By Catherine Abes
Conservative Leader Erin O’Toole faced backlash last week for claiming residential schools were designed to “provide education” in a video posted by Ryerson Conservatives, a Ryerson Students’ Union (RSU) affiliate group.
“When Egerton Ryerson was called in by Hector Langevin and people, it was meant to try and provide education,” O’Toole told the campus group at an Oct. 30 virtual pub night.
“It became a horrible program that really harmed people and we have to learn from that and I wear orange,” he added, referring to Orange Shirt Day. “But we’re not helping anyone by misrepresenting the past.”
According to the final report of the Truth and Reconciliation Commission of Canada (TRC), Egerton Ryerson’s report on industrial schools recommended that Indigenous children be educated separately in schools that would stress agricultural training and religious instruction.
These recommendations were foundational to the residential school system in Canada, which targeted Indigenous children and violently removed them from their communities in an effort to assimilate them into colonial Euro-Canadian culture.
“Residential schooling was always more than simply an educational program: it was an integral part of a conscious policy of cultural genocide,” the TRC report states.
Residential schools in Canada operated between the 1870s and the 1990s and have resulted in intergenerational trauma that impacts Indigenous communities to this day.
In a statement posted on Twitter, O’Toole walked back his comments, writing “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 didn’t offer an apology for his misrepresentation of the intent of residential schools, despite previously promising a “serious approach” to reconciliation should he form a government.
Ryerson Conservatives defend Egerton Ryerson
Ryerson Conservatives titled the video “Erin O’Toole destroys argument against Egerton Ryerson.” The full clip shows O’Toole offering advice to the group on how to “silence Liberals” on the topic of Egerton Ryerson.
For years, campus groups and community members have called on the university to confront its relationship with Egerton Ryerson given his role in the creation of residential schools. This includes several demands for the statue of Egerton Ryerson on Gould Street to be removed, including a petition started this summer that garnered nearly 10,000 signatures.
In September, the university announced the creation of a task force to examine the school’s namesake and recommend a potential course of action on how to move forward with memorializing controversial figures.
Recently, the RSU passed a motion to draft a letter in solidarity with Indigenous community members that would call on the task force to remove the statue.
Ryerson Conservatives, however, have actively defended Egerton Ryerson as well as the statue.
“Egerton Ryerson was instrumental in developing the public education system in Canada,” the group wrote in a July 27 statement in response to the statue being defaced. “As Ryerson students, we believe this should be celebrated, not destroyed…Egerton Ryerson’s statue must stand.”
You can try to erase our history but you will never succeed @RyeCESAR. We all know your association struggles to remain relevant but this is just sad.— Ryerson Conservatives (@ryersontories) November 7, 2020
RADICALS WILL NOT REWRITE OUR HISTORY
Egerton’s statue must stand!!!
The campus conservatives further wrote that the idea that Egerton Ryerson is “evil” is a false narrative pushed by “leftist radicals.” O’Toole echoed this language in the video, saying “Most lefty radicals are also the dumbest people at your university” and claiming that “Conservatives, when it comes to residential schools in the modern era, have a better record than the Liberals.”
Ryerson Conservatives did not respond to request for comment.
In a video posted on her YouTube channel, Mi’kmaq lawyer, Ryerson professor and Chair in Indigenous Governance Pamela Palmater said “O’Toole’s video address was devoid of fact and reeks of political opportunism. It sounded more like Liberal bashing than any serious concern about the historic and ongoing legacy of residential schools. Residential school survivors deserve better than that.”
Senator Murray Sinclair, who chaired the TRC, echoed these sentiments, telling The Globe and Mail that O’Toole’s characterization of the Conservatives’ track record with residential schools was inaccurate and “purely political partisanship.”
“He should not be making a partisan issue about the situation that happened to young Indigenous children in those schools,” Sinclair added.
On Dec. 15, #ResignOToole was the top trending hashtag in Canada.
“Leaders at all levels of government and all political stripes, who consistently and actively excuse, downplay, justify, whitewash or outright deny the genocide of Indigenous peoples at the hands of government, should clearly resign from office,” said Palmater. “That’s not cancel culture. That’s accountability culture. Words and actions have consequences, especially when you hold political office.”
This past fall semester, the Ryerson Conservatives also hosted a virtual discussion with Canada’s National Firearms Association on the topic of “Guns, Freedom and Politics,” as well as a virtual pub night with Conservative MP Derek Sloan.
Sloan has been a controversial figure even among his own party, recently receiving criticism for his support of a petition disputing the safety of the COVID-19 vaccine despite O’Toole’s support of vaccination. Sloan also came under fire for raising money in support of his opposition to a Liberal bill that would ban some aspects of conversion therapy.