In a rare act of dissent, MLA Eileen Clarke has resigned as Manitoba's Indigenous and northern affairs minister to protest Premier Brian Pallister's recent comments praising colonial settlers.

In a rare act of dissent, MLA Eileen Clarke has resigned as Manitoba's Indigenous and northern affairs minister to protest Premier Brian Pallister's recent comments praising colonial settlers.

Government sources said Clarke surprised the premier and his senior staff with her decision last Friday. The sources said she is expected to remain as MLA for Agassiz for the time being, and has not made a decision on running in the next election.

Clarke has not said much publicly about her decision to leave cabinet. The Canadian Press reported that she would not discuss her decision Wednesday out of respect for the Assembly of Manitoba Chiefs, which is in the process of electing a new grand chief.

At a Wednesday afternoon news conference on the easing of pandemic restrictions, Pallister had nothing but praise for Clarke, but refused to disclose any reasons she may have given him for leaving cabinet. He repeatedly refused to apologize for his comments last week.

"I have nothing but respect and admiration for Eileen Clarke," the premier said.

MIKAELA MACKENZIE / WINNIPEG FREE PRESS FILES </p><p>Indigenous and Northern Affairs Minister Eileen Clarke has resigned from cabinet. </p>

MIKAELA MACKENZIE / WINNIPEG FREE PRESS FILES

Indigenous and Northern Affairs Minister Eileen Clarke has resigned from cabinet.

Following the news conference, Pallister's office confirmed there would be a cabinet shuffle Thursday to fill the vacancy left by Clarke.

Clarke's relative silence on her resignation did not stop others — including members of her own party and Indigenous leaders — from expressing their support for her and disappointment over her decision.

Notable quotes

"It is very unfortunate that the approach and comments of the premier towards First Nations, Métis and Inuit peoples has made Ms. Clarke’s job intolerable, but it is indicative of the poor relationship that the premier has with the original and Treaty peoples of Manitoba."

— Long Plain Chief Dennis Meeches, a spokesman for Treaty One Nation

"It is very unfortunate that the approach and comments of the premier towards First Nations, Métis and Inuit peoples has made Ms. Clarke’s job intolerable, but it is indicative of the poor relationship that the premier has with the original and Treaty peoples of Manitoba."

— Long Plain Chief Dennis Meeches, a spokesman for Treaty One Nation

"While I am disappointed with her resignation, I understand the circumstance, and we commend her for this honourable decision in light of recent events."

Assembly of Manitoba Chiefs Interim Grand Chief Leroy Constant

"It is disappointing, yet understandable, that Eileen would resign from her position. This is an act of integrity. It must have been difficult to move forward with any goals connected to reconciliation given the challenging environment Eileen Clarke was working within."

Manitoba Keewatinowi Okimakanak Grand Chief Garrison Settee

"We heard Mr. Pallister loud and clear in the press conference today. He said he stands by his comments, his racist comments about Indigenous peoples last week. So now I think the question is, for everyone remaining (a) PC cabinet minister: Do you stand by Mr. Pallister's racist comments? Or do you agree with Minister Clarke?

NDP Leader Wab Kinew

"Eileen Clarke was put in an impossible position, because she could not do her job. I'm certain she's not the only minister who's in that position. This is essentially a crisis of confidence in the leader."

Liberal Leader Dougald Lamont

"Numerous comments by the premier with respect to Indigenous peoples over the years… have aggravated our efforts to move forward with reconciliation, and have been viewed as divisive by Indigenous leaders that I've spoken with."

Winnipeg Mayor Brian Bowman

— Dan Lett, with files from Dylan Robertson and Joyanne Pursaga

David Chartrand, president of the Manitoba Metis Federation, said he maintained a close working relationship with Clarke even though he and Pallister sparred bitterly over Métis land entitlements and other compensation agreements.

Chartrand said in private conversation, Clarke was brutally honest about how frustrated she was serving as the chief liaison with Indigenous people within a government that is largely perceived as anti-Indigenous.

"I applaud her for what she's doing," he told the Free Press. "She was clearly frustrated. She told me, I don't know how many times, 'David, be patient. (Pallister) will be gone soon and things will change for the better.' But she also told me she didn't know how much longer she could put up with the premier."

Chartrand said he thought so highly of Clarke, he invited her to address the MMF Assembly in 2019 even as he fought openly with Pallister.

"Eileen Clarke is in no way the bad guy in this story," he said. "She has taken a lot of bullets for this premier. In resigning, she is showing true leadership."

David Chartrand said in private conversation, Clarke was brutally honest about how frustrated she was serving as the chief liaison with Indigenous people within a government that is largely perceived as anti-Indigenous.

MIKAELA MACKENZIE / WINNIPEG FREE PRESS

David Chartrand said in private conversation, Clarke was brutally honest about how frustrated she was serving as the chief liaison with Indigenous people within a government that is largely perceived as anti-Indigenous.

Although it is unclear whether Clarke will ever speak openly about her reasons for leaving, multiple senior sources in government and in the Tory party said she made it abundantly clear to the premier that his recent statements made her job as the government's chief liaison with Indigenous people "completely impossible."

A shuffle in cabinet

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Premier Brian Pallister will announce changes to his cabinet Thursday following Eileen Clarke's resignation as minister of Indigenous and northern affairs.

A swearing-in ceremony will take place at 10 a.m., followed by a press conference at the legislature an hour later.

