GLADSTONE — Whatever Eileen Clarke decides, she has plenty of support in her hometown where, it seems, most residents are willing to stand beside her.
The Progressive Conservative MLA for Agassiz resigned her cabinet post as Premier Brian Pallister's minister of Indigenous and northern relations a week ago, two days after he ignited a firestorm with remarks defending European settlers' actions both before and after Confederation.
Outraged Indigenous leaders denounced Pallister's comments as racist and historically inaccurate.
On Thursday, Clarke issued a statement to the media and posted on Facebook explaining her decision to leave cabinet "where I felt my voice and others are not being heard."
"Strong leadership is required to heal.... Inappropriate words and actions can be very damaging," she wrote.
Gladstone resident John Lackey said he was "pleasantly surprised" by the decision made by the town's former mayor, someone he's known his entire life.
"I thought she and Brian (Pallister) were closer in ideology," he said Friday.
Lackey said he and Clarke were neighbours growing up, he knew her parents well and worked with her husband for a time.
Lackey, who was taking slight refuge from the sweltering heat under some trees near the local bakery along with friend Leon Bjarnarson, said it would be difficult to find anyone among the town's 900 or so residents who would take issue with Clarke’s act of dissent.
"I would say, on Facebook, I haven’t seen one negative comment about her stepping down," he said. "It’s all been positive, everyone’s proud of her."
Clarke, who opened a gift shop at the age of 18, still lives in Gladstone, where she served as mayor from 2008 until 2016.
Lackey described her time as mayor as "kind of quiet," noting that there had been some friction between her and some in the community regarding how to raise funds for a community hall years prior, but he didn’t hold it against her.
"I’m kind of glad that she did step down in that way," Bjarnarson said. "She stood up for Indigenous people."
Lackey said the premier damaged what Clarke had spent the past five years doing.
"Pallister’s remarks... regarding how settlers came here to build, not destroy — well that, to me, that was really a slap in the face,"he said. "I thought it really was demeaning all the work Eileen had put toward building trust."
Clarke’s decision "bears witness to her integrity," he added.
Two women inside the Gladstone Bakery and Eatery who didn't want their names published, said their MLA is someone who took on local projects as mayor wholeheartedly and clearly enjoys public service.
The women — one who has lived in the area for 68 years and the other, 55 years — said Clarke has a long track record of making the right choices.
"She worked hard to get where she is, and then to have a slap in the face from (Pallister)..." one said.
Clarke was also active in the Association of Manitoba Municipalities while she was in the mayor's chair. At one point, the NDP provincial government was amalgamating municipalities, especially those with fewer than 1,000 residents.
Clarke jumped in a golf cart and drove around town counting people to protect the town's interests.
"She knew from living in the community that they had slightly more than that, so she personally, as the mayor, drove around the municipality to count people," recalled Association of Manitoba Municipalities executive director Denys Volkov.
"That image stuck with me, as somebody who cares so much about the community that she was willing to do this. It's just admirable."
Former AMM president Doug Dobrowolski said Clarke threw herself into looking for solutions to problems.
"It's in her blood," he said.
It makes her decision to leave cabinet confounding, given that she was enthusiastic about the file and improving the lives of Indigenous people, he said.
"I can't answer for her, but obviously she must have played a number of scenarios in her head, and this is the one that was the best for her."
Volkov said he expects she'll have a continued role in public life.
"She's an amazing person and she's loved by many, across the province," he said.
Gladstone mayor Scott Kinley said he had nothing but respect for Clarke, but added he believed it would be "irresponsible" to speak on the issue without hearing from both sides.
— with files from Dylan Robertson
Malak Abas is a reporter for the Winnipeg Free Press.