"We are all committed to meaningful progress on reconciliation. The political showmanship of storming into someone else’s press conference to bully a Minister who was sworn in only 10 minutes earlier does nothing to advance that reconciliation. #mbpoli"
— A soon-deleted tweet from the Manitoba PC Caucus on Thursday afternoon
NDP Leader Wab Kinew just had one of the greatest moments of his political life.
There in front of the Grand Staircase of the Manitoba legislature, Mr. Kinew interrupted Indigenous Reconciliation and Northern Relations Minister Alan Lagimodiere, who was making statements to the press regarding his take on residential schools.
Only a few minutes earlier, Mr. Lagimodiere had been sworn into his new ministerial role, following the surprise resignation last Friday of former Indigenous and northern relations minister Eileen Clarke, who intimated this week that Pallister’s recent comments about how colonists were only trying to "build Canada" made her job impossible.
Based on the foot-in-mouth disease that has plagued Premier Brian Pallister regarding Indigenous relations in this province — not only last week, but over the course of his time in office — it would have behooved Mr. Lagimodiere to attempt to calm the waters.
If he was attempting to do this, he certainly did not succeed.
"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," Lagimodiere told reporters. "At the time, they really thought that they were doing the right thing. I’m saddened by the fact that it took individuals so long to recognize that process wasn’t working."
Further, Mr. Lagimodiere — who is Métis — said that those running the schools realized they had made a mistake, but had intended to provide a useful education to Indigenous people.
"They thought they were doing the right thing. In retrospect, it’s easy to judge."
A video of the press conference shows that at this point, Mr. Kinew — who is First Nations — walked up to Mr. Lagimodiere to confront him, thus interrupting the press conference.
"I cannot accept you saying what you just said about residential schools," Kinew said, further noting that officials had stated they wanted to use the schools to replace all Indigenous language and culture with European ways of life — to "kill the Indian" out of the child.
"Any right-minded person at the time should have known and would have known — and many did know, and spoke up against it," Kinew said.
For a good 90 seconds, the NDP leader schooled the new Indigenous reconciliation minister about exactly the kind of bumpy ride he will have trying to work with Indigenous communities if he is going to be an apologist for those who created and operated residential schools in this country.
Without doubt, we witnessed a small battle of wills playing out in real time, one that is both reflective of a larger social discussion in our society that is threatening to spark further anger and outrage, as well as open prejudice. Mr. Lagimodiere did not come out the victor.
The stories of hundreds of unmarked graves of Indigenous children found in former Indian Residential School properties in this country gave us a glimpse of the anger and resentment percolating within Indigenous communities in this country on Canada Day. And in response to that glimpse, we are now witnessing part of the pushback from non-Indigenous people who think they have done enough, and taken enough.
The PC Caucus tweet Thursday afternoon attempted to paint Mr. Kinew as a bully who unfairly interrupted a newly minted minister without giving him the chance to bask in the glory of his new portfolio before trying to tear him down. But that assertion did not hold true — one of the reasons, perhaps, that so many other Twitter users piled on with negative comments in response, forcing the party to remove the comment.
Mr. Kinew spoke truth to power, and thus punctuated the fact that Mr. Lagimodiere was either unfit to take on the fiery portfolio he now has in his possession due to his own outdated beliefs, or remained ignorant of the reality faced by too many Indigenous people in this province.
Mr. Lagimodiere expressed a belief during his press conference that he should take the time to learn from his predecessor, in this case Ms. Clarke, about the strengths and weaknesses in the department, and how best to move forward in the role.
And later on Twitter, he tried to clarify his comments by saying he "misspoke" during the press conference, and admitted the schools were "tragic and designed to assimilate Indigenous children and eradicate Indigenous culture." He also committed to addressing the legacy of residential schools.
We do hope that Mr. Lagimodiere takes this difficult moment to heart and learns from it, for we should not wish any minister to fail in their public roles. A poor minister can ruin any prior-built good will, and do a lot of damage to relations between government and Indigenous communities and organizations. No one needs that right now.
But the Pallister government, in its actions and comments this month, has done significant damage to the Tory brand in this province.
And as such, the wheel of fortune is rising in Wab Kinew’s favour.