NDP Ethics critic Charlie Angus speaks during a news conference on Parliament hill in Ottawa, Wednesday December 16, 2020. THE CANADIAN PRESS/Adrian Wyld

NDP Ethics critic Charlie Angus speaks during a news conference on Parliament hill in Ottawa, Wednesday December 16, 2020. THE CANADIAN PRESS/Adrian Wyld

O’Toole walks back words on residential schools amid backlash

He said modern Conservatives have a better record on the schools than Liberals

Conservative Leader Erin O’Toole is walking back comments on the original mission of residential schools after social-media backlash and searing criticism from First Nations leaders, New Democrats and Liberals.

In a video posted to the Ryerson University Conservatives Facebook group last month, O’Toole said the government-sponsored schools aimed initially to educate Indigenous children but later devolved into harmful practices.

He said modern Conservatives have a better record on the schools than Liberals, with Tory prime ministers having closed the last of them and apologizing formally for the harm they did.

Assembly of First Nations National Chief Perry Bellegarde accused O’Toole of using the tragedy “to score meaningless political points.”

“No political party can claim the high road on that tragic piece of Canadian history. I look forward to sitting down with Mr. O’Toole in the new year to help him better understand how First Nations are continuing to grapple with the lasting effects of a policy that was wrong from the start and made worse by decades of political mismanagement and indifference,” Bellegarde said in a statement Wednesday morning.

O’Toole reversed his position several hours later, stressing the schools’ “terrible stain on Canadian history” and their sweeping impact on generations of Indigenous people.

“In my comments to Ryerson students, I said that the residential school system was intended to try and ‘provide education.’ It was not. The system was intended to remove children from the influence of their homes, families, traditions and cultures,” O’Toole said in a statement.

He stopped short of the apology called for by NDP and Liberal MPs, who characterized his remarks as corrosive.

The top Tory’s walk-back came after the hashtag #ResignOToole began trending on Twitter Tuesday night, with New Democrat MP Leah Gazan calling on him to step down.

“Time to silence ignorant racist voices that claim founders of residential schools were trying to educate Indigenous children,” the Winnipeg MP and member of the Wood Mountain Lakota Nation said in a tweet.

Christian churches and the federal government launched the boarding schools in the 1880s and kept them going for more than a century, seeking to convert and assimilate Indigenous children, who suffered widespread physical and sexual abuse at the institutions. Thousands died in them.

NDP ethics critic Charlie Angus told reporters Wednesday it is “false” and “disgraceful, revisionist race-baiting” to suggest that education was the prime goal of the school system, of which Ryerson University namesake Egerton Ryerson was a key architect.

“We are talking about policies that set out to destroy families, to destroy identities, to literally ‘kill the Indian in the child,’ ” Angus said, citing a phrase associated with the system’s expansion in the early 20th century.

“This is really cheap, cheap stuff from him.”

Crown-Indigenous Relations Minister Carolyn Bennett said she was “disappointed” to see O’Toole turn the legacy of residential schools into a “partisan game.”

“Mr. O’Toole needs to listen to the families and survivors and admit that his remarks caused harm, that he is sorry and that he will work with them to ensure that he and his colleagues will never again try to defend the indefensible,” Bennett said in a Twitter post.

Before taking back his words Wednesday afternoon, O’Toole warned via his press secretary of “the damage cancel culture can have.”

“Defending free speech, especially on campus, is important, just as remembering our past is an important part of aspiring for better in the future,” spokeswoman Chelsea Tucker said in an email Wednesday morning.

The name of Toronto’s Ryerson University has come under scrutiny in the last three years, part of a broader reassessment of Canadian historical icons in an age of heightened social and cultural awareness.

In 2017, a student-led campaign pushed for the institution to change its name out of respect for residential school survivors. The effort highlighted recommendations from Egerton Ryerson — a Methodist minister and public education advocate — on Indigenous schools that helped pave the way for the policy.

The campaign also prompted considerable backlash from the wider student community, who criticized it as impractical and disrespectful in its own right.

The same year, Trudeau renamed the former Langevin Block building, which sits across from Parliament Hill and houses the Prime Minister’s Office, arguing at the time that keeping the name of Sir Hector-Louis Langevin — a 19th-century cabinet minister associated with the residential school system — on the edifice clashed with his government’s vision.

O’Toole referred to both Langevin and Ryerson in the Nov. 5 video.

“When Egerton Ryerson was called in by Hector Langevin and people, it was meant to try and provide education,” he said.

O’Toole went on to say former Liberal prime ministers Pierre Trudeau and Jean Chrétien opened several residential schools, while Tory prime ministers Brian Mulroney and Stephen Harper ended the program and apologized for it, respectively.

“Where is the woke left calling for the renaming of the Trudeau airport?” O’Toole asked, referring to Montreal’s main air hub.

How Chrétien opened new schools after Mulroney axed the program was not explained.

Sen. Murray Sinclair told the National Observer in September that the cultural blind spots of the Fathers of Confederation are not comparable to Pierre Trudeau’s.

The Truth and Reconciliation Commission, chaired by Sinclair, issued its final report on residential schools five years ago. The nearly 4,000-page account details the harsh mistreatment inflicted on Indigenous children at the institutions, where at least 3,200 children died amid abuse and neglect.

