No sooner had Manitoba Premier Brian Pallister faced criticism Thursday from his outgoing Indigenous relations minister, his incoming minister landed in hot water for defending some of the intent behind residential schools.
“At the time … they thought they were doing the right thing. In retrospect, it’s easy to judge in the past,” Alan Lagimodiere, who is Metis, told reporters minutes after he was sworn in as minister of Indigenous reconciliation and northern relations.
“From my knowledge of it, the residential school system was designed to take Indigenous children and give them the kind of skills and abilities they would need to fit into society as it moves forward.”
Lagimodiere added he was saddened that it took so long for people to realize residential schools were not working and were wrong.
Opposition NDP Leader Wab Kinew, standing nearby, walked up to Lagimodiere and interrupted the news conference.
“It was the express intent of residential schools to kill the Indian in the child,” Kinew told Lagimodiere. “You can’t be out here defending residential schools if you want to work with Indigenous communities.”
Soon afterward, Lagimodiere took back his words and said he had misspoken.
“As an Indigenous Manitoban, I sincerely believe that residential schools were tragic and were designed to assimilate Indigenous children and eradicate Indigenous culture,” read a statement on Lagimodiere’s social media account.
“That was wrong then and it is wrong now.”
The confrontation was the latest fallout from comments made last week by Pallister after protesters toppled statues of Queen Victoria and Queen Elizabeth on the legislature grounds.
Pallister said people who came to Canada, before and after it was a country, came not to destroy things but to build up communities, churches and businesses.
Indigenous leaders criticized the comments, saying they downplayed the effects of colonialism.
Indigenous and Northern Relations Minister Eileen Clarke resigned her post soon afterward and was praised by First Nations leaders for having been open-minded and co-operative during her tenure.
In a prepared statement Thursday – her first comments since her resignation – Clarke said she and other cabinet ministers had often had their concerns ignored.
“I am hearing from many people across the province that they are disappointed with the representation they are getting at this time,” Clarke said in a prepared statement that did not mention Pallister by name. “I have spoken up on several issues but I feel my voice and other voices were not heard in cabinet.”
She declined interview requests and said she will retain her legislature seat.
A post on her Facebook page, however, went even further.
“Strong leadership is required to heal and bring our province and country together in harmony, it cannot be done by one individual. Inappropriate words and actions can be very damaging.”
Pallister defended his comments Thursday and said he had been misinterpreted. He said he did not mention colonialism in his original remarks or praise it in any way.
Pallister also said he would not say anything negative about Clarke, who he has known for decades, but rejected the idea that he doesn’t listen to people.
“I think that any suggestions or comments that she or anyone else has are heard on our team,” he said.
Pallister replaced Clarke Thursday in a small cabinet shuffle by promoting Lagimodiere from the backbenches and made some other minor changes to his inner circle.
He demoted Agriculture Minister Blaine Pedersen, who announced he is not seeking re-election in 2023.
Pallister promoted Jon Reyes from the backbenches to become minister of economic development. Former economic development minister Ralph Eichler moves to agriculture.
The Progressive Conservative caucus briefly criticized Kinew’s interruption of Lagimodiere’s introductory news conference.
“We are all committed to meaningful progress on reconciliation,” read a message posted to the Tory caucus Twitter account. “The political showmanship of storming into someone else’s news conference to bully a minister who was sworn in only 10 minutes earlier does nothing to advance that reconciliation.”
The tweet was quickly deleted.
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