Premier Heather Stefanson should begin to heal the rift with Indigenous people caused by Brian Pallister by explicitly denouncing his racially charged comments about colonialists meaning to do no harm, Manitoba's Grand Chief said Friday.
"Racists need to be held accountable, and if you're going to do that quietly, then that's not good enough," Arlen Dumas told the Free Press in a wide-ranging interview.
Dumas, who has led the Assembly of Manitoba Chiefs since 2017, said Stefanson isn't as attuned to Indigenous issues as her Progressive Conservative leadership rival Shelly Glover. But the premier could take her government from butting heads in court to helping First Nations overcome colonial structures, he said.
"What we need from the premier is to actually shake up the status quo," he said.
Stefanson was families minister from 2018 until early this year, at a time when Indigenous governments complained about being left out of the loop on foster-care reform.
As minister, she announced Manitoba would end the practice of apprehending newborns, known as birth alerts. Internal data shows a steep drop in the practice, but it's still happening; First Nations say it's due to gaps in programs for at-risk parents.
"The previous regime (of former premier Brian Pallister) was all about talking down to people, and not willing to move forward," Dumas said.
"The previous regime was all about talking down to people, and not willing to move forward." –Grand Chief Arlen Dumas
Stefanson has said she wants a new relationship with Indigenous people and takes advice from a council of Indigenous elders, one of whom offered a blessing at her swearing-in ceremony Tuesday.
"The discovery of unmarked graves on the sites of former residential schools has shaken our province to its core, prompting a necessary reflection on the sins of the past, and a renewed commitment to reconciliation," Stefanson said.
"Our government is committed to listening and learning from First Nations leaders, elders and Indigenous families as we advance reconciliation together."
Yet Dumas said Stefanson seemed to have a poor grasp of Indigenous issues and didn't propose any major ideas when they met during the leadership race, which ended with her victory last Saturday.
Glover is challenging the legitimacy of Stefanson's win, claiming there were voting irregularities in the election, conducted by the Progressive Conservative Party of Manitoba. A Court of Queen's Bench judge will hear arguments Nov. 19.
Glover understands Indigenous issues: grand chiefClick to Expand
Manitoba Grand Chief Arlen Dumas said Premier Heather Stefanson's opponent in the recent PC leadership race, Shelly Glover, has a better grasp of Indigenous issues.
Dumas sat down with both leadership candidates, and said only Glover apologized for remarks by former premier Brian Pallister that chiefs deemed to be racist.
He said he got to know Glover when he was chief of the northern Pukatawagan reserve, during the Harper government. Even before Glover was appointed heritage minister in 2013, Dumas said she was “quite instrumental” in connecting far-flung communities with decision-makers.
“Shelly Glover had no actual duty or responsibility as an MP from the south here, but she made it her effort to help facilitate discussions with ministers and different levels of government with me at the time.”
— Dylan Robertson
Stefanson has refused to publicly rebuke comments Pallister made in July, claiming that colonialist settlers had good intentions, which prompted Indigenous leaders to decry the entire PC government as racist.
"I think my voice has been heard behind the scenes," Stefanson said Aug. 18.
"That's a cop-out," Dumas said. "An earnest denunciation of racism is not flashy; it's the right thing. It's honest, it's true."
In the immediate term, the AMC says the province is doing the right thing in taking time to consult on the future of statues honouring Queen Elizabeth II and Queen Victoria on the Legislative Building grounds that were damaged during a Canada Day demonstration following the discovery of hundreds of unmarked children's graves on former residential school sites.
And the chiefs would like the province to withdraw legislation that restricts First Nations-operated gaming operations.
But on a deeper level, the AMC wants an overhaul of how the province consults with Indigenous people.
First Nations and Métis have repeatedly complained the province has left them out of the loop, and those complaints have stalled the federal review of a massive flood-channel project in the Interlake.
To Dumas, it echoes themes laid out in the Aboriginal Justice Inquiry's 1991 report, which found systemic racism pervades federal and provincial bureaucracies. He argued current laws and spending rules always put First Nations at a disadvantage.
"If the premier's going to listen to these career bureaucrats and people who seem to be very incentivized to maintaining the status quo, then nothing will change," he said.
"If the premier's going to listen to these career bureaucrats and people who seem to be very incentivized to maintaining the status quo, then nothing will change." –Grand Chief Arlen Dumas
In the spring, the Free Press reported on Indigenous people leaving provincial departments and arms-length boards, which Dumas said is a symptom of a deeper problem.
"Fundamentally, the bureaucracy is based on racist precedent," he said. "Anybody that we put in there will almost immediately start replicating the same (discrimination) because the system itself needs an overhaul."
Despite his criticism, Dumas said Stefanson could seize the momentum of being the first female premier and a national reckoning on residential schools to bring about real change.
He noted that Reconciliation Minister Alan Lagimodiere won the respect of chiefs after a shambolic first day on the job, when he claimed residential schools were started with good intentions.
Dumas said he was impressed that Lagimodiere apologized, got educated and went to numerous Indigenous events.
"There always an opportunity to redeem yourself, but you've got to do tangible things," he said.
"It's a nice platitude to listen, but we want some action."