July 8, 2020

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Pallister denies blocking the term 'systemic racism' from being used in premiers' statement

Premier Brian Pallister says he did not speak on the call in favour of, or in opposition to, using the term and says reports about it are false. (Jesse Boily / Winnipeg Free Press)

Premier Brian Pallister says he did not speak on the call in favour of, or in opposition to, using the term and says reports about it are false. (Jesse Boily / Winnipeg Free Press)

OTTAWA — Manitoba Premier Brian Pallister is disputing media reports that he helped block the term "systemic racism" from being used in a joint premiers' statement, but declined to offer his definition of that phrase Tuesday.

"Being essentially accused of being a racist in an article in a newspaper that I used to have such respect for is hurtful, and it's wrong," Pallister said Tuesday in response to a Free Press article. He spoke out during a fiscal update at the Manitoba legislature.

Last week, Prime Minister Justin Trudeau said he wasn’t able to get consensus from premiers on including the words "systemic racism" in a joint, 318-word statement on anti-racism.

The prime minister refused to point out which provinces held back during the Thursday phone call, but the Quebec newspaper Le Devoir reported that an unnamed source said Pallister wanted to leave out the word "systemic."

Pallister insisted Tuesday he did not speak on the call in favour of, or in opposition to, using that word, calling it a "false story" with an erroneous source.

Yet an official familiar with the situation, who was not authorized to speak with media, said Manitoba was hesitant to use the term when officials from provinces cobbled together the statement under the instruction of their premiers.

On Monday, Pallister’s office would not clarify what happened, saying it would violate confidentiality around Trudeau’s call with the premiers, despite his counterparts from Alberta and Saskatchewan telling media they approved of using the word.

Quebec had publicly opposed using the word "systemic." However, it's not only the province; when Trudeau spoke in French last week, he said provinces — plural — had opted against the phrasing.

On Monday, Premier Brian Pallister’s office would not clarify what happened, saying it would violate confidentiality around Trudeau’s call with the premiers. (Jesse Boily / Winnipeg Free Press)

On Monday, Premier Brian Pallister’s office would not clarify what happened, saying it would violate confidentiality around Trudeau’s call with the premiers. (Jesse Boily / Winnipeg Free Press)

On Tuesday, the premier himself said he didn’t oppose including the phrase; he didn’t say if he supported it.

When asked to define systemic racism — and whether it exists in Manitoba, — the premier instead said his government had put more minorities and Indigenous people into public positions and boosted their economic opportunity.

"Actions matter at least as much as adjectives," Pallister said.

NDP Leader Wab Kinew suggested the premier might be uncomfortable using the term "systemic" racism, for fear of being misunderstood.

"I found it quite disappointing that Mr. Pallister declined to define systemic racism as he sees it, or to admit there’s a problem here in Manitoba," Kinew told reporters.

"Insofar as a leader refuses to say the words out loud or to expound on the ideas and define an issue like systemic racism, they are showing a lack of consideration for this moment that we’re in."

Anti-racism advocates have argued in recent weeks it’s important for public institutions to fess up to systemic racism and use that term, as it acknowledges institutions have structures that prevent equality, instead of just a few bad apples.

A year ago, Pallister had loudly pushed against Quebec Bill 21, which forbids promotions and new hirings for teachers, judges and police officers who wear hijabs, turbans and kippas.

— with files from Carol Sanders

dylan.robertson@freepress.mb.ca

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