Two toppled statues set the stage for big changes in Manitoba

Few could have foreseen it at the time, but the overthrow of two statues on the grounds of the Manitoba legislature in July would end up having far-reaching effects on Manitoba politics.

The government response, led by comments that were repeatedly reviewed, would lead to the resignation of a cabinet minister, elicit veiled criticism of then-Prime Minister Brian Pallister from members of the government committee, and may have hastened the departure of Pallister from the prime minister’s office.

“It is part of the moral duty of a politician, it seems to me, not to inflame social divisions, but to seek to build consensus and support for the actions they propose to take,” said Paul Thomas, emeritus professor of political studies at the University of Manitoba.

The two statues were tied with ropes and thrown to the ground during a Canada Day demonstration for the deaths of indigenous children in residential schools.

The statue of Queen Victoria, larger and prominently placed near the main entrance to the legislature grounds, had its head removed. A smaller statue of the Queen located near the lieutenant governor’s residence was torn down, but remained largely intact.

The actions followed the discovery of anonymous graves and the remains of up to 215 children at the site of the former Kamloops Indian Residential School in British Columbia.

Grand Chief Arlen Dumas of the Manitoba Assembly of Chiefs was at a separate event when the statues were damaged.

“I don’t condone vandalism … but I think the statues that were knocked down were a symptom of a bigger problem,” Dumas, the son of a survivor from a residential school, recalled in a recent interview.

“People have to keep in mind what was happening to our communities at that time.”

The following week, Pallister denounced the vandalism at a lengthy press conference and asked people to build rather than tear down. He said that the people who came to Canada, both before and after it was a country, did not come to destroy but to build communities, farms, businesses and churches.

Two toppled statues and the response from the #Manitoba prime minister set major changes in motion. #mbpoli

The comments were widely condemned as a defense of colonialism. Pallister Indian Affairs Minister Eileen Clarke resigned from the Progressive Conservative cabinet. Some caucus members took to social media to distance themselves from the comments.

Clarke’s replacement, Alan Lagimodiere, immediately landed in trouble when he said the original intentions behind residential schools weren’t all bad. While Lagimodiere and Pallister apologized, the fallout continued when two indigenous men resigned from government-designated economic development agencies.

Pallister said at the time that he was not speaking out in defense of colonialism, that he was calling on all people to work together, and his words were misunderstood and twisted by the media.

Since then, he has revealed that the comments had undergone various changes as part of a prepared statement.

“It was the fifth draft of that text,” Pallister said in an interview with The Canadian Press shortly before leaving office.

“And the third draft said ‘the people who came here long before there was a Canada – indigenous, non-indigenous and Métis – they didn’t come to destroy, they came to build,’ and I took it out because it wasn’t inclusive enough.”

Some people wrongly assumed that in the final draft he used, he was saying that only non-indigenous people were builders, Pallister said, when he was referring to everyone.

Pallister left that press conference on July 7 feeling that he had spoken to unify people, not realizing the anger that awaited him.

“When we came out of the press conference, my assistant said ‘it’s the best press conference you’ve ever done.’

While Pallister had hinted that he would leave politics before the end of his term in 2023, he was expected to stay for some time. He had said he would be prime minister until the pandemic ended and had talked about hosting his fellow prime ministers at a conference scheduled for October.

He surprised many with a resignation announcement in August at the start of a conservative caucus retreat in Brandon, Man.

As for the statues, the government is still working to determine whether they will be repaired and where they could be located. The government had previously committed to having a monument to Chief Peguis, which would be the first statue of a First Nations person on the grounds of the legislature.

That project is still ongoing and will be welcomed by Dumas.

“I think this is an opportune moment to correct some of the historical disrespect that has occurred … and actually create some statues that truly reflect what Manitoba really is.”

This Canadian Press report was first published on December 28, 2021.

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