Manitoba’s leader of the Opposition confronted the province’s new Indigenous reconciliation minister Thursday over the new minister’s comments about residential schools.
NDP Leader Wab Kinew interrupted a press conference question-and-answer period Thursday after Alan Lagimodiere, who was shuffled into the new post an hour before, said he believed children were sent to residential schools to learn new skills.
“They thought they were doing the right thing,” Lagimodiere said of the residential school system. “In retrospect, it’s easy to judge in the past, but at the time they really thought that they were doing the right thing.”
“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.”
At that point, Kinew stepped in and firmly challenged the new minister’s statements.
“I cannot accept you saying what you just said about residential schools. It was the express intent of residential schools to ‘kill the Indian in the child,'” he said.
“It is not cultural relativism, it is not revisionist history for us to say that that was wrong.”
Soon afterward, Lagimodiere took back his words and said he had misspoken.
“As an Indigenous Manitoban, I sincerely believe that residential schools were tragic and were designed to assimilate Indigenous children and eradicate Indigenous culture,” read a statement on Lagimodiere’s social media account. “That was wrong then and it is wrong now.”
Southern Chiefs Organization Grand Chief Jerry Daniels said he was “appalled” by the comments made by Lagimodiere.
“I understand that the new minister has already released a statement claiming to have “misspoke” when asked about residential schools. I can state emphatically that his statement is not enough.
“We also continue to wait for an apology from the premier for his similarly egregious statements made last week.”
Lagimodiere was shuffled into the position after Eileen Clarke, the former minister, resigned earlier this week.
Her resignation came after Premier Brian Pallister made remarks after the toppling of statues of queens Elizabeth and Victoria.
“It is not my intent to divide or be disrespectful, but I do feel transparency is required,” she posted on social media.
“Strong leadership is required to heal and bring our province and country together in harmony, it can not be done by one individual. Inappropriate words and actions can be very damaging.”
In a prepared statement Thursday — her first comments since her resignation — Clarke said she and other cabinet ministers had often had their concerns ignored.
“I am hearing from many people across the province that they are disappointed with the representation they are getting at this time,” Clarke said in a prepared statement that did not mention Pallister by name.
“I have spoken up on several issues but I feel my voice and other voices were not heard in cabinet.”
Last week, Pallister said people who came to Canada did not come to destroy things, but to build up communities.
“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. They came to build better,” he said.
“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 that we’re a complex country as we are made up of complex people,” Pallister said at a July 7 news conference, where he also added that the statues would be restored.
Pallister defended his comments Thursday and said he had been misinterpreted. He said he did not mention colonialism in his original remarks or praise it in any way.
Pallister also said he would not say anything negative about Clarke, who he has known for decades, but rejected the idea that he doesn’t listen to people.
“I think that any suggestions or comments that she or anyone else has are heard on our team,” he said.
Pallister replaced Clarke Thursday in a small cabinet shuffle by promoting Lagimodiere from the backbenches and made some other minor changes to his inner circle.
He demoted Agriculture Minister Blaine Pedersen, who announced he is not seeking reelection in 2023.
Pallister promoted Jon Reyes from the backbenches to become minister of economic development. Former economic development minister Ralph Eichler moves to agriculture.
The Progressive Conservative caucus briefly criticized Kinew’s interruption of Lagimodiere’s introductory news conference.
“We are all committed to meaningful progress on reconciliation,” read a message posted to the Tory caucus Twitter account.
“The political showmanship of storming into someone else’s press conference to bully a minister who was sworn in only 10 minutes earlier does nothing to advance that reconciliation.”
The tweet was quickly deleted.
–With files from The Canadian Press
The Indian Residential Schools Crisis Line (1-866-925-4419) is available 24 hours a day for anyone experiencing pain or distress as a result of their residential school experience.