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

Get local stories you won't find anywhere else right to your inbox.
Sign up here

Just Posted

Stettler resident Jaden Norman is pictured here outside of the Stettler Learning Centre where she lends a helping hand as a volunteer tutor. photo contributed
Stettler’s Jaden Norman has discovered the many joys of giving back

National Volunteer Week runs April 18th to 24th

There were six additional deaths across Alberta reported over the past 24 hours, bringing the death toll to 1,926 since the beginning of the pandemic. (File photo)
A commercial building, housing two businesses, in Stettler was completed destroyed by a fire Thursday. (Photo courtesy Stettler Regional Fire Department)
Fire destroys commercial building in Stettler

Giant plume of smoke attracts spectators

Stettler County
Highlights from County of Stettler council – April 14th

The County of Stettler has received a clean audit for the 16th year in a row

Conservative leader Erin O’Toole holds a press conference on Parliament Hill in Ottawa on Tuesday, April 6, 2020. Top Tory leaders of past and present will speak with supporters today about what a conservative economic recovery from COVID-19 could look like. THE CANADIAN PRESS/Sean Kilpatrick
O’Toole to vote against Conservative MP’s private bill on ‘sex-selective abortion’

Erin O’Toole said he supports a woman’s right to choose and will personally vote against the private member’s bill

Pall Bearers carrying the coffin of the Duke of Edinburgh, followed by the Prince of Wales, left and Princess Anne, right, into St George’s Chapel for his funeral, at Windsor Castle, in Windsor, England, Saturday April 17, 2021. (Danny Lawson/Pool via AP)
Trudeau announces $200K donation to Duke of Edinburgh award as Prince Philip laid to rest

A tribute to the late prince’s ‘remarkable life and his selfless service,’ the Prime Minister said Saturday

A vial of some of the first 500,000 AstraZeneca COVID-19 vaccine doses that Canada secured. THE CANADIAN PRESS/Carlos Osorio
Canada’s 2nd blood clot confirmed in Alberta after AstraZeneca vaccine

The male patient, who is in his 60s, is said to be recovering

The funeral of Britain’s Prince Philip in Windsor, England, on Saturday, April 17, 2021. Philip died April 9 at the age of 99. (Kirsty Wigglesworth/AP)
PHOTOS: Prince Philip laid to rest Saturday as sombre queen sits alone

The entire royal procession and funeral took place out of public view within the grounds of Windsor Castle

Prime Minister Justin Trudeau looks on as Deputy Prime Minister and Finance Minister Chrystia Freeland responds to a question during a news conference on Parliament Hill in Ottawa, Tuesday, Aug. 18, 2020. THE CANADIAN PRESS/Adrian Wyld
Expectations high as Trudeau Liberals get ready to unveil first pandemic budget

The Liberals will look to thread an economic needle with Monday’s budget

Doses of the Moderna COVID‑19 vaccine in a freezer trailer, to be transported to Canada during the COVID-19 pandemic. THE CANADIAN PRESS/Nathan Denette
Pfizer to increase vaccine deliveries in Canada as Moderna supply slashed

Moderna plans to ship 650,000 doses of its vaccine to Canada by the end of the month, instead of the expected 1.2 million

A empty classroom is pictured at Eric Hamber Secondary school in Vancouver, B.C. Monday, March 23, 2020. The Alberta government says schools in Calgary will move to at-home learning starting Monday for students in grades 7 to 12.THE CANADIAN PRESS/Jonathan Hayward
Calgary schools to shift to at-home learning for grades 7 to 12 due to COVID-19

The change, due to COVID-19, is to last for two weeks

A man wears a protective face covering to help prevent the spread of COVID-19 as he walks past the emergency entrance of Vancouver General Hospital in Vancouver, B.C., Friday, April 9, 2021. THE CANADIAN PRESS/Jonathan Hayward
COVID-19 spike in B.C. could overwhelm B.C. hospitals: modelling group

There are 397 people are in hospital due to the virus, surpassing a previous high of 374 seen in December

Most Read