Manitoba officials' latest comments example of why Bill 64 should be scrapped, protesters say

People who gathered in front of Manitoba’s legislative building on Saturday say recent comments from the premier and the minister of Indigenous reconciliation about colonization and residential schools were 'an attempt to revise history' — and one more example of why the province’s proposed education overhaul should be struck down.

Proposed bill would see elected school boards dissolved, replaced with appointed education authority

Dozens of people are pictured on the steps of the Manitoba legislative building on Saturday, many wearing either a red shirt to protest Bill 64 or an orange one in memory of children who died at residential schools. (Justin Fraser/CBC)

People who gathered in front of Manitoba's legislative building on Saturday say recent comments from the premier and the minister of Indigenous reconciliation about colonization and residential schools were "an attempt to revise history" — and one more example, they say, of why the province's proposed education overhaul should be struck down.

That proposed legislation, known as Bill 64, would see elected school boards dissolved and replaced with a provincial education authority with people appointed by the government — something that raises concerns for Chantal Shivanna Ramraj, who teaches grades 3 and 4.

"Based on the comments of this government, we can imagine who they will appoint," Ramraj said at the "no truth, no reconciliation" rally against residential school denial and Bill 64 put on by community group Protect Ed MB.

"And we can imagine what directives they will give teachers."

Manitoba Premier Brian Pallister drew ire last week when, in response to the toppling of two statues of British queens on Canada Day, he made comments that were widely criticized as suggesting colonization was done with good intentions.

Those comments, which he later stood by, led to the resignation of his Indigenous relations minister, Eileen Clarke, who was later replaced by backbench MLA Alan Lagimodiere as the new minister of Indigenous reconciliation.

Lagimodiere immediately sparked criticism when he said the people who ran residential schools believed "they were doing the right thing" — a statement for which he issued an apology late Friday afternoon.

Chantal Shivanna Ramraj teaches grades 3 and 4 and was among the protesters on the legislative grounds on Saturday. (Justin Fraser/CBC)

High school history teacher Michael Kirkness said many educators were deeply offended by those comments.

"We feel that it's our duty to not only teach … our history properly, but make sure that the powers that be aren't rewriting history to suit their own ends," said Kirkness, who is from Fox Lake Cree Nation and is the son and grandson of residential school survivors.

He called the officials' comments "completely tone deaf" and said he thinks Pallister should step down as premier.

"It's pretty clear that they don't really have any idea as to how to tackle these issues pertaining to the legacy of residential schools," Kirkness said.

Michael Kirkness, who teaches high school students history, said educators like him feel a duty to make sure students are learning what really happened. (Justin Fraser/CBC)

Leaders 'need to self-educate'

While many at the rally were those who teach, others were there to learn.

Wanda Guenette and her friend Leora Almstrom said they've been working recently to educate themselves on the history of residential schools in Canada.

Leora Almstrom and Wanda Guenette say they've been working to learn more about Canada's history of residential schools — and they want provincial leaders to do the same. (Justin Fraser/CBC)

"We have been told lies for most of our education. And it's a bit daunting to me, because I actually at one point represented Canada," said Guenette, a retired Team Canada volleyball player.

Almstrom agreed.

"I feel, as a Métis, that I don't know enough. I am ignorant of the truth and I seek the truth. And whatever I can do to learn more, to be educated, I'm on that mission," she said.

They said they wish Manitoba's government officials would put in the same work.

"They need to self-educate. I mean, there are people here self-educating, people out there are self-educating, and our leaders are just spewing things that they think are right and it's not," Guenette said.

Fifteen-year-old Dominic Eidse said his English teacher spent time last year teaching his class about genocides.

The soon-to-be Grade 10 student said it had a huge effect on him, and he hopes those kinds of lessons — including lessons about Canada's own history — will become more common in schools.

High school student Dominic Eidse was also among those at the rally on Saturday. (Justin Fraser/CBC)

"I think it's a very important thing to know to keep it from happening again," he said.

"There were so many things that I didn't know before this year."

Cliff Cullen, Manitoba's education minister, has previously suggested changes could be made to Bill 64 over the summer. 

The legislation is expected to get a second reading in the legislature this fall before being subject to committee hearings. By the end of June, nearly 500 people had registered to speak at those hearings — the largest number on record, according to Legislative Assembly of Manitoba staff.

With files from Erin Brohman and Riley Laychuk