It’s Saturday morning and the call comes from a phone number I don’t recognize.
"Hello, is this Niigaan Sinclair?" a voice asks. "It’s Alan Lagimodiere."
It’s not often I get a cabinet minister phoning me, never mind Manitoba’s newly-minted minister of Indigenous reconciliation and northern relations — and the man I just wrote a highly critical column about in that morning’s newspaper.
In that Free Press column, I wrote that, while Lagimodiere is a nice man I’ve known for years, he is "woefully unprepared to be minister for Indigenous relations, as evidenced by his factually incorrect, preposterous and offensive comments surrounding residential schools just minutes after being inserted into the role by Premier Brian Pallister."
I’m used to positive and negative comments on things I write but this call is different.
"I want to apologize to you personally for things I said last week. The residential school system was genocide and everything about it was wrong. I want you to know I know that," Lagimodiere says.
He then listed off reasons why he personally condemns residential schools, from the arresting of First Nations parents to the rampant starvation, sickness, and abuse that resulted in the deaths of thousands of children. He also talked about how the legacies of residential schools exist in the poverty, trauma, and violence Indigenous peoples experience today.
At times, Lagimodiere sounded rehearsed, but also careful, detailed, and precise. It’s too bad he didn’t say any of this in last Thursday’s press conference because, if he did, he would have impressed.
Of course, I’m aware the new minister has apologized and retracted his statements, then issuing a press release last Friday that he will "commit to a journey of healing that requires listening, learning, and creating understanding" by "reaching out to Indigenous leaders to begin this important dialogue and to chart a path forward."
I also know this is basic mistake management strategy in politics: apologize, promise to do better, and "reach out."
I just had no idea I was a person he would reach out to. I’m certainly not someone politicians apologize to and I’m no chief.
Lagimodiere and I then talked for about fifteen minutes. He shared with me a number of private, intimate things that involved his education, his upbringing, and why he had the perspective he shared last week — one he now knows was sorely lacking.
At no time did he ask me to go “off the record” even though some of the things he shared were clearly hard for him to talk about. The call validated a point in my column when I said Lagimodiere has precisely the same kind of poor education surrounding residential schools that most Canadians do.
At no time did he ask me to go "off the record" even though some of the things he shared were clearly hard for him to talk about.
The call validated a point in my column when I said Lagimodiere has precisely the same kind of poor education surrounding residential schools that most Canadians do.
He also is an Indigenous person ignorant of some of his own history, another outcome Canada has produced.
I told him that he should have known better if he was going to take on this role — and he accepted my comments with a remarkable tone of humility.
I also told him he needed to do a whole lot more than phone calls — and he agreed.
We then talked policy and ways the government could enact the Truth and Reconciliation Commission’s calls to action.
For someone not used to seeing a whole lot of humility in the government of Brian Pallister, the Saturday morning conversation was a notable and unexpected experience.
It reminded me of NDP Leader Wab Kinew’s statement as he confronted Lagimodiere: "We will give you a chance, but you can’t be out here defending residential schools if you want to work with Indigenous communities."
Those words have got to be one of the most Indigenous statements ever said in Canadian politics.
Indigenous peoples are always giving people who make mistakes second chances. It comes from an ethic of community; a principle that we all have to find a way to live with one another eventually and no matter the disagreement.
For evidence, look at how the chiefs of Manitoba just re-elected Arlen Dumas grand chief of the Assembly of Manitoba Chiefs. In a close vote over Sheila North (where more chiefs voted against him during the first ballot), Dumas was given a very thin mandate to repair the controversies that plagued his first time around.
Lagimodiere has a second chance now, and it’s clear he can learn a lot over a few days. He is a veterinarian after all, so studying is not likely a problem.
Apparently, he can listen too. It takes guts to admit when you’re wrong and face the consequences of your actions.
And I was only one of his phone calls. He told me he was going to spend all weekend calling chiefs and other Indigenous peoples impacted by his comments.
He’ll be at it longer than that. More than a few Indigenous leaders have announced they won’t be taking his calls. He’s got a lot more trust to build before he can help "chart a path forward."
Lagimodiere has his next media availability on Tuesday.
What he’s willing to share with the public via reporters will go a long way to prove whether he deserves this second chance or he will have the shortest ministerial term in Manitoba’s history.
Niigaan Sinclair is Anishinaabe and is a columnist at the Winnipeg Free Press.