MANITOBA Premier Brian Pallister’s office is pushing back on mounting criticism from First Nations leadership, after he suggested colonizers did not mean to destroy Indigenous societies.
On Wednesday morning, Pallister sought to unite Manitobans around building a more equitable and educated society but seemed to play down the motives of those who colonized the country.
"The people who came here, to this country before it was a country, and since, didn’t come here to destroy anything — they came here to build," Pallister told reporters.
He contrasted that effort to build with the destruction of statues on Canada Day at the Manitoba legislature, by a group that splintered away from a rally organized by Indigenous leaders.
Within hours, the Assembly of Manitoba Chiefs had condemned Pallister’s remarks as "racist dog-whistling" that distorted history.
On Thursday, the grand chief of northern Manitoba First Nations joined in, saying the premier’s remarks played down the damage wrought by residential schools.
"It is unfortunate and shameful for a premier to make light of the deaths of thousands of children," wrote Grand Chief Garrison Settee, who leads Manitoba Keewatinowi Okimakanak.
"Mr. Premier, I say to you: look into your heart and revise your commentary regarding the thousands of children that were raped, murdered, and tortured in these institutions of genocide."
On Thursday, the premier’s spokeswoman listed numerous initiatives Pallister has taken as premier, and during his time as an MP, to advance reconciliation in Manitoba. That included property rights for Indigenous women, helping flood evacuees return home, reforming criminal justice and child-welfare systems, and undertaking treaty land negotiations.
"This record dispels the attempts to misrepresent the premier’s remarks yesterday, which were clearly focused on building up collectively rather than tearing others down," wrote spokeswoman Olivia Billson.
"Our government, as well as the premier personally, have a proven record of working collaboratively with Indigenous leaders and communities to advance reconciliation initiatives."
Yet, Settee accused the premier of deliberately keeping Manitobans from knowing their history, and speaking from the perspective of "a colonial squatter on the lands of Indigenous peoples."
In any case, Billson said the PCs will proceed with reconciliation initiatives.
"Our government remains committed to the very important work ahead of us in seeking reconciliation and healing, and building a safer, healthier and more prosperous province for all Manitobans."