Angus said O’Toole’s comments fit into a “a pattern among deniers to rewrite the facts that were found in the Truth and Reconciliation Commission.”

He pointed to Sen. Lynn Beyak, who was booted from the Conservative caucus after posting derogatory letters about Indigenous people on her website in 2017, and who once again faces the prospect of expulsion from the upper chamber with a motion before the members.

Christopher Reynolds, The Canadian Press

Like us on Facebook and follow us on Twitter.

Want to support local journalism? Make a donation here.

Federal Politicsresidential schools

Just Posted

(Advocate file photo)
Red Deer down to 102 active COVID-19 cases

Central zone has 332 cases with 26 in hospital and five in ICU

Storm clouds gathered in Mulhurst, Alta., just before noon June 15, 2021. Photo/ Dan Moster.
Areas of County of Wetaskiwin remain under severe thunderstorm watch

Environment Canada has issued a severe thunderstorm watch for areas of the County.

Maskwacis Pride crosswalk (Left to right): Montana First Nation Councillor Reggie Rabbit, Samson Cree Nation Councillor Louise Omeasoo, Samson Cree Nation Councillor Katherine Swampy, Samson Cree Nation Councillor Shannon Buffalo, Samson Cree Nation Chief Vern Saddleback.
Pride in Maskwacis

The 4th inaugural Maskwacis Pride crosswalk painting took place on Saturday June 12th, 2021

The Government of Alberta identified 115 new COVID-19 cases Sunday, bringing the provincial total to 3,089.
(Black Press file photo)
Red Deer COVID cases continue to fall

114 cases in Red Deer, down one from Saturday

Manluk Centre/ Impress
Manluk Centre re-opens to the public

Drop in and registered programs will be available; one-third facility capacity to be followed.

People watch a car burn during a riot following game 7 of the NHL Stanley Cup final in downtown Vancouver, B.C., in this June 15, 2011 photo. THE CANADIAN PRESS/Geoff Howe
10 years ago: Where were you during the 2011 Vancouver Stanley Cup Riots?

Smashed-in storefronts, looting, garbage can fires and overturned cars some of the damage remembered today

(Black Press Media file)
Dirty money: Canadian currency the most germ-filled in the world, survey suggests

Canadian plastic currency was found to contain 209 bacterial cultures

A worker, at left, tends to a customer at a cosmetics shop amid the COVID-19 pandemic Thursday, May 20, 2021, in Los Angeles. (AP Photo/Marcio Jose Sanchez)
Half of cosmetics sold in Canada, U.S. contain toxic chemicals: study

Researchers tested more than 230 commonly used cosmetics and found that 56% of foundations and eye products, 48% of lip products and 47% of mascaras contained high levels of fluorine

Annamie Paul, leader of the Green Party of Canada, speaks at a news conference on Parliament Hill in Ottawa, on June 10, 2021. THE CANADIAN PRESS/Justin Tang
Green Leader Annamie Paul facing no-confidence motion from party brass

move follows months of internal strife and the defection of MP Jenica Atwin to the Liberals

Tulips bloom in front of the Supreme Court of Canada in Ottawa, Thursday, May 10, 2018. Day two of a full week of scheduled hearings will be heard in Federal Court today on a case involving Indigenous children unnecessarily taken into foster care by what all parties call Canada’s “broken child welfare system.” THE CANADIAN PRESS/Sean Kilpatrick
AFN slams Ottawa for ‘heartless’ legal challenge of First Nations child compensation

2019 decision awarded $40,000 to each Indigenous child removed before 2006

A health-care worker holds up a sign signalling she needs more COVID-19 vaccines at the ‘hockey hub’ mass vaccination facility at the CAA Centre during the COVID-19 pandemic in Brampton, Ont., on Friday, June 4, 2021. This NHL-sized hockey rink is one of CanadaÕs largest vaccination centres. THE CANADIAN PRESS/Nathan Denette
‘Vaxxed to the max’: Feds launch Ask an Expert campaign to encourage COVID shots

Survey shows that confidence in vaccines has risen this spring

Children’s shoes and flowers are shown after being placed outside the Ontario legislature in Toronto on Monday, May 31, 2021. THE CANADIAN PRESS/Frank Gunn
Ontario commits $10 million to investigate burial sites at residential schools

Truth and Reconciliation Commission identified 12 locations of unmarked burial sites in Ontario

Two hundred and fifteen lights are placed on the lawn outside the Residential School in Kamloops, B.C., Saturday, June, 13, 2021. The remains of 215 children were discovered buried near the former Kamloops Indian Residential School earlier this month. THE CANADIAN PRESS/Jonathan Hayward
Days after Kamloops remains discovery, Tk’emlups families gather to unite, move ahead

‘We have to work together because this is going to be setting a precedent for the rest of the country’

In this Saturday, May 29, 2021, file photo, people crowd the Santa Monica Pier in Santa Monica, Calif. California, the first state in America to put in place a coronavirus lockdown, is now turning a page on the pandemic. Most of California’s coronavirus restrictions will disappear Tuesday, June 15, 2021. (AP Photo/Damian Dovarganes, File)
With COVID tamed, it’s a ‘grand reopening’ in California

No more state rules on social distancing, no more limits on capacity, no more mandatory masks

Most Read