Premier Brian Pallister might want to take a class in Canadian history after suggesting that colonizers did not mean to destroy Indigenous societies.

Premier Brian Pallister might want to take a class in Canadian history after suggesting that colonizers did not mean to destroy Indigenous societies.

Brian Pallister’s comments at a news conference Wednesday:

I want to make some comments in respect to the events of Canada Day.

We all understand, and we should understand, that tearing down is a lot simpler than building up. But building up is what we have to dedicate ourselves to. And I believe that Canada has been, and will always be, I hope, a nation that is an example to those around the world of our dedication to building, to building something better. We are not a perfect country, but we’re a lot closer than a lot of other countries to being perfect, and we need to dedicate ourselves to that construction project that is Canada.

I want to make some comments in respect to the events of Canada Day.

We all understand, and we should understand, that tearing down is a lot simpler than building up. But building up is what we have to dedicate ourselves to. And I believe that Canada has been, and will always be, I hope, a nation that is an example to those around the world of our dedication to building, to building something better. We are not a perfect country, but we’re a lot closer than a lot of other countries to being perfect, and we need to dedicate ourselves to that construction project that is Canada.

I would say to those who are choosing to tear down right now, rather than to build up, that that is the wrong choice. I would say to them, let us build together. That is the right choice. Throughout our country’s history, well before we were acknowledged as a country, we were a home of hope to people from around the world, who came from long distances away to pursue a better life for themselves, for their families. And we continue to be that beacon of light for people from around the world. We must be that beacon of light for our Indigenous people in this country, as well. For too long that has not been the case.

The people who came to this country, before it was a country and since, didn’t come here to destroy anything. They came to build. They came to build better. To build, they did. They built farms, and they built businesses. They built communities, and churches too. And they built these things for themselves, and for one another, and they built them with dedication and with pride. And so, we must dedicate ourselves to building as well, and yet again. Because what these people have done, our ancestors, is they’ve given us a heritage. And heritage is a complicated thing. There are good and bad aspects to Canada’s heritage, as there are to any country’s heritage. We had ups and downs in our country. We’ve had good times, and we’ve had bad moments. And Canada Day was one of those bad moments.

But we need to respect our heritage, just as we need to respect one another. Not to find fault, not to tear down, not to highlight every failure, but rather to realize we are a complex country as we are made up of complex people. And so, our failures should not be celebrated, but they should not be repeated, either. There were failures of character on display the other day that need not be repeated. And that are not helpful, and, in fact, are most unhelpful to the struggle for real building and real reconciliation that must be pursued. The truth is what happened in the past, and the truth is coming out on important issues. But reconciliation is what we can make happen in the future, just as we’ve been dedicated as a government to working on reconciliation projects since we came to government.

Canada is a land of hope. Manitoba is the special heart of Canada. We continue to draw people here, to this centre of our beautiful country, because we are focused on building that hope. We can do better here. You can do better here. You just have to have the will. Here in Canada, and here in Manitoba, we have more tools to build than most people on this planet are given. Tools like public education, and available free health care. These tools and others are important, but they require the will of people to go beyond the basic tools they are given and do something with them. It takes a negative will to tear down. It takes a positive will to build up. And we need to focus on building up. We need to equip all our citizens with more skills. But they need to dedicate themselves as well to building those skills for themselves. We need to help people but people also to have the will also to use the tools they are given.

And in this country we provide through the contributions of our fellow citizens, taxpayers, our friends, our neighbours, the ones who work hard to pay their taxes. We are given the opportunity that so many people around the planet do not have to develop skills, and to earn an income and to become self-sufficient people, and to have the opportunity to build and grow, and so many people do that. So many immigrants to Canada, so many people achieve tremendous success. Our country is known as a country that allows people to move from challenging economic circumstances and find success better than most other countries in the world. Some articles I’ve read say we’re three times as likely to be able, as citizens of Canada, to move from a lower socio-economic category to a middle-income or higher-income category than citizens of the United States are, just an hour to the south.

