Mere minutes after being sworn in on Thursday, the new minister of Indigenous reconciliation in Manitoba, Canada, found himself in hot soup for defending the country’s so-called “residential schools,” where thousands of Indigenous children were held after being forcibly taken from their families.
Alan Lagimodiere, the minister, was answering a question about the schools at a news conference when an opposition leader interrupted him.
“They thought they were doing the right thing,” Lagimodiere said of the people running the residential school system at the time. “In retrospect, it’s easy to judge [the past], but at the time, they really thought that they were doing the right thing.”
Lagimodiere was still speaking when Wab Kinew, the leader of the Manitoba New Democratic Party, walked right up to the rostrum where the minister was standing and confronted him about his comments.
“I cannot accept you saying what you just said about residential schools,” said Kinew, who was born in the Onigaming First Nation. “It was the express intent of residential schools to ‘kill the Indian in the child.’”
“It is not cultural relativism, it is not revisionist history for us to say that that was wrong.”
The Canadian government forced at least 150,000 Indigenous children to attend residential schools — run by Christian churches — between the 1880s and 1990s. The children were not allowed to speak their languages or keep their braids and were forced to practice Christianity. Physical and sexual abuse was rampant, and an untold number of children died at the schools.
In recent weeks, hundreds of unmarked graves have been found at the sites of former residential schools, sparking renewed outrage at the decadeslong practice Canada’s Truth and Reconciliation Commission described in 2015 as “cultural genocide.”
Lagimodiere, who is Métis and a member of the Progressive Conservative Party, said Thursday he believed the residential school system had been “designed to take Indigenous children and give them the skills and abilities they would need to fit into society as it moved forward.”
Kinew was unequivocal in his condemnation of the minister’s position.
“We’ll give you a chance,” he said of Lagimodiere’s new ministerial job, “but you can’t be out here defending residential schools if you want to work with Indigenous communities.”
Following the press conference, Lagimodiere apologized on Twitter for his remarks and said he had “misspoke.”
As “an Indigenous Manitoban, I sincerely believe that residential schools were tragic and were designed to assimilate Indigenous children and eradicate Indigenous culture. That was wrong then, and it is wrong now,” he said.
His party, however, was less apologetic.
In a tweet that has since been deleted, Manitoba’s Progressive Conservative Caucus accused Kinew of bullying Lagimodiere.
“We are all committed to meaningful progress on reconciliation,” the group wrote in a tweet, according to the Canadian Broadcasting Corporation. “The political showmanship of storming into someone else’s press conference to bully a Minister who was sworn in only 10 minutes earlier does nothing to advance that reconciliation.”
Kinew has stood by his decision to confront the minister.
“As an Honorary Witness of the TRC,” he wrote on Twitter, referring to the Truth and Reconciliation Commission, “I committed to Survivors to calling out denials of genocide when I hear them.”