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Alan Lagimodiere, left, Manitoba's minister for Indigenous reconciliation and northern relations, is confronted by Opposition NDP Leader Wab Kinew, right, shortly after being sworn in to cabinet at the Manitoba legislature in Winnipeg on July 15, 2021.

Steve Lambert/The Canadian Press

Manitoba’s new minister overseeing Indigenous relations defended Canada’s residential-school system minutes after he was sworn into cabinet, prompting a new round of criticism directed towards the Progressive Conservative government.

Premier Brian Pallister on Thursday named Alan Lagimodiere, who is Métis, as the Minister for Indigenous Reconciliation and Northern Relations. The appointment followed revelations Wednesday of a surprise resignation by Mr. Lagimodiere’s predecessor. That departure, which happened July 9 but was not revealed by the province, came after Mr. Pallister said European settlers came to what is now Canada to build communities, rather than destroy things.

Mr. Lagimodiere said Thursday that as an Indigenous man, he heard stories about residential schools his entire life. He said he thinks the people responsible for the institutions believed they were “doing the right thing” at the time.

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Asked whether those responsible were trying to destroy Indigenous lives, communities, culture and language – even if they believed it was the right thing to do – the minister stood firm.

“The residential-school system was designed to take Indigenous children and give them the skills and abilities they would need to fit into society as it moved forward,” Mr. Lagimodiere told reporters at the news conference in the legislature.

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Mr. Lagimodiere’s statements prompted a confrontation with Manitoba’s Opposition Leader and came as residential-school survivors in British Columbia shared stories of being torn from their families and the abuse they suffered at the institution. The survivors were part of an event on Thursday held by the Tk’emlúps te Secwépemc, where the First Nation provided technical details related to its ground-penetrating radar search for unmarked graves. The nation said in May that it identified about 215 unmarked graves at the site of the former Kamloops residential school. Other Indigenous communities have since made similar announcements or are planning their own searches.

New Democratic Party Leader Wab Kinew, who was an honorary witness for the Truth and Reconciliation Commission, interrupted Mr. Lagimodiere’s news conference to condemn the new minister’s remarks.

“I cannot accept you saying what you just said about residential schools. It was the expressed intent of residential schools to ‘kill the Indian in the child,’” Mr. Kinew said. “It is not cultural relativism, it is not revisionist history, for us to say that was wrong.”

He noted there were people who spoke against the system at the time.

Mr. Lagimodiere, in turn, said he looked forward to working with Mr. Kinew, who is also Indigenous. The NDP Leader said he would give the new minister a chance, but told him, “You can’t be out here defending residential schools if you want to work with Indigenous communities.”

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Shortly afterwards, Mr. Lagimodiere released a statement on social media, saying he “misspoke.”

“As an Indigenous Manitoban, I sincerely believe that residential schools were tragic and were designed to assimilate Indigenous children and eradicate Indigenous culture. That was wrong then, and it is wrong now,” the statement said.

“I have been entrusted with the important responsibility of advancing reconciliation on behalf of all Manitobans, including addressing the tragic legacy of residential schools. That is a goal I have always been and remain deeply committed to. The journey of listening and healing is one that we all must walk together, and I am proud to be a part of it.”

Mr. Lagimodiere’s office said he was not available to comment.

Arlen Dumas, who on Wednesday was re-elected as the Grand Chief of the Assembly of Manitoba Chiefs, said that while Mr. Lagimodiere’s remarks were “unforgivable,” he will be able to work with the new minister should the government listen to what Indigenous people have to say.

“Anyone who’s been paying attention to what has happened over the past few weeks in this country is well aware of the tragedy of residential schools,” he said.

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Need to talk with someone? Contact the national Indian Residential School Crisis Line: 1-866-925-4419.

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