Liberals Accuse Conservative Leader Erin O’Toole of Defending Residential Schools

O’Toole told a group of Ryerson University students residential schools were “meant to try and provide education.”
Conservative leader Erin O'Toole

Update: On Wednesday afternoon, Erin O’Toole released a statement walking back his previous comments. “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.

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The Liberal government is slamming Conservative leader Erin O’Toole’s claims that residential schools were created to “provide education” to Indigenous students and Conservatives have a better record on residential schools than the Liberals.  

“So disappointed to see @erinotoole make the legacy of the residential school a partisan game. Any attempt at defending these damaging policies only serves to hurt the families and survivors more,” tweeted Carolyn Bennett, Minister of Crown-Indigenous Relations, on Wednesday. 

O’Toole had been speaking to a group of Conservative Ryerson University students on Zoom about the key architects of the residential school system, including Egerton Ryerson, the school’s namesake. The video was posted on the group’s Facebook page on November 5 and reported on by Press Progress Tuesday.

“When Egerton Ryerson was called in by Hector Langevin and people it was meant to try and provide education,” O’Toole said in the video. “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.”  

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In the video, O’Toole also talked about how Conservatives can win a debate against Liberals about residential schools. "Most of the lefty radicals are also the dumbest people at your university. That’s part of the problem,” O’Toole said. “Here’s a nugget you can say that when I say it in Parliament, it silences the Liberals like you wouldn’t believe: ‘You know who opened more residential schools than Egerton Ryerson? Pierre Elliott Trudeau.’”

According to the Truth and Reconciliation Commission of Canada, more than 150,000 First Nations, Métis, and Inuit children were placed in over 130 residential schools across Canada. Many were forbidden from speaking their language and practicing their culture and were subjected to physical and sexual abuse. The National Centre for Truth and Reconciliation reports that more than 4,000 children died in residential schools.

“By the time Pierre Trudeau opened those schools, it was 100 years after we knew the program was a disaster,” O’Toole said. “Where is the woke left calling for the renaming of the Trudeau airport?” 

He credited former Conservative prime minister Brian Mulroney with closing the residential schools program, although the last federally operated residential school closed in 1996, three years after Mulroney’s tenure ended. He also noted that former Conservative prime minister Stephen Harper issued an apology on behalf of the government for residential schools. 

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“Conservatives, when it comes to residential schools in the modern era, have a better record than the Liberals,” O’Toole said.

Linc Kesler, an associate professor at the University of British Columbia’s Institute for Critical Indigenous Studies, said O’Toole’s framing of the intention behind residential schools is disingenuous. 

“They were designed to break down Indigenous cultural frameworks and replace them with a very particular brand of mainstream education...that, without a doubt, was the intention of the Canadian system,” Kesler said. 

“If you were offering this pretense towards equality and combining it with the racism in which people are denied every opportunity based on their visible ethnic identity, then you’re not giving them much. You’re offering them a very subservient position within mainstream society.” 

Kesler said the responsibility for creating and upholding the residential school system is shared by political parties.

He noted that while Pierre Trudeau was not seen as a “beacon of progressive policy towards Indigenous people,” Harper’s apology in the face of continued systemic racism towards Indigenous peoples could also be seen as disingenuous. 

Bennett tweeted that O’Toole should apologize to residential school survivors and “work with them to ensure that he and his colleagues will never again try to defend the indefensible.” 

“It is imperative that all Canadians and especially political leaders acknowledge the harm done by residential schools and support the survivors and families on their healing journey,” she said.  

NDP leader Jagmeet Singh also criticized O’Toole’s comments, tweeting, “Residential schools were not created to ‘educate’ anyone. They were created to wipe out Indigenous cultures.” 

In a statement to Global News, O’Toole’s office said he “takes the horrific history of residential schools very seriously.”

On Wednesday, he issued a statement saying the residential school system “was intended to remove children from the influence of their homes, families, traditions, and cultures.”

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