3 strikes and you're outed: Brian Pallister makes another inflammatory comment about Indigenous relations

Pallister is doubling down on his sunny take on colonial history, much the same way he tripled and quadrupled down on claims his government did everything it could to prevent the second and third waves of COVID-19.

Brian Pallister's latest gaffe — and reluctance to acknowledge it — further illustrates his unusual leadership

Premier Brian Pallister followed up his 'race war' and back-of-the-vaccine-line comments with a claim colonialism played out with the best of intentions. (Gary Solilak/CBC)

During five years as Manitoba's premier, Brian Pallister has made a trio of statements his critics can fairly describe as impediments to reconciliation.

Speaking in Virden in 2017, Pallister characterized divisions between Indigenous and non-Indigenous people over illegal night hunting as the makings of "a race war." 

He later walked back those comments as "the wrong choice of words," but did not apologize for them.

Late in 2020, the premier suggested the need to prioritize the Indigenous population for COVID-19 vaccinations "puts Manitobans at the back of the line" for doses if the province does not receive a greater proportional share of shots.

The implication, as Sen. Murray Sinclair noted, was Indigenous people are not Manitobans.

In spite of that rhetoric, the province went on to partner with the First Nations Pandemic Response Team on what is widely regarded as a successful effort to ensure vaccines made their way to Indigenous communities.

The third statement arrived on Wednesday, when the premier issued a plea to Manitobans who remain angry about the discovery of the remains of hundreds of children at several Canadian residential schools.

During a speech intended to calm the waters, Pallister instead whipped up a storm by suggesting the colonization of Canada was conducted with good intentions.

"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."

This comment has been characterized as ahistorical and insensitive by Indigenous and non-Indigenous scholars alike.

That is not hyperbole. For starters, nations existed in what's now Manitoba before 1619, when Jens Munck's crew of hapless Hudson Bay sailors became the first Europeans to set foot on what would eventually become this province.

More significantly, the colonization of this continent did involve deliberate efforts to destroy Indigenous people.

In 2017, Pallister said night hunting by Indigenous men is becoming a 'race war.' (Submitted by the Manitoba Wildlife Federation)

As more Canadians are aware than ever, residential schools were created with the stated intention of eradicating Indigenous languages and erasing Indigenous cultures as part of an effort to assimilate the people who lived here centuries and millennia before the first trans-Atlantic voyages.

Nonetheless, the premier bristles at any suggestion his latest comments were offensive.

On Friday, his office claimed critics misrepresented the premier's statement and insisted Pallister has spent his career attempting to improve the lives of Indigenous people.

In other words, Pallister is doubling down on his sunny take on colonial history, much the same way he tripled and quadrupled down on claims his government did everything it could to prevent the second-wave of COVID-19 from decimating personal care homes and the third wave from overwhelming intensive care wards.

"When you're premier and you're wanting to hold on to power for your party moving forward, and you know you've been experiencing some drops in the polls and maybe some calls for your resignation, you would think you would be a little bit more sensitive and tuned in to walking a more careful path," said Kelly Saunders, a Brandon University political scientist.

"These were not politically smart comments for him to make, even if he thought it, even if he deeply holds these beliefs. It's one thing to think it; It's another thing to say it."

In 2020, Pallister said Manitoba's need to prioritize vaccinating its large Indigenous population against COVID-19 'puts Manitobans at the back of the line' for vaccines. (John Woods/The Canadian Press)

The drops in the polls for Manitoba's Progressive Conservatives are demonstrable. They're also reversible, if a new and perhaps more compassionate-sounding PC leader replaces Pallister some time between now and the next provincial election.

There is no obvious candidate within the PC caucus to step into that role. If cabinet ministers Cameron Friesen and Heather Stefanson still have leadership ambitions, they would be vulnerable to election-time attacks due to their respective roles as health ministers during Manitoba's disastrous efforts to manage the pandemic's second and third waves.

There isn't even an obvious candidate to serve as an interim leader for Tory MLAs to temporarily rally behind if Pallister does depart early. Committing regicide isn't easy, as the NDP demonstrated so dramatically during the failed effort to usher Greg Selinger out of office in 2015.

Publicly, no PC MLA has uttered a negative peep about either Pallister's pandemic performance or his comments this week.

Some may not be running again. Others may value party loyalty. Yet others may be afraid to stick out their necks.

"I would have expected to see perhaps an individual or two maybe beginning to distance themselves," Saunders said. "It hasn't happened yet."

The nature of Pallister's leadership is also a factor. The premier tends to speak for his entire government and only occasionally provides his cabinet ministers the latitude to opine on policy issues. Other MLAs are sometimes seen but rarely heard.

"In the first few years of his time as premier, being a bit of a one-man show was in some ways a benefit. He had clear ideas of his own. He was on his own track. He did pretty aggressive things," said Mary Agnes Welch, a principal at Winnipeg polling firm Probe Research.

"I think these days when we are in the midst of a crisis that requires a lot of input, a real understanding of how Manitobans feel and what their behaviours are, now is the time when a good leader needs to listen and take into account all of those views."

It is unclear how many people this premier turns to for advice. Assuming someone vetted his speech on Wednesday, it's also fair to ask whether he listens to it.


Bartley Kives

Senior reporter, CBC Manitoba

Bartley Kives joined CBC Manitoba in 2016. Prior to that, he spent three years at the Winnipeg Sun and 18 at the Winnipeg Free Press, writing about politics, music, food and outdoor recreation. He's the author of the Canadian bestseller A Daytripper's Guide to Manitoba: Exploring Canada's Undiscovered Province and co-author of both Stuck in the Middle: Dissenting Views of Winnipeg and Stuck In The Middle 2: Defining Views of Manitoba.