David A. Robertson is a Swampy Cree author and graphic novelist based in Winnipeg.
In 1875, Icelanders were given land on the west shore of Lake Winnipeg, despite Indigenous people already living there. Through the resultant tension, John Ramsay, a Cree, saved dozens of settlers’ lives by teaching them how to ice-fish and hunt, and by providing meat during the winter months. He embodied the character of Indigenous people across Turtle Island: resilient, kind and forgiving.
Manitoba Premier Brian Pallister, whose wife is Icelandic, acknowledged this recently, stating that the Icelanders wouldn’t have survived without the support of Indigenous people. He has a grasp of history, but this makes his words and actions over the past five years seem like intentional acts of division and racism. How does he admit the significant contributions of Indigenous people in one breath, and perpetuate the “lazy Indian” stereotype in another?
“We need to equip all our citizens with more skills, but they need to dedicate themselves ... to building those skills,” he said on July 7 in a speech about the Canada Day protest that saw thousands walk to the legislature to honour Indigenous children who died at residential schools.
I met Mr. Pallister years ago at the legislature. My father and I passed him in the hallway, and he greeted us cordially. Dad, an avid basketball fan, went on to explain that he knew Mr. Pallister from his days playing for the Brandon Bobcats in the mid to late seventies. At six feet, eight inches, Mr. Pallister’s nickname was Big Pal, and he had, by all accounts, a killer skyhook.
In 2019, the year he passed away, Dad told me that he believed reconciliation was a simple act. It’s seeing through stereotypes we’ve been indoctrinated with, and understanding one another from a place of truth. He said that you have to communicate, and, most of all, you have to listen.
On June 16, 2017, Mr. Pallister went on a 160 km bike ride that he dubbed a “journey of reconciliation,” from the former site of Peguis First Nation in East Selkirk to where the community stands today. Unsurprisingly, after the kickoff, he didn’t meet with any Indigenous people during, or after, his “reconciliation” ride. His press secretary explained that he’d be resting when he got to the community, but he summoned the energy to attend two events en route, including a fundraiser held by a Progressive Conservative MLA. And the ride itself retraced the steps of Peguis First Nation’s forced removal – more retraumatizing than reconciliatory.
Since then, his “work” in the area of reconciliation has gotten progressively worse. That’s tough for a guy who called Indigenous night-hunting rights, which are protected under the Constitution, unfair, and that they were inciting a “race war.”
In December, 2020, Mr. Pallister whined about the fact that First Nations were getting prioritized in receiving COVID-19 vaccines, calling it, all together now, “unfair” to Manitobans. I suppose Indigenous people don’t count as Manitobans?
This sort of race-baiting is nothing new, but lately Big Pal’s dipped his toes into revisionist history. During the same speech where he intimated that Indigenous people were lazy, in a time of mourning and pain for Indigenous people, he suggested that the colonization of Canada was done with good intentions, that settlers didn’t come here to destroy anything. His rhetoric, and refusal to apologize for it, led to the resignations of PC-appointed board members and most notably, Eileen Clarke, Minister for Indigenous and Northern Relations.
Alan Lagimodiere, Ms. Clarke’s replacement, within minutes of being sworn in as Minister of Indigenous Reconciliation and Northern Relations, said those who ran residential schools believed “they were doing the right thing” and the system was “designed to take Indigenous children and give them the skills and abilities they would need to fit into society.”
It was a deeply offensive statement that prompted Manitoba NDP leader Wab Kinew to calmly interrupt Mr. Lagimodiere and provide an impromptu history lesson that should not have been necessary to deliver to somebody with the word “reconciliation” in their job title. The PC caucus, in a quickly deleted tweet, admonished Mr. Kinew as a bully. Mr. Kinew, who is an honorary witness for the Truth and Reconciliation Commission and an intergenerational survivor of the residential school system. It was very likely the final nail in the coffin for Mr. Pallister’s political career.
Mr. Pallister has done nothing to lead Manitobans on a path to reconciliation. He has not only broken a relationship between the provincial government and Indigenous people, he has shattered it, and there is a lot of work to be done in building back up what he has torn down.
The silver lining is that Big Pal, sooner than later, will tender his resignation. He’s spent a chunk of his tenure in Costa Rica. He’d do well to take one more “journey of reconciliation” that will do far more for this province than his last one. It’s about 6,000 kilometres long, and I hear it’s nice this time of year.
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