A few more members of Brian Pallister’s caucus have spoken out about widely condemned residential school remarks made by the new Indigenous reconciliation and northern relations minister, but the MLAs are shying away from addressing controversial comments from Manitoba’s premier.
CBC surveyed all of Pallister’s 35 Progressive Conservative MLAs, including Alan Lagimodiere, the newly appointed minister. Only four provided comments, though 10 others have posted on social media or previously answered questions from reporters.
The majority of Tory MLAs are opting for silence.
“Going against the leader in public is a pretty drastic thing,” said Mary Agnes Welch, a principal at Winnipeg polling firm Probe Research. “You lose perks, you lose committee appointments. It’s kind of the only arrow you have in your quiver, really.”
In the survey, MLAs were asked for their response to the widespread condemnation Pallister has endured for stating the people who came here to this country “didn’t come here to destroy anything, they came here to build,” and whether they backed those statements.
WATCH | ‘They didn’t come to destroy anything,’ premier says:
The politicians were not asked by CBC about Lagimodiere, who stirred up controversy himself on July 15 when he said the people who ran residential schools believed “they were doing the right thing.” He apologized the next day.
Radisson MLA James Teitsma, who was among the four MLAs to respond to CBC, said the “intentions of those who came before us are important,” but their actions matter more.
“We should all be able to agree that removing children from the homes of loving parents without their consent to send them to residential schools was bad. We should all be able to agree that subjecting those children to abuse and neglect was bad,” he said by email.
Tories condemn residential schools
Cathy Cox, minister of sport, culture and heritage, made it clear she opposes residential schools, which sought to “erase a complete culture,” she said.
“We must all work together as one to advance reconciliation and right the wrongs of the past,” said the Kildonan-River East MLA.
Roblin representative Myrna Driedger said she is prevented from responding to MLA’s comments as the Speaker, but said residential schools “were intended to erase Indigenous language and culture of the children.”
“As difficult as it is to hear many of the stories told by survivors, we must hear them because we can only move forward toward true reconciliation by listening, learning and building bridges,” Driedger said.
Len Isleifson said he has a duty as Brandon East MLA to advance reconciliation.
“I would like to state that while I may not be responsible for the past, I am on a team that is responsible for the future. That responsibility includes listening and learning so that the history of residential schools never happen again.”
Lagimodiere’s office referred to a previous statement that he’s busy speaking with Indigenous communities.
Eileen Clarke, who was replaced by Lagimodiere, declined further comment.
A statement she made on Facebook after resigning from the Indigenous relations post didn’t mention Pallister by name, but noted “strong leadership is required” for healing the country, adding that “inappropriate words and actions can be very damaging.”
Agriculture Minister Ralph Eichler declined to comment.
Opposition is rarely registered
It has been rare for any elected official under Pallister’s leadership to register opposition of any kind. The premier has fostered a central communications strategy in which dissent stays behind closed doors.
Welch said political observers have been parsing the language of recent public statements, but they shouldn’t be perceived as a mass admonishment.
The turmoil began with Pallister’s controversial remarks on July 7, as he was trying to soothe tensions after two statues were toppled on the grounds of the Manitoba Legislature on Canada Day.
“The people who came here to this country before it was a country, and since, didn’t come here to destroy anything,” the premier said. “They came here to build.”
Then Lagimodiere stirred up anger himself on July 15 when he defended the architects of residential schools.
WATCH | Manitoba minister under fire over residential schools comment:
In the days since, some MLAs chose to distance themselves from their colleagues’ remarks.
Families Minister Rochelle Squires wrote she is “deeply troubled by recent events and comments,” while on Twitter, Conservation and Climate Minister Sarah Guillemard said she could not “stand behind words that add hurt to traumatized people.”
McPhillips MLA Shannon Martin tweeted Clarke’s resignation was “understandable” and there should be no confusion about the terrible legacy of residential schools.
Most Tory MLAs making media appearances in subsequent days have been questioned about Pallister’s remarks. The premier has defended his comments, stating he was paying tribute to the people who built families and communities in Canada and was not referencing colonialism.
The strongest condemnation came from Guillemard last Friday, who repeated her social media statement she cannot support any statements that bring hurt to already traumatized people, “I don’t believe that anyone in their hearts intend[s] to do so, but again, we all need to listen, we all need to learn, and we need to grow together.”
When asked if she considers the premier’s comments an example of this, Guillemard said, “if that added hurt to traumatized people, absolutely.”
WATCH | Cabinet minister cannot back hurtful comments:
Meanwhile, Mental Health Minister Audrey Gordon said she supported the premier and Lagimodiere.
Asked for his personal position on Pallister’s comments, Infrastructure Minister Ron Schuler dodged the question, stating the PC government is committed to reconciliation and meaningful engagement.
At a media event last Friday, Central Services Minister Reg Helwer and Municipal Relations Minister Derek Johnson didn’t answer if they supported Pallister’s comments. Helwer said he’s learning a great deal about reconciliation and residential schools and Johnson said he’s committed to listening, educating himself and learning.
Justice Minister Cameron Friesen deflected similar questions on Tuesday, stating the path forward consists of dialogue as Manitobans reckon with the country’s fraught history.
Welch said most MLAs won’t turn on their party leader publicly. “Most MLAs are going to dance with the one that brought them,” the pollster said, noting this remains the same party that was re-elected twice with back-to-back majorities.
Comparisons have been drawn to the waning years of the NDP’s reign, when five dissident ministers revolted against the leadership of premier Greg Selinger. A leadership race was conducted, but Selinger held on. Pallister’s PCs beat the NDP in the next election in 2016.
With the Tories, there’s no imminent sign of a brewing rebellion, Welch said.
“Until somebody comes out and says pretty clearly, ‘I’ve lost confidence in my leader and I would like some kind of leadership review or I’m not running again’ or something, we are parsing tweets — big whoop.”
Recent polling from Probe suggests the NDP would win if a provincial election was held now, but a lot can change before the election slated for 2023. Welch some Tories may be holding onto the hope that Pallister will step down, as he’s previously hinted he won’t stay on for an entire term.