Residential schools were part of genocide plan, Manitoba’s Indigenous reconciliation minister says

Manitoba’s recently appointed minister for Indigenous reconciliation and northern relations, who previously suggested residential schools were founded with good intentions, has once again said he believes the schools Indigenous children were forced to attend were part of a genocide.

During a celebration of the 150th anniversary of Treaty 1 on Tuesday, Alan Lagimodiere, who was sworn into the cabinet post last month, said that prime minister John A. Macdonald’s plan was to eliminate Indigenous people from Canada.

“It was genocide. There’s no way we can defend those actions. And those actions continued for years and years until the 1990s and they destroyed generations,” he said Tuesday.

He repeated that stance again on Wednesday, during a news conference announcing a design competition for a statue of Chief Peguis planned for the Manitoba legislative grounds.

The residential school system “wasn’t just cultural genocide. They weren’t just attempting to erase the culture,” Lagimodiere repeated on Wednesday.

“Sir John A. [Macdonald] and his plan was to eliminate Indigenous people from Canada. And that, to me, is genocide.”

Governments and Canadian citizens need to acknowledge how deeply wrong some of the decisions made by past leaders were and the lasting impact of those decisions, Lagimodiere said — not only for the Indigenous population but for all Canadians.

A group of students and a nun pose in a classroom at Cross Lake Indian Residential School in Cross Lake, Man., in a February 1940 archive photo. Lagimodiere said on Tuesday the residential school system “was genocide. There’s no way we can defend those actions.” (Library and Archives Canada)

While the 2015 Truth and Reconciliation Commission’s report concluded the residential school system was a cultural genocide, the 2019 report from the national inquiry into missing and murdered Indigenous women used the term genocide.

That distinction was acknowledged by Prime Minister Justin Trudeau when he accepted the report, and again earlier this year.

In June, Winnipeg Centre NDP MP Leah Gazan tabled a motion in the House of Commons seeking unanimous consent to call on the federal government to recognize what happened at residential schools as a genocide. The motion did not gain unanimous consent.

It’s believed Lagimodiere is the first member of Manitoba’s current cabinet to publicly say the residential school system was part of a genocide.

During his swearing into cabinet on July 15, Lagimodiere angered Indigenous leaders when he said the people who operated residential schools believed “they were doing the right thing.”

He issued an apology the next day and has been visiting First Nations communities recently on what he calls a listening and learning journey.

Reactions to Lagimodiere

The head of the Assembly of Manitoba Chiefs said he is not reassured by the minister’s comments.

Grand Chief Arlen Dumas said it is hard to tell if Lagimodiere’s reasons for using the word genocide are sincere or whether the minister is trying to get beyond the backlash his original comments caused.

“Fundamentally, these statements that he is making today are obviously a reaction and a realization of the ignorant and ill-informed comments that he made before,” Dumas said.

“I am glad that he is getting a proper historical education.”

Grand Chief Arlen Dumas of the Assembly of Manitoba Chiefs says he isn’t sure if Lagimodiere’s comments are sincere, but he’s glad the minister getting a proper historical education. (CBC)

Residential school survivor Vivian Ketchum is glad that Lagimodiere is “waking up and learning something,” but worries that little change will happen with Premier Brian Pallister at the helm of the Progressive Conservative government.

“There might be some members wanting to change, but Pallister is right up at the front there and that’s where everything’s going to stop at his level,” she said.

“If they want change, it’s not going to happen with Pallister in government.”

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