April 10, 2020

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Manitoba outlet project real test of reconciliation

Opinion

Manitoba Premier Brian Pallister says reconciliation is alive and well in the province, pointing to a proposed plan to transfer its northern transportation assets to First Nations ownership.

The real test for the Pallister government on reconciliation with First Nations, however, will be whether the province can come to an agreement with Indigenous leaders on the Lake Manitoba/Lake St. Martin outlet project. So far, those relations have been strained.

On Thursday, Pallister told a room full of chiefs, politicians and staff attending a signing ceremony at the Manitoba legislature he was watching the evening news and saw a sign at one of the railway blockades in Eastern Canada that read: "Reconciliation is dead."

That’s not the case in Manitoba, the premier said. "Reconciliation in Manitoba is alive and kicking."

There was plenty of good will in the room to support Pallister’s claim.

(From left) Elder Francis, AMC Grand Chief Arlen Dumas, Premier Brian Pallister, Manitoba Keewatinowi Okimakanak Grand Chief Garrison Settee, Mathias Colomb Cree Nation Chief Lorna Bighetty, War Lake FN Chief Betsy Kennedy laugh prior to the start of the signing ceremony to formalize an agreement on the transfer of the province’s northern airports and marine operations to First Nations ownership and operation, Thursday morning in the Manitoba Legislative building.

MIKE DEAL / WINNIPEG FREE PRESS

(From left) Elder Francis, AMC Grand Chief Arlen Dumas, Premier Brian Pallister, Manitoba Keewatinowi Okimakanak Grand Chief Garrison Settee, Mathias Colomb Cree Nation Chief Lorna Bighetty, War Lake FN Chief Betsy Kennedy laugh prior to the start of the signing ceremony to formalize an agreement on the transfer of the province’s northern airports and marine operations to First Nations ownership and operation, Thursday morning in the Manitoba Legislative building.

Grand Chief Arlen Dumas of the Assembly of Manitoba Chiefs (who got a hug from Pallister in front of cameras) was quick to praise the Tory premier for his government’s efforts to move ahead with the new memorandum of understanding. Under the agreement in principle, government and the AMC will discuss the possibility of transferring the province’s northern airports and marine operations to First Nations ownership and operation.

"When we want to talk about reconciliation, if you have people that are willing to listen and actually move forward with a sound model and a sound plan to take proper steps for the benefit of everybody, then you’re able to achieve things — and this is what this example was," Dumas told reporters.

"These sort of initiatives have been around for awhile, it’s just that people weren’t willing to listen."

Meanwhile, questions continue to linger about how well the Pallister government is listening to First Nations when it comes to the proposed Lake Manitoba and Lake St. Martin plan. The construction of two 23-kilometre outlets is designed to mitigate flooding by improving control over lake levels.

Meanwhile, questions continue to linger about how well the Pallister government is listening to First Nations when it comes to the proposed Lake Manitoba and Lake St. Martin plan. The construction of two 23–kilometre outlets is designed to mitigate flooding by improving control over lake levels.

Under federal regulations, the province must consult with all First Nations that may be affected by the project before it can proceed with construction. Several Indigenous communities have raised concerns about how the water basin transfers may affect water quality, levels, and fish stocks. Some have said the province has either not consulted them, or have only engaged in limited talks.

When asked Thursday about pipeline protests and rail blockades taking place in various parts of the country, Pallister said Canada has a "great" approval process, that gives everyone a voice in projects such as Manitoba’s flood mitigation plan.

"We have a process that’s respectful. We need to defend that process and we need to involve more people in the understanding of how that process can work," the premier said.

In the recent past, Pallister has complained Ottawa has "moved the goal posts" on the outlet project and placed unreasonable demands on Manitoba in meeting its obligations under the approval process.

“We have a process that’s respectful. We need to defend that process and we need to involve more people in the understanding of how that process can work.” — Brian Pallister

On Thursday, he said approval processes for natural resource projects must be respected by all parties, and reconciliation isn’t a "one-way street."

Yet, the province has failed to fulfill its own consultation obligations when it comes to the outlet project. There seems to be a double standard.

Dumas didn’t comment directly on the outlet issue. He said, generally, conflict arises when people stop listening.

That’s usually when the protests start.

"There’s always a solution, it’s just that people need to listen," said Dumas. "People need to take off their blinders and move off of their principled positions and truly listen to the First Nations who… do have solutions."

The premier said this week he plans to provide the media with evidence the province has met its obligations on the outlet project, including details on how it has consulted with First Nations.

Manitoba eagerly awaits that evidence. In the meantime, the reconciliation Pallister boasted about Thursday may not be quite as robust as he's letting on.

tom.brodbeck@freepress.mb.ca

Tom Brodbeck

Tom Brodbeck
Columnist

Tom has been covering Manitoba politics since the early 1990s and joined the Winnipeg Free Press news team in 2019.

Read full biography

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