These are real opportunities. They’re opportunities we need to build on together. We pay for health care, we pay for education, we pay for each other, because we want this to be the home of hope. And we want equality of opportunity for everyone. And if that’s what you want, if you want equality of opportunity, then you have a staunch ally in me and in our government. And I believe in most Canadians. But you have to decide what you want. Then you can start to build.

Never before in our lifetime have we recognized the value of our freedoms more than we do now in this age of COVID, because they’ve been restricted. And those freedoms include the freedom to protest. But the most effective protests are not violent ones. They are ones that demonstrate your willingness to dedicate yourself to respect and to peace. Freedoms we used to take for granted, our freedoms of movement, of association, of religion, in fact, even to communicate with one other effectively, have been impeded, to say the least, by this pandemic. But they do highlight for me the vital importance not only of getting them back, but of using those freedoms to advantage. To build something better. Not just for us as individuals, but for us as citizens. For us as friends. As relatives.

That’s what we’ve been dedicated to doing as a government, to the best of our ability, from the very beginning. To fix our finances, to make us stronger. To repair our services, to make them better and more accessible, and to help rebuild our economy. And we needed to do that because we had fallen far behind other provinces in many respects. Now it’s time to take that same formula, in the face of these challenges I’m referring to and in the face of the challenges of COVID, and build, and to build better than before using all the skills we have together. Dedicated to that task. We have to fix our problems together, we have to repair our relationships together. We have to find new opportunities together.

I have never been more proud of Canada for being the home of hope to people than I am today. Because I believe what we are coming through, in the dialogue about residential schools, these discoveries, not new discoveries but new to many Canadians, most certainly, has created an awareness and I think a greater willingness to pursue equality of opportunity for all Canadians than has existed before. And in the springboard that we hope is coming post-pandemic, greater opportunities for things like skills development, and for jobs and careers for all Canadians.

These opportunities are real and they’re exciting. I have never been more dedicated. And my government has never been more dedicated to making sure that we continue to be that home of hope for all Canadians. And for those that choose to come here, new immigrants to our country, as we move forward. Never more dedicated to advancing the equality of opportunity for all of us. Canada is not a perfect country. There is no perfect country. But I would rather be a Canadian than anything else.

"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 Wednesday, reading from pre-written notes.

He was trying to unite Manitobans around a vision of progress, but historians and Indigenous leaders say it was a step back.

"The premier's comments, in perhaps trying to calm things down, actually throw more fuel on the fire," said University of Manitoba historian Sean Carleton.

"It represents a fundamental misunderstanding of the history of these lands, and what we are trying to reckon with, in this moment."

The premier also announced that a statue of Queen Elizabeth II will be restored in its former spot, while consultations could result in the Queen Victoria monument being placed elsewhere once it’s restored.

Premier Brian Pallister: '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.' (Mike Deal / Winnipeg Free Press files)

Premier Brian Pallister: '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.' (Mike Deal / Winnipeg Free Press files)

Both statues on the legislature grounds were toppled by a group that split off from a Canada Day march organized by First Nations chiefs, who have warned that bringing down the statues has distracted from conversations about residential-school burial sites.

Pallister’s remarks were his first in-depth comments on the statue incidents beyond a written a statement calling them "acts of violence."

The premier said Wednesday that Canada has welcomed people from around the planet, and remains a country of social mobility.

"We must be that beacon of light for our Indigenous people in this country, as well; for too long that has not been the case," he said.

He urged Manitobans to reckon with the wrongs in Canada’s history, and to build the future by learning employable skills.

"We’re not a perfect country, but we’re a lot closer than a lot of other countries to being perfect, and we have to dedicate ourselves to that construction project that is Canada."

The comments sparked outrage from the Assembly of Manitoba Chiefs.

