O’Toole made the comments in a video posted to the Ryerson Conservatives club Facebook page on Nov. 5.
“Let’s learn from the bad mistakes and, in some (cases), tragic circumstances of our past. But when Egerton Ryerson was called in by Hector Langevin and people, it was meant to try and provide education,” O’Toole said, referring to the creation of the residential school system.
“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.”
The page also indicates that O’Toole had recently attended a virtual pub night for the club on Oct. 30 — though it does not expressly indicate that the comments were made at that event. The Ryerson Conservatives did not respond to a request for comment.
In response to a Global News request for comment, the Conservative leader’s office said that O’Toole “is a champion for 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,” wrote O’Toole’s spokesperson Chelsea Tucker in an emailed statement.
Former Conservative prime minister Stephen Harper acknowledged in his 2008 apology for the residential school system that the schools were set up with the specific goal of assimilating Indigenous children.
“Two primary objectives of the residential school system were to remove and isolate children from the influence of their homes, families, traditions and cultures, and to assimilate them into the dominant culture,” Harper said at the time.
“These objectives were based on the assumption Aboriginal cultures and spiritual beliefs were inferior and unequal. Indeed, some sought, as it was infamously said, ‘to kill the Indian in the child.’”
In the video, O’Toole appears to be talking about the debate over renaming buildings tied to controversial historical figures.
“Most of the lefty radicals are also the dumbest people at your university,” O’Toole said at the outset of the video.
He then tells the group that he’s got a “nugget” for them that, when he says it in Parliament, “silences the Liberals like you wouldn’t believe.”
“Conservatives, when it comes to residential schools in the modern era, have a better record than the Liberals. That shocks the hell out of the woke crowd, I’ll tell you,” O’Toole said.
Questions have bubbled in recent years about whether Canada should tear down statues and rename buildings that honour the leaders responsible for racist systems like residential schools. Ryerson University has found itself enmeshed in this debate, with some calling on the university to scrub itself of Egerton Ryerson’s name. Ryerson is widely considered to be one of the architects of the residential school system.
This debate appeared to be what O’Toole was addressing in the video, which the club posted alongside its commentary that “we must keep up the fight to defend Egerton Ryerson.”
Meanwhile, Tuesday also marks a grim milestone. Five years ago, the Truth and Reconciliation Commission’s final report was published — a report that found Canada has committed “cultural genocide” against Indigenous people.
When asked for reaction to O’Toole’s comments about the residential school system, the acting director for the National Centre for Truth and Reconciliation said the comments signal a need to “do better.”
“It is our hope that all political leaders will tell us how they will do better than their predecessors. That starts with educating themselves about the Calls to Action and reading the Final Report,” Stephanie Scott wrote in a statement emailed to Global News.
“Five years after the TRC called us to action, First Nations, Inuit and Métis Nation communities still face widespread poverty, food insecurity and housing insecurity. This is not an issue with which to score political points. It is a calling for us to resolve to do better.”