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Manitoba Premier Brian Pallister is facing criticism after he responded to the vandalism of statues of Queen Elizabeth II and Queen Victoria by saying that Canada has always been a nation dedicated to building.David Lipnowski/The Canadian Press

Manitoba’s minister of Indigenous and Northern Relations has resigned, a surprise departure that followed comments from Premier Brian Pallister, after demonstrators toppled statues of Queen Elizabeth II and Queen Victoria, that European settlers came to Canada to build up communities rather than destroy things.

Eileen Clarke stepped down from cabinet on July 9, her constituency office confirmed on Wednesday. She had held the post since the Progressive Conservatives were elected in 2016. Ms. Clarke will remain in the legislature, and Mr. Pallister told reporters she will stay in the PC caucus.

In a statement, Ms. Clarke declined to comment out of “respect” for the Assembly of Manitoba Chiefs’ election on Wednesday. Mr. Pallister refused to elaborate on what Ms. Clarke told him when she resigned, arguing it was a personal issue. After news of Ms. Clarke’s departure, the government said it would unveil a new cabinet on Thursday. Mr. Pallister’s office declined to clarify whether the shuffle was in the works before Ms. Clarke’s resignation.

Manitoba Premier says statues torn down by protesters will be rebuilt

On Canada Day, people demonstrating in response to the deaths of Indigenous children at residential schools tore down statues on Manitoba’s legislative grounds. They beheaded Queen Victoria’s likeness; her head was recovered the next day from the Assiniboine River. Queen Elizabeth’s statue was pulled down but not subject to the same damage. Mr. Pallister said the statues would be replaced, although Queen Victoria’s may be moved and the wording that accompanies it may be updated.

Mr. Pallister, in response to the vandalism, said last week that Canada has always been a nation dedicated to building.

“The people who came here to this country ... didn’t come here to destroy anything. They came here to build,” he said.

“They came to build better ... and they built farms, and they built businesses, and they built communities and churches, too.”

Critics said Mr. Pallister’s statements romanticize and celebrate colonial policies that displaced First Nations. Mr. Pallister reiterated his position on Wednesday.

“I’ll stand by my comments,” he said. “I continue to advocate that we build and not destroy, and I’ll continue to say that we can work together, and when we do, we can accomplish great things.”

The Premier touted examples of his government’s support for Indigenous people, such as “Freedom Road,” which connects Shoal Lake 40 First Nation to the mainland.

“When we work together productively, and that’s what we’re after, then we can address the real issues of reconciliation that Indigenous people want. They want equality of opportunity.”

Leroy Constant, the interim Grand Chief of the Assembly of Manitoba Chiefs, indicated Mr. Pallister’s fraught relationship with Indigenous peoples contributed to Ms. Clarke’s resignation.

“While I am disappointed with her resignation, I understand the circumstance, and we commend her for this honourable decision in light of recent events,” Mr. Constant said in a statement. “Ms. Clarke has had a difficult job over the last several years, a job that is difficult at the best of times; however, the difficulty has been exacerbated recently by a tense First Nations’ relationship with the Premier, a global pandemic and the province’s difficult journey of truth and reconciliation with First Nations peoples in this province.”

Wab Kinew, the leader of Manitoba’s New Democratic Party, said Ms. Clarke’s resignation is more about internal Tory politics than personal principles. He noted Manitoba has struggled throughout the coronavirus pandemic and is, for example, the only province that had to ship COVID-19 patients in need of intensive care to other provinces.

“The Premier’s comments last week were very divisive, unacceptable, and they were racist. But, at the same time, this cabinet and this caucus has stood by him through some terrible things, including things that resulted in the loss of life of Manitobans.”

In December, Mr. Pallister said Ottawa’s plan to earmark COVID-19 vaccine for Indigenous peoples while distributing doses based on total provincial population amounted to “short-changing” his jurisdiction because of its large Indigenous population.

“This puts Manitobans at the back of the line. This hurts Manitobans, to put it mildly,” he said at the time.

Manitoba Senator Marilou McPhedran said she has dealt with Ms. Clarke over the years and was impressed from the beginning by what appeared to be a sincere commitment to reconciliation and honesty.

“I wasn’t surprised to see that she had made this decision,” the senator said in an interview, adding she hopes Ms. Clarke continues to serve as a member of the Legislative Assembly.

“The fact that she’s not prepared to speak out against her party or against the Premier is part of being a thoughtful politician. I think that taking the action that she has with a resignation, which is a big deal, should be understood and should be interpreted as an act of reconciliation and an act of alliance. I hope that’s the case.”

With a report from The Canadian Press

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