Nearly a month after he caused a firestorm with remarks about settlers and their impact on Indigenous people, Premier Brian Pallister was trying to heal the wounds.
"I feel awful about the reaction and the misunderstanding I created with my comments," Pallister said at a news conference Tuesday — his first public appearance in 19 days.
On July 7, in response to statues of Queen Elizabeth and Queen Victoria being vandalized in Winnipeg on Canada Day, the premier asserted: "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."
The remarks were condemned as revisionist history and "inappropriate" by Indigenous and community leaders.
Tory MLA Eileen Clarke (then-minister of Indigenous relations and northern affairs) resigned from cabinet, citing the "inappropriate words and actions." She was replaced by Indigenous Reconciliation Minister Alan Lagimodiere, who was sworn in July 15, the last time Pallister had made a public appearance.
At Lagimodiere’s first news conference, the new minister said: "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."
Lagimodiere spent the next several days apologizing to Indigenous leaders.
When he re-emerged Tuesday, Pallister was unapologetic about leaving his new minister to fend for himself.
"He apologized for his comments (and) misrepresentation around the nature of residential schools," the premier said. "He’s reached out to everyone involved; he’s offered sincere efforts to work together, to redeem himself in the minds of some, and to prove himself in the minds of others.
"I know he’ll achieve good things in that portfolio."
On Tuesday, NDP Leader Wab Kinew questioned why the premier took so long to speak up for his new minister of Indigenous reconciliation.
"Given the fact that Premier Pallister rushed to the defence of the health minister who oversaw the disaster at Maples (personal care home, site of dozens of COVID-19 deaths), he apparently abandoned Mr. Lagimodiere," Kinew told reporters in a scrum.
Kinew also challenged the "apology," which the premier promised would be a statement asking "for forgiveness and understanding and ask that we unite."
The premier said that’s the message he was trying to convey last month, when he suggested people didn’t come to Manitoba to destroy Indigenous culture but to build a new life for themselves.
"I wasn’t talking about settlers, or post-Canadian colonists; I was talking about all of us. I was talking about the work of people like Chief Peguis; I was talking about the Métis settlers who wanted to develop farms and were pushed back. We’ve got builders, throughout our history, throughout our heritage," he told reporters Tuesday.
"I was trying to unite people to build, as our Indigenous people have done for millennia, as our Métis population has done, as our more recent immigrants have done; try to build together."
When Pallister’s written statement "on reconciliation" was emailed to media later Tuesday, it said he wished his "words had been said differently so they could have been understood better." It declared: "At no time have I ever justified the existence of residential schools in Canada and the lasting harm they inflicted on Indigenous persons."
Long Plain First Nation Chief Dennis Meeches, a frequent critic of Pallister, said Tuesday’s apology was a chance for him to change course.
"We have to give the premier the benefit of the doubt," said Meeches, speaking for the seven Treaty 1 nations. "He’s asked for forgiveness.
"It’s really hard to reconcile everything that’s happened in the past little while, and I’m hoping that his words today will be meaningful in the days, weeks and months to come," the chief said. "Actions do speak louder than words, and we’ll see how that plays out."
Yet, Pallister’s Tuesday comments only deepened an ongoing rift with the Manitoba Metis Federation, particularly over his use of the term "Métis settlers," given the Métis nation emerged in what became Winnipeg.
"To me it’s a dogwhistle word, trying to separate the Métis and the First Nations to say somehow the Métis are invading First Nations lands and territories," said MMF president David Chartrand.
"There’s no doubt in my mind, he’s got a prejudicial nature against Indigenous people."
Chartrand said the premier could have corrected course during his public absence by meeting with Indigenous leaders directly, and coming up with actions, such as revising the Manitoba 150 commemorations to better include founding father Louis Riel.
"The 19 days obviously did not help him, and if he had people around him advising him, they failed miserably," he said.
Kinew argued the premier’s written statement was insincere and insufficient.
"It’s not clearly saying that he did anything wrong," the leader of the Opposition said. "He’s just sorry for the fact that it was misunderstood. He couldn’t even hold that piece of paper up and read it into the camera."
The premier’s statement on reconciliation doesn’t qualify as an apology, agreed Liberal Leader Dougald Lamont.
"There’s a difference between what the premier did and a meaningful apology," he said in a scrum.
— with files from Julia-Simone Rutgers
Parliamentary bureau chief
In Ottawa, Dylan enjoys snooping through freedom-of-information requests and asking politicians: "What about Manitoba?"
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After 20 years of reporting on the growing diversity of people calling Manitoba home, Carol moved to the legislature bureau in early 2020.
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