Political experts say Manitoba PCs will have a hard time recovering from residential school blunder

Political experts say the odds are stacked against new minister Alan Lagimodiere's ability to advance the Indigenous reconciliation portfolio.

Intergenerational survivor calls Alan Lagimodiere's remarks ‘disturbing, appalling’

Manitoba’s new Indigenous reconciliation minister called out for residential school comments

2 years ago
Duration 2:00
On his first day as Manitoba's new Indigenous reconciliation and northern affairs minister, Alan Lagimodiere was publicly taken to task by Opposition leader Wab Kinew for saying that those who once ran residential schools thought they were 'doing the right thing.'

Political experts say Alan Lagimodiere and the Progressive Conservatives will have a tough time restoring their public image following Thursday morning's blunder at the Manitoba legislature. 

Minutes after he was sworn in as minister of Indigenous reconciliation and northern relations, Lagimodiere said those who ran residential schools believed "they were doing the right thing."

"In retrospect, it's easy to judge the past. But at the time, they really thought that they were doing the right thing," said the MLA for Selkirk. 

He was then interrupted by Manitoba NDP Leader Wab Kinew, who said he could not accept Lagimodiere's comments, which appeared to be defending residential schools. 

"It was the expressed intent of residential schools to kill the Indian in the child," Kinew said. "We all know that that was wrong." 

Manitoba NDP Leader Wab Kinew said he could not accept Lagimodiere's comments, which appeared to be defending residential schools. (Ian Froese/CBC)

Kinew went on to say that Lagimodiere can't do that if he wants to work with Indigenous communities.

Lagimodiere on Thursday issued a statement walking back his comments, before issuing a full apology late in the day on Friday.

His remarks follow a string of events attracting public scrutiny of the Conservative government. 

Earlier this week, Agassiz MLA Eileen Clarke resigned from her position as minister of Indigenous and northern relations, saying some of Pallister's comments were a factor in her decision, but not specifying which ones prompted it. 

Last week, Premier Brian Pallister sparked outrage when he said people who came to Canada before it was a country "came here to build" and chastised those who tore down statues of Queen Victoria and Queen Elizabeth on Canada Day.

'It stirs up anger' 

Eva Wilson Fontaine, team lead with Anish Corporation, an organization providing emotional support services to residential school survivors calls the moment "disturbing" and "appalling."

Eva Wilson Fontaine is the team lead for Anish Corporation, a group that works with indian residential school survivors. She called Lagimodiere's comments 'disturbing' and 'appalling.' (Lenard Monkman/CBC)

Fontaine said many of her family members — mother, grandparents and great grandparents — are residential school survivors and when she heard Lagimodiere's comment, she was angry. 

"Under that anger, there's hurt," she said. "After hearing of these young children's deaths and to make a statement like that? It stirs up anger, for sure." 

A 'disastrous start,' expert says

Kelly Saunders, an associate professor of political science at Brandon University, said Lagimodiere's ability to continue as minister of Indigenous reconciliation and northern relations will be fraught. 

A woman sits at her desk smiling.
Brandon University associate professor Kelly Saunders says the PCs missed an opportunity to show grace, humility and self-reflection when they appointed a new minister of Indigenous reconciliation and northern relations. (Submitted by Kelly Saunders)

"I think it's going to be extremely difficult, if not virtually impossible, for the new minister to be able to advance that agenda," she said. 

Saunders said on his first day as minister, Lagimodiere showed he agreed with some of Pallister's troubling statements. 

"It's not the way you want to start off in a new portfolio," she said. 

Mary Agnes Welch, pollster and partner at Probe Research, said Lagimodiere already has "two strikes against him." 

"He had this disastrous start and he's got to try to make up and restart relationships with Indigenous leaders who quite rightly are deeply mistrustful and deeply angry at this government," she said. 

Probe Research's Mary Agnes Welch says it will hard for the PCs to recover from Lagimodiere's blunder. (Tyson Koschik/CBC)

'That job is innately difficult because of this government's approach to some of these Indigenous groups and issues," said Welch. 

'Great moment for Wab Kinew' 

Saunders said the confrontation on Thursday was also a shining moment for Kinew because he spoke out about a personal and traumatizing issue. 

"To rise above that and to call someone out on that in a very public way, I think was an incredible act of courage so I really applaud him for that," Saunders said. 

"It was a great moment for Wab Kinew to show the leader that he wants to be," she said. 

Welch said the moment was a "train wreck" for the Conservatives and suggests there could be deeper trouble for the party. 

"I don't know if you can recover from [Thursday]," she said. 

"I suspect a great many MLAs and cabinet ministers are pretty shell shocked from that whole press availability and the myriad of ways it went wrong and wondering really about the stability of this government."

Although another provincial election doesn't have to be called until October 2023, Welch said Thursday's events may have been significant enough to stay in the minds of swing voters.

"I think it's very difficult to get elected in this province with those views. You will not win Winnipeggers, you will not win suburban women," she said.

"The new minister's comments may resonate with ... a fairly small section of Tories. It will do nothing but alienate all of those voters that they need to win back, if they're going to stay in government."

With files from Jim Agapito, Wendy Parker and Stephen Ripley