Newfoundland and Labrador Premier Dwight Ball is meeting with Innu leadership in Labrador today in the wake of a political scandal in that province involving a cabinet minister caught making racist comments about the Innu.
APTN News has learned that Ball, who is also the province’s self-appointed Minister of Intergovernmental and Indigenous Affairs, flew to Happy Valley-Goose Bay Monday morning to meet with Innu Nation Grand Chief Greg Rich and other Innu leaders.
Rich told APTN on Friday that remarks made by former Environment Minister and Labrador MHA Perry Trimper in a recorded phone message to the grand chief’s assistant last week are “very hurtful and disappointing,” and that the Innu are still “shocked” by them.
“It affects all people in all parts of Labrador,” Rich said in a phone interview.
“It was very hurtful and very disturbing, when racist remarks come from government — that’s very hard to believe. It makes you wonder what kind of attitude the government shows to Aboriginal peoples in Labrador. It makes you think twice.”
Last week Innu Nation—which represents two Innu First Nations in Labrador—leaked the recorded phone call from Trimper to Dominic Rich, the grand chief’s executive assistant.
After Trimper’s message to Rich the call does not hang up; instead, it records a conversation between Trimper and an unnamed woman.
During the conversation Trimper can be heard using words like “entitled,” “god-given right,” and “race card,” in reference to the Innu.
The call was reportedly in relation to the Innu Nation’s request for translation services at a provincial motor vehicle registration office in Labrador.
Trimper has apologized to the Innu and resigned as a cabinet minister. He is still MHA for the Lake Melville riding in Central Labrador, where he represents the Innu of Sheshatshiu First Nation.
On Thursday Trimper told APTN he was “frustrated and mad at myself,” over the comments.
“Thirty-two years living and working in Labrador, and I’ve worked hard on my reputation,” he said.
“Whether or not my comments were recorded, they’re inappropriate.”
Trimper has a long history working with the Innu Nation and with some of the communities’ members.
In 2015 he was appointed minister of environment and conservation, and in 2016 came under fire from people across Labrador over his handling of the fallout from the Muskrat Falls hydro project, which scientists have projected will impact local traditional foods and leave some Inuit exposed to unsafe levels of mercury.
In 2017 Trimper was elected speaker of the province’s house of assembly, and on Sept.6 of this year was re-appointed environment minister.
On Friday he resigned his cabinet seat in the wake of the leaked recording.
Rich said on Friday that he didn’t know whether Innu Nation would request Trimper’s resignation as MHA.
But he did say the Innu have outstanding questions and concerns about the recording, including the unknown identity of the person Trimper was speaking with.
The woman in the recording remarked that the Innu “certainly don’t think the same way that we do,” and that “they have a feeling of entitlement,” to which Trimper replies: “The race card comes up all the time.”
Trimper then notes that he’s “been 32 years working with you guys, don’t play that on me.”
Lake Melville MHA Perry Trimper served as House speaker for two years before his reappointment to cabinet earlier this month. Photo: Government of Newfoundland and Labrador.
Trimper told APTN that he wasn’t making racist remarks, but that he was responding to recent accusations or racism — though he didn’t say who specifically made the allegations.
“It’s been suggested that maybe you’re racist, and all I was saying; please don’t play the race card on myself,” he said. “I just, through that conversation, was expressing frustration that when some might suggest that I’m racist because I haven’t delivered [as a politician]. That’s all that was.” “Many of these people are my friends,” Trimper continued.
“I’ve worked with them closely, set up companies, helped them relocate their community,” he said, alluding to the 2002 relocation of Davis Inlet to Natuashish.
“So I just was offering in the conversation that I am by no mens racist toward the Innu — in fact, it’s may I say the opposite. I’ve dedicated a lot of my career to helping Innu.”
Nevertheless, Trimper admitted that “when you’re making statements to anyone, and we’re dealing with a topic as sensitive as—I should be very careful and make sure that the words I use reflect the person that I am. And that wasn’t the case here.”
Opposition leader Ches Crosbie of the province’s Progressive Conservative Party has questioned whether Trimper should remain in the Liberal caucus or continue to represent the people of his riding.
“It is essential that the regional minister have the confidence of the communities he represents”, Crosbie said on Friday. “Trimper clearly lost the ability to work with the Innu, most of whom live in his district of Lake Melville.”
Grand Chief Rich said Friday that over the weekend Innu leaders would be discussing “racism in the government,” and how prevalent they feel that racism may be.
“And also the programs and land claims that are at the table — is that one of the reasons we’re not making headway in reaching some of the issues that are at the table?” he said.
Innu Nation Grand Chief Greg Rich says Trimper’s comments have left the Innu wondering about the depth of institutional racism is within the Government of Newfoundland and Labrador. APTN file photo.
The Innu Nation has been working on a land claim with Ottawa for decades.
Progress has stalled in recent years, they say, while the feds make headway with the NunatuKavut Community Council (NCC), a group with a competing land claim, with the province’s support.
Rich also wonders if the attitude, he says, Trimper represented in the recorded conversation has anything to do with the Liberal government’s lengthy delay in launching a promised inquiry into the Innu child welfare crisis.
He said Innu Nation has “reached out to the province and said let’s get this inquiry started, because it feels like it’s being shelved.”
On Friday Ball told reporters that Trimper’s remarks “are not comments that reflect this government.”
The premier said he thinks Trimper should be given a second chance and that the MHA has not demonstrated similar behaviour in the past.
A spokesperson from the premier’s office told APTN Monday that Ball would return to St. John’s from Labrador Monday evening following his meeting with Innu leaders.
Asked if Innu would accept Trimper’s apology, Rich said, “listening to my people, they’re shocked and they’re not ready to accept an apology from him. So I have to listen to my people, what they say.”
He said the Innu want to know the identity of the woman in the recording, and that they feel Trimper’s unwillingness so far to reveal her name indicates the MHA is more committed to protecting her than to his relationship with the Innu.
“This woman was talking about the [child welfare] inquiry, and she giggled or chuckled when he was talking. And that kind of behaviour sends a message to the Innu people that they think this is a joke — but to us it’s not.”