Premier Brian Pallister’s attempt to quell a firestorm over Manitoba’s history with Indigenous people backfired Thursday, when the new minister he’d just appointed to steer reconciliation suggested residential schools were started with good intentions.

Premier Brian Pallister’s attempt to quell a firestorm over Manitoba’s history with Indigenous people backfired Thursday, when the new minister he’d just appointed to steer reconciliation suggested residential schools were started with good intentions.

The comments came just moments into the job, prompting the Opposition leader to interrupt a press conference Thursday morning.

Now, Indigenous leaders are declining phone calls and demanding apologies.

"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," Selkirk MLA Alan Lagimodiere told reporters shortly after being sworn in as minister of Indigenous reconciliation and northern relations.

"At the time, they really thought that they were doing the right thing. I'm saddened by the fact that it took individuals so long to recognize that process wasn't working."

Lagimodiere, who is Métis, acknowledged that those running the schools forbade Indigenous children from practising their languages and cultures.

"They thought they were doing the right thing. In retrospect it's easy to judge," he said.

NDP Leader Wab Kinew, who is First Nations, interrupted the news conference, walking up to Lagimodiere to confront him.

"I cannot accept you saying what you just said about residential schools," Kinew said, noting officials had stated they wanted to use the schools to replace all Indigenous language and culture with European ways of life.

"Any right-minded person at the time should have known and would have known — and many did know, and spoke up against it," Kinew said.

Selkirk MLA Alan Lagimodiere, Manitoba's new minister responsible for Indigenous affairs, is confronted by Opposition leader Wab Kinew while making a statement to the press about residential schools.</p>

STEVE LAMBERT / THE CANADIAN PRESS

Selkirk MLA Alan Lagimodiere, Manitoba's new minister responsible for Indigenous affairs, is confronted by Opposition leader Wab Kinew while making a statement to the press about residential schools.

"We'll give you a chance, but you can't be out here defending residential schools if you want to work with Indigenous communities."

Lagimodiere later tweeted that he "misspoke" in his 14 minutes at the podium, and he acknowledged the schools sought to "eradicate Indigenous culture," but he did not offer an apology.

Notable quotes

“It didn’t take long for the new minister to show where his true loyalties lie… The current provincial administration is obviously awash in racial bias and is beholden to a leader with an innate dislike for First Nation people.”

— Southern Chiefs' Organization Grand Chief Jerry Daniels

“It didn’t take long for the new minister to show where his true loyalties lie… The current provincial administration is obviously awash in racial bias and is beholden to a leader with an innate dislike for First Nation people.”

— Southern Chiefs' Organization Grand Chief Jerry Daniels

“Any progress at reconciliation has been set back and may be impossible while this government is in power.”

— Manitoba Keewatinowi Okimakanak Grand Chief Garrison Settee

“As a historian of residential schooling, I’m appalled…. They are dangerously out of touch with not only where most Manitobans are on this issue, but where the country seems to be going, particularly in this moment of reckoning. They're showing reckless abandoning of the truth.”

— University of Manitoba historian Sean Carleton

“I think it’s important that we do what we can to bring the community together and, unfortunately, today’s comments will be viewed by many, including myself, as a step back in our reconciliation efforts here in Manitoba. I was quite shocked to hear them.”

— Winnipeg Mayor Brian Bowman

Former senator Murray Sinclair, who chaired the Truth and Reconciliation Commission, was unimpressed.

"They are trying to unring the bell now," Sinclair told the Free Press.

"It’s a terrible thing to say. He should never have said it, and we should never forget he said that."

Kinew later told reporters that Lagimodiere might be among a cohort of Indigenous people who don’t know their history due to colonial education systems.

The Manitoba Metis Federation was less sympathetic, arguing any Métis citizen who lived in the North would know about the legacy of assimilationist policies.

"He’s raised in the North. There's no way in hell this would be his position. He'd know the struggles of the Métis," said MMF president David Chartrand.

"It's unbelievable and unforgivable. It's an insult to all of those who went to day schools, to residential school, and all of those who lost their rights."

“It’s a terrible thing to say. He should never have said it, and we should never forget he said that.” – Former senator Murray Sinclair

Lagimodiere said Thursday that the Pallister government had gone "above and beyond" what the TRC demanded for reconciliation, and that he’d start his job by phoning each main Indigenous leader.

Chartrand said he’d decline that call.

"I’m not wasting an ounce of my energy for a minister that has no power and no jurisdiction and clearly is foolish enough to believe he does," he said.

