THUNDER BAY – Minutes into a speech designed to rally Conservative voters to choose him to be the next leader of the Conservative Party of Canada, Peter MacKay said his campaign is centred around respect and inclusion.
Outside the Finlandia Club, in the heart of Thunder Bay's Bay and Algoma district, Indigenous leaders politely disagreed.
About 140 people gathered in the historic neighbourhood, at the request of Nishnawbe Aski Nation Grand Chief Alvin Fiddler and Fort William First Nation Chief Peter Collins to protest MacKay's social media reaction praising vigilantes for removing a blockade set up in support of hereditary Wet'suwet'en Chiefs.
Fiddler said it's the not the kind of language he wants to hear from a potential future prime minister of Canada.
It's divisive, not inclusive, Fiddler said.
“I think we need to send a message to Peter MacKay that his hateful rhetoric is harmful. It's irresponsible and it's something we all need to stand up against,” Fiddler said, speaking to local and national media on hand for the demonstration.
One of the tweets in question suggested people with a pick-up truck had done more in one afternoon to undo an Indigenous blockade than the Trudeau government had throughout a crisis that has led to the cancellation of rail service and had an unmistakable impact on the Canadian economy.
Asked if he'd apologize for the sentiment, MacKay was quick to answer that he would not.
“Absolutely not. What I did was recognize that the individuals took it upon themselves to move material that was blocking a railway. This was not a counter-protest. This was not anything other than people doing something that I think was the responsible thing to do,” MacKay said,
“People can characterize it in another way. They can torque the story and try to misrepresent it, but that's what I thought it was.”
The former defence minister under then prime minister Stephen Harper said he's always had a great working relationship with Canada's Indigenous leaders, something he expects will continue if he happens to win the Conservative leadership post.
“I've met with First Nations leaders since I've been on this campaign, which is now in its fifth week, and I look forward to continuing a very positive relationship.”
Outside the meet-and-greet, which attracted about 80 supporters, Collins said MacKay's social media messaging is not the right way to resolve issues between Canada's Indigenous people and the federal government.
He's concerned MacKay's sentiments normalize anti-Indigenous beliefs across the country.
“I think that's the wrong message to send. I think we live in a society that wants to be better. We all want to have good strong relationships. And you know, those kind of comments don't help that cause. I think we have to work together to make this country great again,” Collins said.
The long-time chief said it seems to be the Conservative way.
“And I don't think it's a good way. It doesn't cause better relationships. I think it will be a failed relationship as we go forward. All of us in our community, we want a strong, good partnering relationship with Canada and whoever leads this country.”
MacKay said he reached out to local Indigenous leaders earlier in the day, but did not get a response.
But while he welcomed them expressing their views, he still disagreed with their stance on the issue of the blockades, which continue to spring up across the country, despite police moving in to disperse the protesters at several locations.
“Impeding people's access to important goods, like propane and medicine and food and blocking other people's ability to get to work and to travel and to carry out their livelihoods and that's not what I consider to be a peaceful expression and that's why the police are being called upon to do their job,” MacKay said, adding as prime minister he'd have called on police to step in from the start.
“”I think now we are even seeing, three weeks into this, the prime minister of Canada expressing the same. It's a little late, but I'm glad to see he's finally taken that position and come back to Canada, after a week outside the country when these protests began.”