understanding and from that, drawing meaning. Reconciliation is about learning and finding common ground."
To do this, McLaughlin announces three "steps."
The first is a deputy minister’s committee on reconciliation, which will "develop, advise, and implement an agenda for reconciliation in collaboration with Indigenous leaders."
The second is a series of "town hall" discussions amongst provincial civil servants on what reconciliation means and how it can be implemented throughout all government.
The third is to invite "Indigenous leaders to speak to all deputy ministers on how we can collectively work to advance reconciliation."
Then, McLaughlin reminds civil servants that they can take one of three courses in "Indigenous cross-cultural awareness, treaty relationships, and the path to reconciliation" (an initiative started by previous minister Eileen Clarke).
While this may seem like a lot of inviting, listening and learning, McLaughlin’s statement is a remarkable policy announcement for a provincial government in the midst of scandal and an open revolution by members of its own cabinet over the handling of Indigenous Affairs.
The most recent scandal began on Canada Day, when Brian Pallister made factually incorrect comments surrounding Canadian history.
This resulted in the resignation of Eileen Clarke and the announcement of new Indigenous Reconciliation and Northern Relations minister Alan Lagimodiere.
Then came Lagimodiere’s disastrous comments on residential schools on July 15, resulting in an apologetic press release and promise to "reach out" to Indigenous leadership "to chart a path forward."
McLaughlin’s statement, it appears, will deliver on Lagimodiere’s promise and be the first steps of Pallister’s new ministry — only it seems one that won’t be handled by the minister, but by Brian Pallister’s right-hand man and deputy ministers.
This is, of course, how government really works — by long-time bureaucrats and not elected officials — but it’s a sign of two things: Pallister’s immediate loss of confidence in Lagimodiere and the strict handling of Indigenous Affairs through the premier’s office.
This second point is hardly a surprise since everyone knows Brian Pallister’s cabinet is a group of one, but Pallister won’t be dealing with Indigenous leaders either. This job will be handled by bureaucrats — most of whom are trying to figure out what reconciliation means.
Question: Why is a government representing Manitoba, one of the largest proportion populations of Indigenous peoples in Canada, still trying to figure out what reconciliation is?
Next question: What has government been talking about if they have to be told to talk about reconciliation now?
And, finally: Where’s the leadership in the provincial government on reconciliation?
The problem, of course, is there may be none left besides Pallister and Lagimodiere — and we know how that ended up.
There is no one with virtually any experience on Indigenous issues left in the Conservative cabinet.
Almost every deputy minister or high-level bureaucrat who is Indigenous has resigned over issues like racism and the cancellation of the deal with the Manitoba Metis Federation.
Indigenous appointees to provincial boards like former treaty commissioner Jamie Wilson and former chair of the Aboriginal Chamber of Commerce Darrell Brown have resigned, refusing to work with the Pallister government any longer.
If abandonment isn’t a statement enough, this past week thousands of Indigenous peoples, nearly every First Nations chiefs organization, and the Manitoba Metis Federation staged numerous protests and demanded Lagimodiere and Premier Brian Pallister resign — or at least further address — the government’s relationship with Indigenous peoples in this province.
Meanwhile, McLaughlin seems has taken control of Indigenous Affairs.
While McLaughlin has decades of government experience as a bureaucrat and Conservative strategist, he doesn’t have much experience leading on Indigenous issues either.
So, in the end, the government’s new agenda on reconciliation will be to invite, listen and learn — but it may just be no one will show up to talk to them.
Niigaan Sinclair is Anishinaabe and is a columnist at the Winnipeg Free Press.