The board member for the Rural Manitoba Economic Development Corporation who resigned after a minister defended residential schools last week says his unease with the provincial government had been growing before that incident.
"A lot had been building up, a lot of problems that made me rethink my participation as a volunteer board member," Darrell Brown said.
"But I kept putting them aside because I was working well with the board and we were really about to get busy with economic development. The comment from the premier on colonization was a huge blow, and I was trying to process that when along came this so-called reconciliation minister, and that was it. It was an accumulation."
Last Thursday, new Indigenous Reconciliation and Northern Relations Minister Alan Lagimodiere said during his first media availability after being sworn in that the creators of Canada’s residential school system thought they were doing the right thing and that the system was designed to provide Indigenous children with the skills to fit into society.
In response, both Brown and Jamie Wilson, who serves the Communities Economic Development Fund board, tendered their resignations.
Both men are Cree businessmen — Brown running Kisik Commercial Furniture and Kisik Clean Energy in Winnipeg and Wilson, a former deputy minister of Manitoba Growth, Enterprise and Trade and treaty commissioner.
The rural corporation is located in Brandon, with an office in the Brandon Chamber of Commerce building. Its creation was one of the few Westman-focused election promises made by the Progressive Conservatives during the 2019 provincial election.
Brown told the Sun by phone on Monday that while he knows Wilson, their departures were not co-ordinated, and he only found out about the other man’s resignation after he’d already submitted his own.
However, it didn’t surprise him given recent events.
Premier Brian Pallister drew ire when commenting about the damage to statues of Queen Victoria and Queen Elizabeth II on Canada Day by saying those who colonized what became Canada only came to build and not destroy. He also said that those who toppled the statues had no part in the reconciliation process.
"All along I’ve been watching the premier and how he handles interactions with First Nations and Métis," Brown said. "First of all, it’s horrible what he’s done fighting in public with the president of the (Manitoba Metis Federation) and so that has always been a sore spot. For me, it’s been a real concern. You don’t go out in public like that and air your differences. The other things have been smaller things, like yanking the cannabis from Long Plain First Nation out of retaliation for what they did."
Manitoba Justice is currently suing to impose a permanent injunction on Long Plain First Nation’s cannabis company, Indigenous Bloom Long Plain GP Ltd., over allegations that the retailer is making unlicensed sales of unregulated cannabis products.
After Lagimodiere’s comments last week, Brown said he became convinced the new minister didn’t know the history of Indigenous people in Canada and wouldn’t be able to deal properly with Indigenous organizations and people.
In his position on the board for the economic development corporation, he believed that co-chairs Chuck Davidson, also head of the Manitoba Chambers of Commerce, and Joe Masi, the former executive director of the Association of Manitoba Municipalities, supported him in his desire to include First Nations and Métis businesses in southern Manitoba as part of economic development.
He said the pandemic really slowed down progress at the corporation, especially in its search for a CEO. That position was only filled when Margot Cathcart started on the job in May.
"We were just about to sink our teeth into it, but things blew up in such a way that I could just no longer stay on," Brown said. "The board is the only reason I regret leaving. They were fabulous to work with."
Asked if there was any way he could be enticed into rejoining the board, Brown said that ship has sailed. However, he’s going to keep working on promoting Indigenous businesses by working on procurement issues with the federal government and the Assembly of First Nations. It’s something he wishes the Manitoba government had reached out to him about.
"I would like to see leadership change in the PC Party, and you need to get rid of that reconciliation minister since that bridge is burnt. That bridge is burnt for both of them, actually," Brown said about Lagimodiere and Pallister.
Cathcart didn’t want to comment on the reasons for Brown’s resignation since she has not talked to him directly on the matter, but said his presence would be missed.
"He was a great contributor to the vision of RMED and getting the underpinnings in place in order for us to be able to support all sorts of different communities outside of Winnipeg and the north," she said.
To get another Indigenous presence on the board, Cathcart said the corporation’s bylaws stipulate that the Aboriginal Chamber of Commerce and the Southern Chiefs’ Organization are both able to nominate possible appointees, with a final decision being made by the province.
In terms of regular operations at the corporation, Cathcart said she’s working remotely, as the office space is still being assembled for both employee use and for outside visitors. The corporation is also hiring staff to help Cathcart with operations. She’s hoping to finally be able to host guests sometime this fall.
» Twitter: @ColinSlark