Conservative party leader Pierre Poilievre said his government would “fully fund all the inquiries” into graves at former residential school sites, shortly after speaking to a Winnipeg-based group that has come under fire for comments on residential schools and discrimination.
The Winnipeg-based think tank ran radio ads in 2018 that said it was a myth that residential schools robbed Indigenous children of their childhood.
Last summer, the centre posted a commentary on its website that said stories about murdered and secretly buried residential schoolchildren are highly suspicious, if not completely false.
And last month, the centre posted an article that said anti-white male policies represent the only systemic discrimination there is.
Poilievre defended his decision to speak at the luncheon.
“We speak with groups all the time with which we disagree,” Poilievre said in an interview with The Canadian Press following his speech.
When asked about his thoughts on reconciliation in an interview with Global News, Poilievre said he would take “a different approach” to the efforts if elected, and vowed his government “would fully fund all the inquiries into human remains at the, or near the sites of residential schools.”
He said he would work to bring clean drinking water to “every reserve and every community” by making some of the payments to contractors tasked with setting up water systems on First Nations contingent on those clean water systems “continuing to work for years to come.”
“Our First Nations people deserve clean drinking water,” he said.
Poilievre also promised to revisit Canada’s Indian Act, which he called “a disaster.”
“It’s a racist, colonial, hang-over that gives all the control to self-serving and incompetent politicians, bureaucrats, and lobbyists in Ottawa and takes away the control from the First Nations themselves,” he said.
“I want to make it easier for First Nations that want to opt out of the Indian Act, to do so. So that they can control their own money, their own land, their own resources and their own decisions.”
Poilievre took heat on social media Friday for his decision to speak at the FCPP meeting.
Federal Liberal cabinet minister Dan Vandal, who represents the Winnipeg riding of Saint Boniface—Saint Vital ,accused Poilievre of promoting ideas and organizations that do not represent Winnipeg or Manitoba.
Marc Miller, the federal minister of Crown-Indigenous relations, also criticized the Conservative leader.
“In 2008, Mr. Poilievre rightfully apologized for saying that residential school survivors, many of whom were of very advanced age, should learn the value of hard work. Today’s stunt puts into question that apology,” read a post on Miller’s Twitter account.
Poilievre said his feelings are clear.
“I obviously support reconciliation and I believe that residential schools are an ugly and horrific blight on our history of the country.”
Poilievre also fired back at his opponents, saying Liberal and NDP politicians in the past have spoken to the frontier centre.
His staff provided examples, including former federal finance minister Paul Martin giving an interview to the centre 21 years ago and former governor general and Manitoba NDP premier Ed Schreyer speaking at a centre luncheon in 2013, 29 years after he last held public office.
Poilievre also compared the situation to federal NDP Leader Jagmeet Singh’s support for Prime Minister Justin Trudeau’s minority government, after Trudeau admitted to having used blackface and brownface in costumes during his younger days.
Officials at the frontier centre did not immediately return requests for comment.
Poilievre’s speech was part of a day-long visit to the Manitoba capital, where a byelection is soon expected to fill the Winnipeg South Centre seat held by Liberal member of Parliament Jim Carr, who died in December.
The seat has a long Liberal tradition, although the Conservatives won it for a term in 2011.
Poilievre said he will be campaigning in the riding and expressed optimism.
“I think people in Manitoba have suffered enough under Trudeau and they want a change.”
— with files from Global’s Melissa Ridgen and Steve Lambert at The Canadian Press