Conservative Party Leader Erin O’Toole wants Canadian flags to again fly high after they’ve been at half-mast since May to honour Indigenous children who died at residential schools.
"I do think we should be proud to put our flag back up," O’Toole told reporters on Thursday.
Liberal Leader Justin Trudeau first had the flags lowered on the Peace Tower, a clock and bell tower at Canada’s parliament buildings, and at other federal sites “until further notice” after Tk’emlúps te Secwepemc First Nation confirmed about 200 unmarked graves at the former Kamloops Indian residential school in May. It’s presumed that children as young as 3 are buried there, and many of the remains are undocumented.
Other Indigenous communities have conducted their own surveys of former residential school sites, with thousands of unmarked graves confirmed or expected all over the country. It’s a reminder of the ongoing impacts of colonialism in Canada, including the residential “school” system. The government ran residential schools alongside churches to forcibly assimilate 150,000 First Nations, Inuit, and Métis children. Malnutrition, disease, and sexual and physical abuses were rampant, and resulted in thousands of deaths.
O’Toole said on Thursday it’s time to be “proud” of Canada.
"Reconciliation will be important for me as will be pride in Canada, building it up, making more opportunity for more people, including Indigenous peoples. That will be my priority and I do think we should be proud to put our flag back up,” O’Toole said. "It's not a time to tear down Canada.”
O’Toole committed to helping Indigenous communities seeking unmarked graves in his party’s platform by implementing some of the calls to action outlined by the Truth and Reconciliation Commission, which investigated Canada's residential school system and its legacy. But Indigenous groups and people, and their allies called O’Toole’s latest statement “hurtful.”
“What a hurtful and disappointing statement. A genocide was committed against Indigenous people, against our children. Where is the pride in raising Canada’s flags?” tweeted the Native Women’s Association of Canada. The group asked O’Toole to retract the statement.
“I would love to see the flags raised, but not until we have something to celebrate, and we’re a long way from that,” Nishnawbe Aski Nation Grand Chief Derek Fox told the Globe and Mail. “Canada may have moved on from the dark days of Indian residential schools, but our people have not.”
The Conservative Party did not respond to VICE World News requests for comment. It’s unknown whether O’Toole consulted with any Indigenous people before making his comments.
NDP Leader Jagmeet Singh said he supports keeping flags lowered.
This isn’t the first time O’Toole has put his foot in his mouth when it comes to Indigenous affairs.
Last year, O’Toole called the campaign to rename Ryerson University in Toronto “woke” while connecting with the campus conservative club, despite the fact that the school is named after an architect of residential schools. He also said the residential school system was originally created to “provide education” to Indigenous children, but has since apologized and retracted his comments.
Earlier this week, O’Toole reiterated comments he made in June, when movements erupted across the country asking people to cancel Canada Day (July 1) celebrations and use the day to honour Indigenous peoples and reflect on colonialism—a move Trudeau supported. At the time, O’Toole said cancelling the holiday prevented people from simultaneously celebrating the “great aspects” of Canada, while looking “to do better in the future.”
"The Liberals, the NDP, and the Greens always seem to want to tear our country down, always focusing on where we fall short and never where we have stepped up," O'Toole told a crowd of supporters in Hamilton, Ontario, on Wednesday.
"If you don't take pride in your country, if you don't truly love your country, are you truly going to commit to digging deep to be a part of making Canada a country you truly know it can be?"
In a statement to CTV News, the Liberals shot back saying that “unlike Mr. O’Toole,” a government led by the Liberals will take the lead from Indigenous peoples when working on reconciliation, “not dictating how things ought to be done to them.”
It’s worth noting, however, that the Liberal government has been in power for two terms and has been slow to move on many key Indigenous justice issues: it has so far failed to provide many First Nations with clean drinking water, and Trudeau bought the highly contentious Trans Mountain Pipeline, despite strong Indigenous opposition to it.
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