The premier will need to fill Clarke’s role, and might make other changes to his ministry.

Opposition leaders were skeptical another minister could advance Indigenous relations.

“I don't want to prejudice any sort of relationship-building that can happen, but I think it's going to be pretty tough with this premier and this party in power to make any progress on reconciliation,” said NDP Opposition Leader Wab Kinew.

“There are good people in every party," said Liberal Leader Dougald Lamont. "The real problem is the premier and his statements."

— Dylan Robertson

"What was she supposed to do after the premier said those things?" said one senior Tory source. "I mean, her job was always difficult but after that, how was she supposed to talk to Indigenous people when you've got a premier that is trying to rewrite history?"

Last week, in response to protests at the legislature that damaged statues of Queen Elizabeth and Queen Victoria, Pallister defended European settlers as people who came to Canada to build a new life, with no deliberate attempt to destroy the lives of Indigenous peoples.

"The people who came here, to this country before it was a country, and since, didn’t come here to destroy anything — they came here to build," the premier said at a news conference.

The remarks were unanimously denounced by Indigenous leaders, allies and historians as a gross manipulation of history and an insult to residential school survivors and their families. The Assembly of Manitoba Chiefs described Pallister's comments as "the worst kind of racist dog-whistling imaginable."

Clarke's departure stands as an unprecedented act of dissent in the ranks of the Pallister government.

For the most part, the premier has ruled over cabinet and caucus with a proverbial iron fist that has suppressed even the slightest hint of dissent. This united front has remained intact even as the premier brought controversy and dishonour to his government with controversial actions and statements that have significantly undermined both his personal popularity and that of his party.

"What was she supposed to do after the premier said those things? I mean, her job was always difficult but after that, how was she supposed to talk to Indigenous people when you've got a premier that is trying to rewrite history?" – Senior Tory source

The Progressive Conservative party — both elected and non-elected members — are waiting patiently for Pallister to confirm a timetable for his own retirement; he has strongly hinted he will not run in the next election but he has been maddeningly coy about exactly when he will step aside.

That ambiguity has weighed heavily on all the MLAs in the Tory caucus, particularly since support for Pallister and his government has plummeted in recent months thanks to his ruthless fiscal austerity and a profoundly botched pandemic response that triggered some of the worst COVID-19 outbreaks on the continent.

Not surprisingly, the most recent Free Press-Probe Research poll showed a precipitous drop in support for Pallister and his party. If those numbers were to hold until the next election, it would open the door to a NDP majority government.

Although there is no indication yet that a flood of MLAs or ministers have been encouraged to publicly express their dissent, there have beensome obvious shows of sympathy for Clarke that would have been unthinkable only a few weeks ago.

Tory MLA Shannon Martin (McPhillips) tweeted out support for Clarke that strongly suggested he thought Pallister left her with no other decision but to step down.

"Nothing but respect for my friend & colleague @Min_E_Clarke," Martin wrote Wednesday morning. "She has been a tireless advocate for reconciliation & her efforts were noticed & appreciated by First Nations. Shitty that it's come to this, but her decision is understandable."

"Nothing but respect for my friend & colleague @Min_E_Clarke... She has been a tireless advocate for reconciliation & her efforts were noticed & appreciated by First Nations. Shitty that it's come to this, but her decision is understandable." – Tory MLA Shannon Martin tweet

Martin was joined by former Pallister senior political staffers Phil Houde and Chisholm Pothier, who both similarly celebrated Clarke's work as a cabinet minister. Those sentiments were echoed by David Asper, a powerful party supporter who noted in a tweet that Clarke's actions showed "clarity and courage."

First elected to the legislative assembly in 2016 and re-elected in 2019, she has held the post as Indigenous and northern affairs minister since the Tories were returned to power.

However, despite being relatively new to provincial politics, Clarke brought with her a wealth of experience at the municipal level of government.

Clarke's departure stands as an unprecedented act of dissent in the ranks of the Pallister government.

RUTH BONNEVILLE / FREE PRESS FILES

Clarke's departure stands as an unprecedented act of dissent in the ranks of the Pallister government.

Recruited personally by Pallister to join his team for the 2016 election, Clarke served as mayor of Gladstone for eight years and sat on the executive of the Association of Manitoba Municipalities.

Although she has kept a relatively low profile in cabinet, Clarke is widely respected by her colleagues for her work as a steady and competent minister who worked hard to build relationships with Indigenous leaders and organizations, a job made increasingly difficult by Pallister's frequent and controversial outbursts.

Last week's incident was hardly the first time that he has been criticized for racist or inappropriate comments about Indigenous people.

In the early days of the national vaccine campaign, he took flak for suggesting that the federal government was putting non-Indigenous Manitobans at risk by prioritizing vaccine shipments for Indigenous citizens. It was a comment that many critics believed would cause deep and emotional rifts between Indigenous and non-Indigenous people in the province.

One year ago, Pallister became embroiled in controversy when it was reported he was among a handful of premiers who rejected the use of the term "systemic racism" in a joint statement by first ministers denouncing discrimination in all forms.

— with files from Dylan Robertson

dan.lett@freepress.mb.ca

Dan Lett

Dan Lett
Columnist

Born and raised in and around Toronto, Dan Lett came to Winnipeg in 1986, less than a year out of journalism school with a lifelong dream to be a newspaper reporter.

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