'To minimize, romanticize and celebrate the settler colonialism that displaced First Nations from their ancient and sacred lands in the most brutal and heinous ways... is unconscionable,' says York Factory Chief Leroy Constant. (Mikaela MacKenzie / Winnipeg Free Press files)

'To minimize, romanticize and celebrate the settler colonialism that displaced First Nations from their ancient and sacred lands in the most brutal and heinous ways... is unconscionable,' says York Factory Chief Leroy Constant. (Mikaela MacKenzie / Winnipeg Free Press files)

York Factory Chief Leroy Constant, who is serving as interim grand chief prior to next week's AMC election, issued a statement that said Pallister's remarks play into tropes of lazy Indigenous people.

"They were the worst kind of racist dog-whistling imaginable," Constant wrote.

"To minimize, romanticize and celebrate the settler colonialism that displaced First Nations from their ancient and sacred lands in the most brutal and heinous ways — the way he did in his comments — is unconscionable and a desecration to the graves of the ancestors, on which the Legislature is built and on which the City of Winnipeg now lies."

Constant added that it’s offensive for politicians to refer to "our" Indigenous people, as it implies ownership over them.

Carleton, whose focus is the colonization of Western Canada, said the premier’s comments run counter to documented history.

He said settlers deliberately took over the Prairies by claiming the most productive parcels of land, and misused treaties to relegate Indigenous people to reserves. Residential schools then tried to strip children of their language and culture.

The province is deciding where to place the statue of Queen Victoria that was toppled on July 1. (John Woods / Winnipeg Free Press files)

JOHN WOODS / WINNIPEG FREE PRESS

The province is deciding where to place the statue of Queen Victoria that was toppled on July 1. (John Woods / Winnipeg Free Press files)

Canadians later erected statues to British monarchs, to signal societal support for those actions, Carleton said, arguing the premier's comments play into the same mentality.

"It's not only a setback; it's out of step with where a lot of Manitobans are with these issues," he said.

Opposition parties had the same assessment.

"It's pretty tough to bring people together when the premier is making comments (which) are pretty divisive and offensive," NDP Leader Wab Kinew said in an interview.

The premier’s comments about people coming to Manitoba to build the province play into tropes about Canada being an underpopulated hinterland before the arrival of Europeans.

"That type of rhetoric is very divisive, and it's the kind of thinking that has always been used to try and attack and undermine Indigenous peoples," Kinew said.

Manitoba Liberal Leader Dougald Lamont said the premier’s comments are a setback for reconciliation efforts.

"It's worse than hurtful and it's worse than ignorant; it is actually an obstacle to us ever improving anything," he told reporters.

Both of the toppled statues will be reinstalled, possibly with some changes, Pallister said, noting governor general designate Mary Simon, who is Inuk, might be present for the reinstallation of the Queen Elizabeth II statue at Government House, the residence of the lieutenant governor, as she is the reigning monarch.

The statue of Queen Elizabeth will go back where it was located, Pallister says. (Kelly Geraldine Malone / The Canadian Press files)

CP

The statue of Queen Elizabeth will go back where it was located, Pallister says. (Kelly Geraldine Malone / The Canadian Press files)

The province has been consulting for months on symbols around the legislature, such as a plan to get a Chief Peguis statue on the grounds, and what symbols should adorn the empty alcoves inside the building.

Discussions will include whether to move the Queen Victoria statue to a less-prominent spot than the one right outside the main entrance, and if it merits a plaque explaining that Canada started residential schools during her reign, Pallister said.

"I want to be very, very clear, the statues will go back up. As far as specific issues around location though, I think that’s a consultative process we’re going to continue," he said.

Asked why the Queen Victoria statue had not been modified after it was splashed with paint in June 2020, the premier said consultations can’t be rushed, and that no one who helped take down the statues will be part of the government’s outreach.

"I don’t think vandalism and criminal acts should precipitate action," Pallister said.

dylan.robertson@freepress.mb.ca

With files from Carol Sanders