Poilievre delivers speech to a group criticized for residential school 'denialism'

Conservative Leader Pierre Pollievre speaking in Winnipeg at Frontier Centre for Public Policy (FCPP), a controversial Winnipeg-based group that has been associated with efforts to downplay the effects of residential schools on Indigenous children and oppose vaccine mandates. (Jeff Stapleton/CBC - image credit)
Conservative Leader Pierre Pollievre speaking in Winnipeg at Frontier Centre for Public Policy (FCPP), a controversial Winnipeg-based group that has been associated with efforts to downplay the effects of residential schools on Indigenous children and oppose vaccine mandates. (Jeff Stapleton/CBC - image credit)

Conservative Leader Pierre Poilievre faced criticism from his political opponents Friday for delivering a speech to the Frontier Centre for Public Policy (FCPP), a controversial Winnipeg-based group that has been associated with efforts to downplay the effects of residential schools on Indigenous children and oppose vaccine mandates.

Before introducing Poilievre on Friday, the group's president, Peter Holle, said the FCPP is one of the "most prolific think tanks" and it publishes articles that "might rub you the wrong way."

Holle said the group is determined to "challenge false narratives" and claimed there's a "phoney-baloney discussion about climate" among the "chattering classes and commentariat."

In 2018, the FCPP ran radio ads claiming to debunk "myths" about Canada's residential schools. The ads dismissed as "myth" the claims that residential schools were responsible for "robbing native kids of their childhood" or the dramatic decline in Indigenous language skills.

It also published an article, written by a former residential school student and FCPP research associate, that sought to downplay the intergenerational effects of these institutions on First Nations communities.

The article, written by Mark DeWolf, criticized the Truth and Reconciliation Commission (TRC) for "spreading erroneous information."

"Recognizing the system as a bad one should not have us wildly exaggerating its failures, demonizing it, and allowing it to distract us from far more serious threats to First Nations individuals and communities," DeWolf wrote in his August 2018 piece for the FCPP.

The TRC conducted an exhaustive six-year study of the system. It concluded physical, mental and sexual abuse was rampant at the schools, and some 6,000 children died while in their care because of malnourishment or disease.

It also concluded the residential school system was a form of cultural genocide.

Brian Morris/CBC
Brian Morris/CBC

The FCPP also has posted commentary articles on its website that defended research into the connection between race and IQ. It recently published a post that decried "anti-white male policies," saying that such discrimination is the "only systemic discrimination there is."

Speaking to CBC on Friday, FCPP spokesperson David Leis said the centre tries to promote a variety of views and that it invites speakers from all political backgrounds to its events.

"People have a variety of perspectives in our country and what we need to do is be able to listen to each other and understand each other," Leis said.

A spokesperson for Poilievre said his appearance at the FCPP doesn't mean he endorses "the views of everyone who has ever worked for the group."

"Mr. Poilievre clearly does not agree with the opinions you've pointed out. We condemn all forms of racism and bigotry," his spokesperson said, adding that CBC faced its own accusations of systemic racism from one of its unions in 2020.

Crown-Indigenous Relations Minister Marc Miller said it was "appalling" that Poilievre would "associate himself with an organization like this, particularly after a day like today," he said. He was referring to the discovery of a jawbone fragment belonging to a child at a former residential school site.

Another Liberal cabinet minister, Northern Affairs Minister Dan Vandal, said it was "disheartening" to learn that Poilievre delivered a speech to the group and its followers.

Assembly of First Nations National Chief RoseAnne Archibald said efforts to downplay the harms of residential schools are "ignorant and unhelpful."

"I condemn any association with denialist views and the deep hurt they cause our survivors and their families," Archibald said in a media statement.

Poilievre uses speech to blast Trudeau

Poilievre did not address the criticisms during his Friday speech to the 500-strong crowd assembled at a Winnipeg conference centre for his appearance.

Instead, he delivered a blistering attack on Prime Minister Justin Trudeau, blaming Liberal policies for inflation, sky-high real estate prices, a shortage of children's medication, delays in passport processing and ongoing problems in air transportation, among other problems.

"He will never fix them and that's why we need to replace him with a new government that will work for the people," Poilievre said of Trudeau in his speech. "He will not fix these problems because he is the problem."

Poilievre promised to rein in the federal budget through a "pay-as-you go" law, which would demand that every dollar of new spending be matched by a cut to something else.

He also pledged to work with the provinces to speed up the certification of foreign-trained medical professionals to fill labour gaps in the health-care system.

Poilievre said he would not shy away from his pointed attacks on the Liberal government even though, he said, the conventional wisdom from the "Laurentian elite" and the "established liberal orthodoxy" is that he should moderate his positions after claiming the party's leadership.

"That is not how our system was designed. Our system was deliberately designed to make the most powerful people tremble in the House of Commons," he said.

Criticism of vaccine mandates

Like Poilievre, the FCPP has been critical of COVID-19-related vaccine mandates.

It published a web post decrying past proof-of-vaccination policies implemented by all levels of government as "a state-mandated invasion of our bodily autonomy." Another post, which took a similar position, called vaccine mandates "a politically expedient use of state authority to attack Canadian citizens."

Thomas Linner is the provincial director of the Manitoba Health Coalition, a group with ties to the provincial NDP and unions. He said it was inappropriate for Poilievre to stand "beside an organization that has espoused deeply divisive and extreme positions on vaccine and COVID-19 public health measures, support for the illegal and dangerous occupations of Canadian cities."

Other Canadian politicians have appeared at FCPP events, including former finance minister Paul Martin, who spoke to the group in 2002.