The clerk of the executive council’s message to the Manitoba civil service about the need to work toward reconciliation is drawing both praise and criticism from political experts and First Nations leadership.
David McLaughlin’s message issued July 22 explains why the government renamed the department of Indigenous Reconciliation and Northern Affairs, and what steps it is taking toward reconciliation now that it’s part of a formal mandate.
The information comes after MLA Eileen Clarke resigned as Indigenous relations and northern affairs minister over statements by Premier Brian Pallister seeming to defend colonialism. That move was followed by her replacement, Alan Lagimodiere, stating there were some good intentions behind residential schools.
McLaughlin, Pallister’s appointee in charge of Manitoba’s civil service, says the government is inviting Indigenous leaders to meet with deputy ministers to develop an agenda for reconciliation, encouraging conversations among civil servants about what reconciliation means to them, and offering employees courses and training opportunities.
"I like the content of the message, both the ideas and the actions," said Paul Thomas, professor emeritus of political studies at the University of Manitoba.
"Having a partisan figure like McLaughlin in the clerk’s role — which is not unprecedented — means there is a greater likelihood that the motivations behind messages will be mixed and that the media and commentators will raise questions about whether they are meant to serve primarily a public interest purpose," Thomas said Monday.
"McLaughlin may be a partisan actor, but he brings lengthy policy experience and serious policy thinking to the job."
Sending such a message to civil servants about needing to do better when it comes to reconciliation when the problem is elected officials, appears to be "blame shifting," said Kelly Saunders, Brandon University associate professor of political science.
"Instead of just atoning, recognizing, and taking responsibility for their actions and trying to do better as political leaders, they’re trying to shift attention on to the civil service," said Saunders.
"We all need to be having conversations in our own families and our own work spaces and community spaces about issues related to reconciliation and colonization," the Brandon professor said.
"It seems a little rich, in this environment, that now, all of a sudden, we want the civil service to really step up on reconciliation," Saunders said.
"Why weren’t we having this conversation a year ago or six months ago? The timing is a little too coincidental.
"I think that a lot of people are going to be cynical about it and see this is purely a political move on the part of the government — and for good reason: because they’re backed into a corner."
Saunders said inviting Indigenous leaders to meet with deputy ministers is telling.
"You wouldn’t send the premier of Manitoba to talk to the deputy minister in Alberta. He would speak to Premier (Jason) Kenny. That is how protocol works, that’s how respect works, and that’s how true partnership works. Even in their attempts to try to pretty the situation up, they’re still not getting it," she said.
McLaughlin did not respond to a request for comment Monday.
Until Indigenous Manitobans see "evidence of reconciliation in action," starting at the top, nothing will change, said Long Plain First Nation Chief Dennis Meeches.
"We’ve obviously had a very sour relationship with the premier’s office since Day 1," the Treaty 1 chief said Monday.
"It’s top-down, tone-deaf, this is ‘how it’s going to be done, come hell or high water,’" he said of the Pallister government.
After 20 years of reporting on the growing diversity of people calling Manitoba home, Carol moved to the legislature bureau in early 2020.