Why does Brian Pallister, Premier of Manitoba, choose to whitewash the brutal truth about Indigenous history?

Since the publication of the Truth and Reconciliation report 6 years ago, we have learned as a country that we need to learn the real history of Canada. Embracing this truth makes us stronger as a nation, unites Canadian society and teaches our kids that we must always do our best, especially when it’s hard.

Her Excellency the Right Honourable Mary Simon, 30th Governor General of Canada. Installation Speech

On July 7, Brian Pallister put his foot in his mouth ….again!

“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,” Pallister said. “They came to build better … and they built farms, and they built businesses, and they built communities and churches, too.”

Pallister’s comments came after the toppling of statues of Queen Victoria and Queen Elizabeth II on the grounds of the Manitoba legislature by people protesting the deaths of Indigenous children at residential schools at multiple sites across the country. His comments gloss over the flip side of colonialism – the building of Canada was only possible through the expropriation of Indigenous lands by breaking treaties signed in good faith, forced displacement of Indigenous people from their traditional territories and the brutal – some would say genocidal -assimilation policies enforced through legislation like the Indian Act – still in effect in 2021!

The result:

  • On July 9, Eileen Clarke, Minister of Indigenous and Northern Affairs quit her cabinet post in protest against Pallister’s comments about “colonial settlers”. She also stated that “many Manitobans are disappointed with their representatives and added that she and other cabinet ministers had not been listened to (Globe and Mail, July 14))
  • On July 14, PC MLA Shannon Martin tweeted about Clarke’s resignation. “S***y that it’s come to this, but her decision is understandable.” (CTV News)
  • On July 16, Families Minister Rochelle Squires said ” I want nothing more than for my grandson and all Indigenous people to live in a country brave enough to accept the awful truth of what happened and to commit to doing better.” (CBC)
  • On July 17, the new Minister of Indigenous Reconciliation and Northern Affairs “sincerely apologizes for his words and ask for forgiveness” for defending some of the intentions behind residential schools and said they were originally aimed at teaching skills to Indigenous children. His comments came during his first press scrum minutes after he was appointed as the new Minister and was immediately challenged by Wab Kinew, provincial leader of the NDP (Toronto Star)
  • On July 18, two Indigenous men quit their positions on Manitoba economic development boards. “As a former treaty commissioner for Manitoba and member of Opaskwayak Cree Nation, I cannot support this government’s rewriting of Canadian history,” Wilson wrote in a text message Sunday. “It was clear to me that I have to get away from any connection to this [Progressive Conservative] party,” Darrell Brown said in an interview.
  • On July 21 Conservation and Climate Minister Sarah Guillemard posted on Twitter that she could not “stand behind words that add hurt to traumatized people.” (Globe and Mail)

What does the above say about leadership? As the premier of a province, Brain Pallister is out of sync with members of his own party and even more importantly with the general population of his province and his country. The discovery of more than 1,447 unmarked graves – and counting – of primarily Indigenous children has generated a significant shift in Canadian support for Indigenous people. According to a national poll conducted by the Canadian Race Relations Foundation, the Assembly of First Nations and Abacus Data, this is the reality:

  • 93% of Canadians are aware of the discovery of the remains at the site of the Kamloops Indian Residential School with 58% following the news closely
  • 62% of Canadians believe the provincial education curricula do not include nearly enough about residential schools
  • 65% believe the education around residential schools should increase
  • 70% of survey respondents say that the framing of residential schools has been downplayed in the education system

In the words of interim Grand Chief of the Assembly of Manitoba Chiefs Leroy Constant “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.” (Globe and Mail, July 7, 2021).

In a press conference on the steps of the Manitoba Legislature on Monday, the Summit of Treaty 5 Sovereign Nations (Treaty 5) presented their Action Plan on Hate Crime and Racism.  The purpose of the 12-point plan was to “combat hate crime and racism triggered by the Manitoba Conservative government’s deliberate attempt to distort the history of First Nations, which minimize the effects of colonialism, and the policy of genocide at Indian Residential Schools.” (Toronto Star, July 19, 2021)

Pallister is out of touch with reality, says Mary Jane Logan McCallum, a history professor at the University of Winnipeg and Canada Research Chair in Indigenous people, history and archives. (CBC, July10, 2021). “I think his knowledge of Manitoba history is about 50 years out of date, maybe 60 years out of date,” said the member of Munsee Delaware Nation in Ontario…Settlers in Canada did come to build farms, businesses and churches as Pallister says, but that building came from dispossessing and destroying Indigenous peoples’ way of life, she said.

In the 1870s, the numbered treaties that cover Manitoba were signed by the Crown and First Nations leaders. They allowed the Canadian government to actively pursue agriculture, settlement, transportation links and resource development in exchange for payment or other promises, the Treaty Commission of Manitoba says. Within a few short years, though, McCallum says land was given to settlers in exchange for small, remote reserves and First Nations treaty rights were never fully realized. Then came the deluge of government and church-run programs that attempted to assimilate Indigenous people and “take the Indian out of the child.”

The idea that “to build you always have to tear down” suggests “that what is being torn down doesn’t matter — it’s not relevant, it’s not meaningful,” McCallum said. “In a way, that fails to bring a really deep analysis to our country’s history and it allows us to get through with a really positive story of progress.”

Speaking of history, in a speech celebrating the 150th anniversary of the entry of Manitoba into confederation in 1870, Pallister refused to make any reference to the contributions of Indigenous people and, in particular, to the Métis whose leader, Louis Riel, actually negotiated Manitoba’s entry into Canada. And, if truth be told, the promises made to Riel and the Métis were broken, the promised land was never granted and the diaspora of the Métis began.

Truth is not one-sided. Pallister’s mantra seems to be “I define” the truth by what I say. Period.

By the way, on August 3, 2021, Manitoba Premier Brian Pallister apologized for his recent and widely condemned remarks on Canadian history, but said his heart was in the right place. (CBC)

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