He further criticized Lagimodiere for not speaking out during the premier’s multiple spats with the MMF, including the federation’s difficulty in securing COVID-19 data and vaccines.

"It's just heartbreaking to watch this happen in front of us, and for a Métis person to sell their soul, or sell their principles, just to have that title of minister," Chartrand said.

"I’m saddened he's allowed himself to be used by this premier."

Selkirk MLA Alan Lagimodiere suggested residential schools were started with good intentions.

MIKE DEAL / WINNIPEG FREE PRESS

Selkirk MLA Alan Lagimodiere suggested residential schools were started with good intentions.

The Assembly of Manitoba Chiefs said Lagimodiere’s comments were racist, but is open to working with him; regional chiefs demanded an apology and called for cabinet ministers to learn more about the province's history.

Thursday’s cabinet shuffle was an attempt to change the channel after a torrent of criticism that culminated in the resignation of Eileen Clarke from the Indigenous and northern relations cabinet portfolio.

Respect in Selkirk

The mayor of Selkirk says he has had a good working relationship with Alan Lagimodiere since the Tory MLA was elected in 2016.

Larry Johannson said Lagimodiere, who was elevated to cabinet Thursday after Eileen Clarke resigned as Indigenous affairs minister, is well-respected in the community.

The mayor of Selkirk says he has had a good working relationship with Alan Lagimodiere since the Tory MLA was elected in 2016.

Larry Johannson said Lagimodiere, who was elevated to cabinet Thursday after Eileen Clarke resigned as Indigenous affairs minister, is well-respected in the community.

"If he wanted a high-profile role right now, I think he’s got it," said Johannson.

He said he hopes having a representative from Selkirk in cabinet will help to advance infrastructure projects in his city.

It bodes well for his constituents, including people who are First Nations and Métis, the mayor said.

Lagimodiere, who is Métis and originally from The Pas, has been a practising veterinarian for decades and a member of the Manitoba Veterinary Medical Association in good standing since 1985.

He and his wife ran Selkirk Veterinary Services for more than 25 years.

The executive director of the Selkirk and District Chamber of Commerce, Sheri Skalesky, said he listens to the local business community.

“He reached out to us right from the start and ever since then he’s been in regular contact," said Skalesky.

"Lagimodiere has always been very (engaging) and very approachable."

— Erik Pindera

Last week, Pallister had suggested the people who came to the place that became Canada meant only to build things up, not destroy anything.

The premier doubled down earlier this week, and on Thursday said his remarks about people coming here to build things up included Indigenous people.

"Thousands of years ago, people came here as newcomers," Pallister said. "Indigenous people were the first Canadians. They were newcomers at that point in time."

The premier said "subsequent newcomers" from Europe survived only with the help of Indigenous people, and that is a model for reconciliation.

University of Manitoba historian Sean Carleton said that plays into tropes that Indigenous people walked from Asia to Alaska, and are thus immigrants.

"It’s an attempt to delegitimize Indigenous people's millennia on these lands, from time immemorial," he said.

"I see it in chatrooms and right-wing blogs; I'm surprised the premier of the province, in a time when he's trying to calm things down… is using these sort of dog-whistle claims."

“It’s an attempt to delegitimize Indigenous people's millennia on these lands, from time immemorial.” – Historian Sean Carleton

Brandon University political scientist Kelly Saunders contrasted those comments with Prime Minister Justin Trudeau’s contrite 2019 apology for disguising himself in blackface at a high school event in the 1980s. Trudeau said he’d learned since then, putting an end to the issue for many Canadians.

"When we’re backed into a corner and we know there's no way out, most of us try to reach out, to self-reflect on our own actions and maybe learn from our mistakes and listen to others," Saunders said. "Then we try to move forward in a new fashion.

"There is that playbook, but unfortunately this premier seems unwilling or unable to do the right thing."

Later Thursday, the minister issued a tweet, saying "in the moment, (he) misspoke."

TWITTER

Later Thursday, the minister issued a tweet, saying "in the moment, (he) misspoke."

In a tweet after the incident, the Progressive Conservative party caucus said Kinew had bullied Lagimodiere.

"The political showmanship of storming into someone else's press conference to bully a minister who was sworn in only 10 minutes earlier does nothing to advance that reconciliation," reads the tweet, which the party deleted after about a half-hour.

Kinew had said he is an honorary witness for the TRC, which the commission defined as people who help record historical events and defend the truth as part Indigenous oral traditions.

— with files from Kevin Rollason

dylan.robertson@freepress.mb.ca