POLITICS
12/16/2020 15:03 EST | Updated 12/16/2020 16:57 EST

Erin O’Toole’s Residential Schools Comments Were ‘Reprehensible,’ AFN Chief Perry Bellegarde Says

NDP MP Charlie Angus accused the Tory leader of “revisionist race-baiting.”

Adrian Wyld/CP
Conservative leader Erin O'Toole rises in the House of Commons on Dec. 3, 2020 in Ottawa.

Assembly of First Nations National Chief Perry Bellegarde has called out Conservative Leader Erin O’Toole for “reprehensible” comments about residential schools that he says were about scoring “meaningless political points.”

In a statement shared on Twitter Wednesday, Bellegarde said he wants to sit down with O’Toole next year to help him 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 also noted that “no political party can claim the high road on that tragic piece of Canadian history.”

The AFN chief was responding to a controversy that has erupted over comments O’Toole made to a club of young conservatives at Toronto’s Ryerson University — an institution named after Egerton Ryerson, a key architect of the residential school system.

The boarding schools were launched by Christian churches and the federal government in the 1880s and ran for more than a century. They sought to convert and assimilate Indigenous children into the dominant Euro-Canadian society. Indigenous children suffered widespread physical and sexual abuse, and an estimated 6,000 students died under the system.

Though Ryerson Conservatives posted a video of O’Toole discussing Egerton Ryerson and residential schools to Facebook on Nov. 5, the clip was highlighted by Press Progress and Global News on Tuesday, the fifth anniversary of the release of the Truth and Reconciliation Commission’s (TRC) final report. 

The TRC report concluded that the residential school system amounted to “cultural genocide.”

In the clip, O’Toole said it is important to learn from the bad mistakes and tragic circumstances of the past.

“But when Egerton Ryerson was called in by Hector Langevin and people, it was meant to try and provide education,” he said. “It became a horrible program that really harmed people. And we have to learn from that, and I wear orange, and I do that. But we’re not helping anyone by misrepresenting the past.”

Watch the clip:

Langevin was a father of Confederation and key figure behind the creation of of residential schools. In 2017, the Trudeau government renamed Ottawa’s Langevin Block building, which houses the Prime Minister’s Office. In a blog post that year, O’Toole said the Langevin issue was an example of a “growing trend towards erasing controversial figures from our public spaces.”

O’Toole’s reference to wearing orange is about Orange Shirt Day, which commemorates the trauma endured by Indigenous peoples in residential schools on Sept. 30 each year. This year’s Orange Shirt Day coincided with O’Toole’s debut in question period as the new Tory leader, where he sported an orange tie and accused Prime Minister Justin Trudeau of being “all talk and no action” on reconciliation.

Watch the exchange:

 

In the clip, O’Toole also says most “lefty radicals” are the “dumbest people” at the university, and argues that Conservatives have a “better record than the Liberals” on residential schools in the modern era. That’s something that “shocks the hell out of the woke crowd,” he said.

Former Conservative prime minister Stephen Harper formally apologized to residential school survivors and Indigenous peoples in 2008, 12 years after the last residential school in Canada closed its doors.

In Harper’s speech to the House of Commons, he said the two primary objectives of the residential school system were to isolate Indigenous children from their homes, families and traditions, and into “assimilate them into the dominant culture.” 

O’Toole addresses comments to Ryerson students

Both objectives were based on a false assumption that Indigenous cultures and spiritual beliefs were inferior and unequal, Harper said at the time. “Indeed, some sought, as was infamously said, ‘to kill the Indian in the child.’” 

O’Toole told HuffPost Canada in an emailed statement that “the very existence of residential schools is a terrible stain on Canada’s history” that has had sweeping impacts on generations of Indigenous peoples in Canada.

“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,” he said.

The Tory leader also shared a statement on Twitter.

His spokeswoman, Chelsea Tucker, also told The Canadian Press that the Tory leader supports reconciliation and “takes the horrific history of residential schools very seriously.”

“He has also been clear in highlighting 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,″ she told wire service.

The Tory leader’s claim that residential schools were initially meant to provide education but turned “horrible” spurred NDP MP Leah Gazan to call on him to resign. Her hashtag, #ResignOToole,” trended on Twitter Tuesday night and early Wednesday.

Gazan, a member of Wood Mountain Lakota Nation who represents the riding of Winnipeg Centre, accused O’Toole in tweets of being a “genocide denier.”

NDP MP Matthew Green and Liberal Adam van Koeverden also took to Twitter to blast O’Toole’s remarks, with Green noting that past Liberal governments share responsibility for residential schools.

At a press conference in Ottawa Wednesday morning, NDP MP Charlie Angus suggested the Tory leader’s remarks fit a pattern among residential school “deniers″ to rewrite facts. 

Thousands of pages of evidence in the TRC report prove residential schools were not set up to provide education, he said. 

They were set up to destroy the Indian family. That meets one of the tests of genocide, which is what the commissioners found,” Angus said. “I find it very, very concerning that Erin O’Toole as a leader, a potential leader of this country, would be engaged in such historical revisionism.”

 Angus said O’Toole’s “big tent” for his party now seems to include anti-vaxxers — a reference to Tory MP Derek Sloan’s sponsoring of an anti-vaccine petition — and those who espouse the “historical revisionism” of Sen. Lynn Beyak. 

The Ontario senator, who formerly belonged to the Conservative caucus, argued in a 2017 speech the teachers at residential schools were “well-intentioned,” and that “horrible mistakes” in the system “overshadowed some of the good things that also happened at those schools.”

“These are false statements. It was false when Sen. Beyak stated it. It’s false when Erin O’Toole says it,” Angus said. “We’re talking about policies that set out to destroy families, to destroy identities, to literally kill the Indian in the child, and Erin O’Toole needs to do better. This is really cheap, cheap stuff from him.”

Sen. Mary Jane McCallum introduced a motion earlier this month to expel Beyak from the Senate. 

“The Senate is now seized with confronting a blatant example of institutional racism within our own House,” McCallum said in a statement at the time. She accused Beyak of “escalating misconduct” through her words and actions on residential schools. 

“This matter, at its core, is an egregious example of white privilege being exercised within existing colonial systems.”

Angus would not say if he felt O’Toole should step down, but said he needs to “explain himself.” He also accused O’Toole of being willing to use “disgraceful, revisionist, race-baiting to win Conservative votes.”

With a file from The Canadian Press