OTTAWA — 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.
This report by The Canadian Press was first published Dec. 16, 2020.
— With files from Stephanie Levitz
Christopher Reynolds, The Canadian Press