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First Nations leaders decry ‘racist political propaganda’ by Manitoba government, call for resignation

Manitoba

First Nations representatives harshly called out the Manitoba government on Monday, labelling recent comments by Premier Brian Pallister and cabinet minister Alan Lagimodiere as "racist political propaganda" and demanding the latter's resignation.

Ted Bland, former chief of York Factory First Nation, addresses a crowd Monday on the steps of the Manitoba Legislature as part of a call to action by the Summit of Treaty 5 Sovereign Nations following remarks by Premier Brian Pallister and cabinet minister Alan Lagimodiere.(Patrick Foucault/Radio-Canada)

First Nations representatives harshly called out the Manitoba government on Monday, labelling recent comments by Premier Brian Pallister and cabinet minister Alan Lagimodiere as propaganda and demanding the latter's resignation.

Standing on the front steps of the legislative building, the Summit of Treaty 5 Sovereign Nations (STFSN) blasted the Progressive Conservative government for a "deliberate attempt to distort the history of Indigenous peoples regarding the policy of genocide at residential schools."

In a fiery speech that could be heard far from the Tyndall stone steps, Grand Chief Arlen Dumas of the Assembly of Manitoba Chiefs shouted his anger with Pallister and Lagimodiere.

"We found 1,505 children murdered in these schools, hidden and buried in the ground, and in the same breath, [you] say 'but residential schools were a good thing. Assimilation was a good thing.' Who can say that in their right mind?" he said.

"Here we are today trying again to have people who are so ill-informed and uninformed and uneducated [and] ignorant, tell my mother that what happened to her in residential school, it was OK."

Dumas spoke of how Indigenous people showed the first European settlers how to travel and survive in a land and climate that could be inhospitable at times.

"Where we treated your ancestors like human beings, your institutions treated us like savages," he yelled.

The comments by Pallister and Lagimodiere suggest nothing is changing, Dumas said.

"I'm tired of talking to Pallister. I give him every opportunity to have meaningful dialogue. We bring forward meaningful solutions to work together, hand in hand, to move forward. But he'd rather talk at me."

During a Canada Day rally in Winnipeg, following the discovery of unmarked graves at former residential schools in Canada, statues of Queen Victoria and Queen Elizabeth were pulled down on the grounds of the Manitoba Legislature.

Pallister denounced the actions and made comments that suggested the colonization of Canada was done with good intentions.

The people who came to Canada "didn't come here to destroy anything. They came here to build. They came to build better," he said, adding the statues would be repaired and set back up, though the locations might change.

In a news release, the STFSN said the premier's comments are "racist political propaganda distorting and romanticizing colonialism."

"If Pallister wants to rebuild that statue so quickly, a statue that some of my non-First Nations friends in Manitoba didn't even know the significance of, then he may as well be building them on those graves," Dumas said.

Remarks prompted minister to step down

Pallister's remarks provoked the resignation of his own Indigenous and northern relations minister, Eileen Clarke, who stepped down from her cabinet position two days later.

In doing so, Clarke said many Manitobans are disappointed with their representatives, and added that she and other cabinet ministers had not been listened to.

She was replaced by Lagimodiere, who, within 10 minutes of his appointment on July 15, told reporters the people who ran Indian residential schools believed "they were doing the right thing."

"In retrospect, it's easy to judge in the past. But at the time, they really thought that they were doing the right thing," he said.

"From my knowledge of it, 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 has since apologized, saying his words were wrong, but the fallout has continued.

Two Indigenous men, Jamie Wilson and Darrell Brown, quit their positions on Manitoba economic development boards shortly after Lagimodiere's comments. Wilson had previously served as a deputy minister in two departments under the Progressive Conservative government and was the treaty commissioner for Manitoba.

"There is no way to sugarcoat the intent and effect of the residential school [system]. It was purposefully designed and carried out to impose forcible, punitive assimilation on every First Nation child they could lay hands on," said AMC regional chief Cindy Woodhouse.

"The Indian residential school system was all about denigrating First Nations cultures, First Nations languages, values and First Nations everything. That's why there are thousands of children who disappeared without a trace. They were devalued in death as they were in life."

There is no such thing as benign colonialism, or well-intentioned colonialism and governments cannot move on from that dark past by denying the truth, she said.

"At a time when our people are recovering children's bodies and our survivors are finally starting to be acknowledged by the general public, the comments by the PC government has caused a setback by the use of such irresponsible and volatile words," said Chief Clarence Easter of Chemawawin Cree Nation.

"We are stepping to the plate to deal with this."

Action plan calls for new minister to step down

The action plan unveiled by the STFSN calls for alliances between the Treaty 5 First Nations and affiliate organizations to work together to respond to hate crime and racism.

Treaty 5 includes more than 100,000 people from 37 First Nations in Manitoba and three in Saskatchewan, according to the STFSN.

The plan calls for the following:

  • Hate crimes and racism should be standing discussion items at every annual gathering of Treaty 5 Nations, beginning Aug. 10.
  • To promote non violence and avoid destruction of property.
  • To develop a report on hate crimes and racism and report them to the United Nations.
  • To conduct an awareness campaign on the prevalence and effects of hate crimes and racism.
  • To lobby the federal government to do more to criminalize hate crimes and racism, saying the Criminal Code currently does little to deter it.
  • To condemn and publicly expose hate crimes and racism and hate propaganda through First Nations social media.
  • To create a task force of academics, elders and youth to enact the actions.

"Today we are not here to topple any statues, we are here to topple a government that is racist, a government that has no place in this legislature," said Garrison Settee, Grand Chief of Manitoba Keewatinowi Okimakanak, which represents 26 First Nations in northern Manitoba.

One of the first actions in the plan on Monday was to call for Lagimodiere to step down from his cabinet position.

"Dr. Alan Lagimodiere proved himself as an embarrassment to reconciliation and Indigenous relations," said Chief Sheldon Kent of Black River First Nation.

"His comments were harmful, retriggering anger and discontent among our people. There was no good intention at Indian residential schools to promote and it is catastrophically irresponsible to suggest otherwise.

"We call for his resignation and he must step down."

ABOUT THE AUTHOR

Darren Bernhardt spent the first dozen years of his journalism career in newspapers, first at the Regina Leader-Post then the Saskatoon StarPhoenix. He has been with CBC Manitoba since 2009 and specializes in offbeat and local history stories and features. He is the author of award-nominated and bestselling The Lesser Known: A History of Oddities from the Heart of the Continent. Story idea? Email: darren.bernhardt@cbc.ca

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