Opinion

Nobody is quite sure when Premier Brian Pallister is going to appear again in public but when he does, it's going to make for a seminal moment in his political career.

Nobody is quite sure when Premier Brian Pallister is going to appear again in public but when he does, it's going to make for a seminal moment in his political career.

In case you hadn't noticed, Pallister has maintained an uncharacteristic silence for nearly a week now. His last words in public were at a news conference on July 15 to announce changes to cabinet; since then, he's been a ghost.

The back-office minions who maintain his Twitter account have retweeted some stuff in the past few days, but nothing from the premier has been posted since July 16. And according to his political staff, there is nothing scheduled for the remainder of this week.

Whenever he does resurface, Pallister can expect to face some tough questions about events that have taken place in his absence — and what they say about his political future.

To recap, the trouble started in earnest on July 7 when Pallister first suggested colonial settlers to Manitoba did not come here to destroy Indigenous people but to build a new life for themselves. His comments, in response to questions about the vandalism of statues on the legislative grounds on Canada Day, were correctly assailed as the worst kind of racist, revisionist history.

Things got considerably worse on July 14, when the Free Press reported Indigenous and Northern Affairs Minister Eileen Clarke was resigning her post in protest over Pallister's comments on colonial settlers.

Premier Brian Pallister was last seen in public on July 15. (Mike Deal / Winnipeg Free Press files)

Premier Brian Pallister was last seen in public on July 15. (Mike Deal / Winnipeg Free Press files)

In an attempt to change the narrative, Pallister moved quickly to appoint a replacement for Clarke. Backbench MLA Alan Lagimodiere, who is Métis but never claimed an affinity with Indigenous culture, stepped into the breach.

Unfortunately, at his first news conference as a cabinet minister, Lagimodiere sparked a new controversy when he defended the architects and stewards of the residential school system as well-meaning humanitarians who were more interested in training Indigenous children to join Canadian society than eradicating a culture.

By the time Lagimodiere had indulged in his act of political hara-kiri, Pallister was already gone to join a conference call of some sort. Even with Lagimodiere's cabinet career hanging by a thread, the premier did not make himself available to the media on Friday and has been a no-show throughout this week, which is odd when you consider what's been going on.

Shortly after, several MLAs and ministers — including Families Minister Rochelle Squires and Conservation and Climate Minister Sarah Guillemard — made statements or social media posts that were critical of the comments made by Pallister and Lagimodiere.

And on Monday, as Lagimodiere was out-performing a concerted mea culpa tour, Manitoba Indigenous leaders came to the front steps of the legislature to call for Pallister's resignation.

Given all that, it's not hard to understand why opposition parties and journalists can hardly wait for Pallister to make his next public appearance.

When that will be is anyone's guess. And that raises an important question: could it be that for the first time really in his career as a first minister, Pallister has accepted that discretion is the better part of valour? If that's the case, it would mark a significant departure from past practice.

MLA Alan Lagimodiere sparked a new controversy when he defended the architects and stewards of the residential school system. (Mike Deal / Winnipeg Free Press files)

MLA Alan Lagimodiere sparked a new controversy when he defended the architects and stewards of the residential school system. (Mike Deal / Winnipeg Free Press files)

In his five-plus years in office, Pallister has repeatedly shown that when he is attacked by an opposition MLA or a journalist, he manufactures excuses to get in front of the microphones.

Journalists know by now that media advisories on topics such as "inter-provincial trade" are code for 'the premier wants to lash out at someone or something.' That's not a criticism; good journalists want as much face time with a premier as possible, and Pallister's newsers so often make for great headlines, even if they are not the headlines he wanted.

In this instance, however, almost no one thinks Pallister's next news conference will be notable for its entertainment value. At this moment, the very future of his leadership is at stake.

If he returns to room 68B — the legislative building news conference theatre — and refuses to apologize for his own statements while defending what Lagimodiere said, you can bet the tiny cracks in the veneer of his leadership will grow significantly more pronounced.

It's hard to see how he's going to fix this without a huge act of contrition. Although Pallister has never personally suggested a residential school program was honourable in its intent, it's not hard to see Lagimodiere's statements as consistent with the premier's own revisionist thinking on things like settlement.

Pallister is at a crossroads. His ignorance of the complexities of Indigenous issues have shaken his government to its core, and put the premier on the edge of an abyss.

At that next news conference, whenever it is, he will have a choice. Step back and live to fight another day; or step forward into an early retirement.

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.

   Read full biography
   Sign up for Dan Lett’s email newsletter, Not for Attribution