Indigenous affairs minister steps down from Manitoba cabinet following premier’s comments about colonial settlers

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WINNIPEG —
Cracks could be forming around the Pallister Government as a member of the premier‘s inner circle has resigned following controversial comments Pallister made about colonial settlers – comments he says he stands by.

CTV News Winnipeg confirmed on Wednesday that Indigenous and Northern Affairs Minister Eileen Clarke, the PC MLA for Agassiz, has left the position.

“It’s a big deal because a minister resigned because of a direct conflict with the premier,” Royce Koop, a political scientist at the University of Manitoba, told CTV News.

The resignation comes a week after the premier made controversial comments about colonial settlers in the wake of the toppling of statues by Indigenous protestors.

“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,” Pallister said following the toppling.

“They built farms and they built businesses and they built communities and churches, too.”

“Cabinet ministers, like all of us, have the opportunity to decide on their own future,” Pallister said. “I respect Eileen’s decision.”

Pallister’s comments on colonial settlers upset several Indigenous leaders and others who saw them as revisionist and insensitive.

“The premier’s comments last week about Indigenous peoples were divisive and they were racist, they were terrible,” said NDP Leader Wab Kinew.

On Wednesday, Pallister said he stands by the comments he made, and said his government is focused on working with Indigenous groups.

The premier added he has ‘tremendous respect’ for Clarke’s work, but would not say what reasons Clarke gave regarding her resignation.

“Cabinet ministers, like all of us, have the opportunity to decide on their own future,” Pallister said. “I respect Eileen’s decision.”

The resignation prompted Indigenous leaders to commend Clarke for her choice, saying her job became difficult because of a tense relationship between the premier and First Nations.

On Wednesday, the Assembly of Manitoba Chiefs (AMC) Interim Grand Chief Leroy Constant – who called Pallister’s comment ‘abhorrent and offensive’ – said the AMC was disappointed to hear of Clarke’s resignation, but commends her decision.

“Ms. Clarke has had a difficult job over the last several years, a job that is difficult at the best of times,” Constant said in a statement.

“However, the difficulty has been exacerbated recently by a tense First Nations’ relationship with the Premier, a global pandemic and the province’s difficult journey of truth and reconciliation with First Nations peoples in this province.”

A thought echoed by Manitoba Liberal Leader Dougald Lamont.

“I can understand why she quit, which is the Premier made her job absolutely impossible to do,” he said.

Lamont is not alone, as frustration may be brewing from within Pallister’s own caucus. PC MLA Shannon Martin tweeted about Clarke’s resignation.

“S***y that it’s come to this, but her decision is understandable,” Martin tweeted on Wednesday.

Pallister has signalled he might not stay on for the full term. With low polling numbers, some say Clarke’s cabinet departure might not be the last one as potential leadership hopefuls could try to distance themselves.

“If the Premier doesn’t add some clarity to the timetable for which he’s going to resign, we might start to see more resignations from the cabinet, we see more of that kind of rebelliousness,” said Koop.

CTV News asked the premier if he feels he has the full backing of the cabinet and caucus.

“Yes,” said Pallister. “Because I do.”

As for Clarke’s replacement, that announcement will come Thursday morning as the Premier is set to shuffle his cabinet and announce new ministers.

Clarke’s constituency office said she was declining media requests Wednesday out of respect for the AMC election. 

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