Take my class, Indigenous studies prof tells Manitoba premier after 'racist' comments

Indigenous activists and members of Manitoba's NDP and Liberal parties are calling recent comments made by Premier Brian Pallister about night hunting inflammatory, disgusting and racist.

Premier Brian Pallister's night hunting comments called divisive, racist and incorrect

Manitoba Premier Brian Pallister, speaking at a Progressive Conservative Party luncheon, said divisions between Indigenous and non-Indigenous people over hunting at night are 'becoming a race war.' (Christopher Katsarov/Canadian Press)

The head of the Native Studies department at the University of Manitoba is inviting Premier Brian Pallister to attend his class after comments from Pallister critics are calling inflammatory, disgusting and racist.

In an open letter to the premier on Facebook and an interview on CBC Manitoba's Radio Noon, Niigaan Sinclair said Pallister's comments on night hunting in an interview with Maclean's reporter Nancy Macdonald are divisive and incorrect.

Pallister was asked in the interview about the provincial debate over hunting at night.

"Young Indigenous men — a preponderance of them are offenders, with criminal records — are going off shooting guns in the middle of the night. It doesn't make sense," Pallister told the magazine.

Sinclair said he was confused and upset by the premier's words, but not surprised. He said the comment demonstrates ignorance about Indigenous issues resulting from a "flawed education" on the subject.

"While Indigenous kids in residential schools were taught that they were savage and they were heathens and they were violent, Canadians were taught the exact same thing and they were taught to feel superior, and that they had a sort of duty to control Indigenous people in every way," he said.

"The words of the premier is really in the vein of that history."

'Refocusing' on safety, premier's office says

As of Friday afternoon, the premier remained in Costa Rica. In response to a CBC News request for comment, a spokeswoman from his office sent a written statement via email.

She said the ongoing issue is the need to balance safety and sustainability with Indigenous rights.

Over the past five years, 77.5 per cent of charges for night lighting — a practice associated with night hunting — have involved people with treaty status, the spokeswoman said. Night lighting is illegal in Manitoba for non-Indigenous people and there are limitations about where those with treaty status can use the technique.

It's unclear how many of the charges resulted in convictions.

"Our government is reaching out to Indigenous community members and elders with the intent of refocusing the discussion where it belongs, on ensuring the safety and security of all Manitobans," she wrote.

Sinclair knows what he'd say to Pallister if the premier showed up at one of his classes:

"Have a seat, you're welcome here, and start reading."

'Absolutely disgusting language'

Indigenous activists and members of Manitoba's NDP and Liberal parties are criticizing the premier's comments.

"It is absolutely disgusting language. It is shocking language to be coming from a premier from any province across Canada," said Nahanni Fontaine, NDP MLA for Winnipeg's St. Johns area.

"To be able to blanket all young Indigenous men as criminals, as gun-toting, shooting thugs, is no different than what Donald Trump did throughout his campaign. It is one and the same: racialized, disgusting narrative."

Nahanni Fontaine, NDP MLA for Winnipeg's St. Johns area, said Brian Pallister 'absolutely unequivocally owes an apology to Manitobans for uttering such disgusting divisive language.' (Manitoba NDP)

"These comments are racist and irresponsible, and the premier has ceded any credibility in dealing with the issue of hunting rights in a way that respects all Manitobans," said NDP MLA Wab Kinew, who represents Winnipeg's Fort Rouge area.

Kinew also said the premier should enrol in sensitively training "and commit to the sort of training on Indigenous cultures and anti-racism outlined in the Truth and Reconciliation [Commission] calls to action."

Macdonald visited Pallister at his Costa Rica vacation home, where he spends several weeks a year. The remarks came on the heels of controversial comments he made at a Progressive Conservative Party luncheon on Jan. 16.

Speaking at that event, the premier said divisions between Indigenous and non-Indigenous people over hunting at night are "becoming a race war."

In the last year, the province has stepped up enforcement of night hunting laws, directing that at least 60 per cent of conservation officer shifts be devoted to enforcement. Forty-four night lighting charges were laid in 2016, which the spokeswoman said is an increase over previous years.

Rob Olson, managing director for the Manitoba Wildlife Federation, said the province needs to stop commenting publicly on the issue and work faster at creating dialogue with Indigenous people.

"The media is no place to work out a sensitive issue such as this. We believe that most hunters, Indigenous or non-Indigenous, are reasonable, ethical people who realize there is a problem, and who will find a solution," he said. The government "needs to get moving quickly on the consultations."

Calls for public apology

Niki Ashton, NDP MP for Churchill-Keewatinook Aski in northern Manitoba, called Pallister's comments "shocking and appalling."

"Here's a premier sitting in his mansion in Costa Rica making racist comments about Indigenous people in our province. I want Canadians to know that Brian Pallister does not speak for us as Manitobans."

Leah Gazan, an Indigenous activist and University of Winnipeg professor, said instead of being in Costa Rica, Pallister should be educating himself on treaty rights in Manitoba.

Leah Gazan, an Indigenous activist and University of Winnipeg professor, says instead of being in Costa Rica, Pallister should be educating himself on treaty rights in Manitoba. (CBC)

"You can't take a whole group of people, make those kinds of statements with all sorts of stereotypes and think that's OK," she said.

"First of all, he's stigmatized a whole group of people, and secondly, he clearly needs to be more well-versed about treaty and hunting rights that were agreed upon in treaty."

Johanna Wood, a spokeswoman for the Manitoba Liberal Party, called Pallister's words "inflammatory to Indigenous peoples.

"We're in an era where we still clearly have a long way to go as far as mending Indigenous relationships in Manitoba," she said.

"This type of language is divisive. We're one race, we're the human race. We're trying to see a respectful tone, especially at the highest levels of leadership in our province. More inclusive language can be a start." 

Kinew and Fontaine have called on Pallister to make a public apology to Manitobans generally and young Indigenous men specifically.

​"It is heartbreaking that the premier of Manitoba is so utterly divorced and clueless in respect of young Indigenous men and the strength and resiliency of young Indigenous men," said Fontaine. "The comment, absolutely it highlights how completely divorced Brian Pallister is from the people he claims to represent."

With files from Erin Brohman, Nadia Kidwai and Aidan Geary