Conservative Leader Erin O’Toole is walking back false, widely-panned statements he made about the country’s residential school system during a Zoom discussion with Ryerson University students that was posted online in November.
“When Egerton Ryerson was called in by Hector Langevin and people, it was meant to try and provide education. It became a horrible program that really harmed people, and we have to learn from that. I wear orange and I do that. But we’re not helping anyone by misrepresenting the past,” said O’Toole on Nov. 5.
Langevin and Ryerson were two of the system’s early architects. The clip seems taken from a broader discussion about the movement to tear down, rename and reckon with Canada’s assimilationist policies and colonial history.
PressProgress reported the news on Tuesday, the five-year anniversary of the Truth and Reconciliation Commission’s final report, which flatly rejected O’Toole’s claim.
“Residential schooling was always more than simply an educational program: it was an integral part of a conscious policy of cultural genocide,” wrote the commissioners in 2015.
Garnet Angeconeb, a survivor and long-time advocate, said O’Toole’s comment “ring a similar tone” to those of Sen. Lynn Beyak, who was suspended from the upper chamber for posting racist letters to her website.
“Mr. O’Toole should quit trying to score political points off the backs of residential school survivors,” he said via email.
Liberal MP Jaime Battiste suggested O’Toole is teaching the young people to distort reality in service of a culture war.
“He’s coaching youth to disregard the truth and, instead of actually understanding what happened, to try to win a debate and deflect,” said Battiste, “and that’s not in accordance with the truth and reconciliation calls to action.”
NDP MP Leah Gazan said O’Toole’s comments, like Beyak’s, distort Canada’s hurtful past.
“I think there is no room in this country for genocide deniers. I think that kind of thinking that you see from him or Senator Beyak I think we should have zero tolerance. I think that is dangerous thinking,” she said.
The head of the Assembly of First Nations slammed the comments as well, calling them “reprehensible.” National Chief Perry Bellegarde accused O’Toole of using residential schools to score “meaningless political points.”
“No political party can claim the high road on that tragic piece of Canadian history,” said Bellegarde in a statement.
“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.”
O’Toole’s comments even prompted a letter from 11-year-old Maxine Beaver of Alderville First Nation in Ontario, who made a similar offer to sit down and help educate O’Toole about the destructive impacts of institutions.
“The kids were taken from their families and had no choice. If their parents didn’t agree they were arrested and they would take the children in cattle trucks. Most of the children were traumatized from what residential schools did to them,” said Beaver. “And they did not get an education, they were taught how to not be themselves and how to not be proud of their culture. That was the education taught in residential schools.”
O’Toole declined repeated requests from APTN News for an interview and sent us a statement instead.
The statement did not address any of the public’s criticisms.
Pressed further, his office sent us the following.
“The very existence of residential schools is a terrible stain on Canada’s history that has had sweeping impacts on generations of Indigenous Canadians. I speak about the harm caused by residential schools regularly.
“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.”
The TRC spent six years hearing from survivors and their families and concluded residential schools were a central element in Canada’s assimilationist policies that sought to destroy Indigenous peoples as distinct societies.
The TRC estimated over 150,000 kids attended residential schools. To date, the TRC says it has identified names or information about 4,100 children who died of disease or accident while attending, though we may never know the exact number.