A day after Manitoba’s newly-appointed Indigenous affairs minister shocked many with remarks defending the intent of residential schools, some are calling for his resignation while others see an opportunity to spark a much-needed dialogue about Canada’s history.
While Winnipeg-based Indigenous activist Michael Redhead Champagne was shocked and outraged by what Alan Lagimodiere said, in a way, he says he was also glad to hear it.
“I am grateful that the minister shared his comments publicly,” he told Global News Friday.
“It is an important moment for us to be able to see what folks in Manitoba — in positions of leadership — actually think about reconciliation, because that’s the truth.
“He told us. When somebody tells you who they are, believe them the first time.”
Lagimodiere’s comments came during a press conference just minutes after he was sworn in as minister of Indigenous reconciliation and northern relations.
“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.”
It was at that moment Opposition NDP Leader Wab Kinew, standing nearby, walked up to Lagimodiere and interrupted the live news conference.
“It was the express intent of residential schools to kill the Indian in the child,” Kinew told Lagimodiere.
“You can’t be out here defending residential schools if you want to work with Indigenous communities.”
Kinew, who was chosen to be an Honorary Witness at the Truth and Reconciliation Commission, told CJOB 680 Friday in the moment, he felt he couldn’t stay silent.
“The survivors of the residential schools, sharing their stories … invested in us, as witnesses, a certain responsibility to keep their stories going — to keep the living memory alive of that experience — and to ensure the truth is known,” he said.
“More than anything I just felt a sense of responsibility to try and correct the record.”
Lagimodiere took back his words and said he had misspoken in a statement posted on his Twitter account shortly after the press conference. In a statement sent to media shortly before 5 p.m. Friday, Lagimodiere went further and apologized for what he’d said.
Kinew stressed he doesn’t condemn Lagimodier but instead said he wanted to help educate him
Kinew said others may share views similar to what the minister said, and he hopes his decision to intervene in the press conference helps move the conversation forward, and acts as an example.
“We can’t just dismiss people, we can’t just write them off. Instead we have to try and educate and bring people along,” he said.
“Because, to me, that’s what reconciliation is. We have to try and bring people together.”
Champagne and others, though, say Lagimodiere’s comments show he isn’t capable of moving the process of reconciliation forward in a good way.
“I think the fear that many Indigenous people have right now is that he did not misspeak. He actually said exactly what he believes,” Champagne said.
“I think that’s what is convincing a lot of Indigenous folks, including myself, to believe that he is not an appropriate fit for this portfolio and the responsible thing to do would be to step aside.”
By 6 p.m. Friday, an online petition calling for Lagimodiere’s resignation had more than 500 signatures, and a rally calling for him to step down had been organized at the Legislative Building for Saturday morning.
It’s not the first time Brian Pallister’s Progress Conservative government has faced criticism over its handling of Indigenous issues.
Lagimodiere’s appointment came on the heels of the resignation of the province’s former Indigenous relations minister, Eileen Clarke, who stepped down after Pallister made comments last week in response to the toppling of two statues of Queen Elizabeth and Queen Victoria on the grounds of the legislature.
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.
His comments were widely condemned by Indigenous leaders, who said the premier was minimizing and romanticizing the effects of colonialism.
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.
Kinew said Friday it’s likely going to be “an uphill battle” for Lagimodier, but wouldn’t dismiss the possibility of working with him as minister.
Cynthia Wesley-Esquimaux, National Chair for Truth and Reconciliation at the University of Manitoba, said while Lagimodiere’s comments are a setback, he may still be able to remain in the minister’s seat as, long as he’s willing to put in the work.
“This man has to go out and have the experience and he has to listen to what people have to say. So listen to the mothers, daughters, fathers, brothers, sisters, seniors,” said Cynthia Wesley-Esquimaux, who is also an Honorary Witness with the Truth and Reconciliation Commission and whose parents were both sent to residential schools.
“The minister needs to do a little bit more research and he needs to listen and he needs to speak to more indigenous peoples across the country.”
Lagimodiere’s apology sent to media late Friday appears to show that’s his intention.
“As newly appointed minister of Indigenous reconciliation and northern relations, I take seriously the responsibilities that I have been entrusted with, the most important being building relationships based on trust and respect with Indigenous and non-Indigenous Manitobans,” the statement reads in part.
“I am deeply committed to this journey of healing that requires listening, learning and creating understanding and I am committed to working collaboratively and respectfully with Indigenous leadership, Elders, Knowledge Keepers and community members as we seek reconciliation, healing and meaningful ways to move forward together.
“I am reaching out to Indigenous leaders to begin this important dialogue and to chart a path forward together to advance the very important work ahead of us.”
— With files from Joe Scarpelli and The Canadian Press