Manitoba's Indigenous relations minister resigns from cabinet after premier's comments on colonial history

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Eileen Clarke, MLA for Agassiz, was Manitoba's minister of Indigenous and northern relations until she resigned Friday — two days after Premier Brian Pallister  suggested the colonization of Canada was done with good intentions.  (CBC - image credit)
Eileen Clarke, MLA for Agassiz, was Manitoba's minister of Indigenous and northern relations until she resigned Friday — two days after Premier Brian Pallister suggested the colonization of Canada was done with good intentions. (CBC - image credit)

Eileen Clarke has resigned as Manitoba's Indigenous and northern relations minister after Premier Brian Pallister made comments last week that suggested the colonization of Canada was done with good intentions.

Clarke confirmed her resignation on Wednesday morning and said Pallister's comments were a factor in that decision, although she did not specify which comments.

Clarke says she will not speak further about her resignation right now out of respect for the Assembly of Manitoba Chiefs election on Wednesday. Her constituency office confirmed she is staying on in her role as a Member of the Legislative Assembly (MLA).

She says she resigned Friday afternoon. Two days earlier Pallister chastised people who had been involved in tearing down statues of Queen Victoria and Queen Elizabeth on the grounds of the Manitoba Legislature on Canada Day, after a walk held to remember Indigenous children who died at residential schools.

"We need to respect our heritage just as we need to respect one another.... Not to find fault, not to tear down, not to highlight every failure, but rather to realize that we're a complex country as we are made up of complex people," Pallister said at a news conference, adding the statues would be restored.

"The people who came here to this country — before it was a country and since — didn't come here to destroy anything. They came here to build. They came to build better."

WATCH | Pallister on Clarke's resignation:

Clarke was first elected as the Progressive Conservative MLA for the electoral district of Agassiz in 2016 and became the minister of Indigenous and municipal relations the same year, her profile on the government's website says. The ministry was later renamed.

She was re-elected as an MLA in 2019 and remained as minister until she resigned last week.

On Wednesday, Pallister would not comment on what reason Clarke gave for her resignation. The province later announced that Manitoba will see a cabinet shuffle Thursday morning.

'People have lost confidence'

Mary Jane Logan McCallum, a history professor at the University of Winnipeg and Canada Research Chair in Indigenous people, history and archives, says she was initially surprised to learn of Clarke's resignation but ultimately felt the move made sense.

"When you think about that kind of work that she has to do with First Nations people, how can she build those relationships and work with people when she represents … a party with that kind of leadership?" said McCallum, a member of the Munsee-Delaware Nation in Ontario.

Sean Kavanagh/CBC
Sean Kavanagh/CBC

McCallum says she's felt a sense of progress around issues related to Indigenous people over the last few years. And while comments like Pallister's can chip away at that sense, people taking a stand, like she feels Clarke did, can bolster it, she says.

"When you see this kind of movement within the party, [it feels] like maybe now, maybe this is actually going to be a larger movement for change," McCallum said.

Paul Thomas, a professor emeritus of political studies at the University of Manitoba, says it's still unlikely Pallister's remarks will be enough for anyone within the party to challenge his leadership, especially since he's left the door open to stepping down before his term is up.

But there's still room for others within the party to speak out against the comments, particularly since they came from a leader who "accounts for most of the troubles that the party has encountered," Thomas said.


"I think some people have lost confidence and trust in the premier. So we'll have to see if others join Ms. Clarke in coming forward. And that's uncertain at this point," he said.

Pallister stands by comments

At a news conference on Wednesday, Pallister said he stands by his comments.

"I continue to advocate that we build and not destroy," he said.

Opposition NDP Leader Wab Kinew said — following Pallister's remarks, which he called divisive and racist, and Clarke's subsequent resignation — the rest of the cabinet has a choice to make.

"I think the question is, for every remaining PC cabinet minister, do you stand by Mr. Pallister's racist comments? Or do you agree with Minister Clarke?" Kinew told reporters later Wednesday.

Meanwhile, PC MLA Shannon Martin (McPhillips) expressed regret about Clarke's resignation on Twitter but called her decision understandable. He described Clarke as "a tireless advocate for reconciliation."

John Woods/The Canadian Press
John Woods/The Canadian Press

'An act of integrity'

Several First Nations groups also put out statements in reaction to Clarke's resignation.

Leroy Constant, interim grand chief for the Assembly of Manitoba Chiefs, said he was disappointed to see Clarke leave her position but commended her for making an "honourable decision in light of recent events."

Treaty One Nation spokesperson Chief Dennis Meeches said Clarke has worked hard to build respectful relationships with First Nations leadership in Manitoba.

Meeches said it's unfortunate that Pallister's "approach and comments" toward Indigenous people "has made Ms. Clarke's job intolerable."

And Manitoba Keewatinowi Okimakanak Grand Chief Garrison Settee described Clarke's resignation as "an act of integrity."

"It must have been difficult to move forward with any goals connected to reconciliation given the challenging environment Eileen Clarke was working within," he said.

Premier's latest misstep

Pallister's comments last week, which were criticized by Indigenous and non-Indigenous scholars as ahistorical and insensitive, marked his latest stumble on issues related to Indigenous people in Manitoba.

In 2017, he said divisions between Indigenous and non-Indigenous people over illegal night hunting were "becoming a race war." Pallister did not apologize for those remarks, though he later walked them back by saying he used "the wrong choice of words."

In late 2020, the premier suggested the need to prioritize Indigenous people for COVID-19 vaccines would put Manitobans "at the back of the line" for doses if the province didn't receive a larger proportional share of shots.

Those comments were slammed by Indigenous leaders, including Settee, who asked for an apology.

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