Conservative Leader Erin O’Toole walked back his comments about residential schools in a statement Wednesday, saying the system was not intended to try and “provide education.”
“The system was intended to remove children from the influence of their homes, families, traditions, and cultures,” O’Toole said in a statement emailed to Global News.
O’Toole added that the “very existence” of the schools is “a terrible stain on Canada’s history that has had sweeping impacts on generations of Indigenous Canadians.”
“I speak about the harm caused by residential schools regularly,” O’Toole added.
Read more: O’Toole tells students residential schools created to ‘provide education’ but became ‘horrible’
The statement comes after video surfaced of O’Toole speaking to the Ryerson Conservatives club Facebook page on Nov. 5. In the video, O’Toole appears to be talking about the debate over renaming buildings tied to controversial historical figures.
“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.”
There is widespread agreement that the stated goal of residential schools was to assimilate Indigenous youth into the white, settler culture — stripping the students of their identities in what the Truth and Reconciliation Commission found constituted a “cultural genocide.”
Former prime minister Stephen Harper also acknowledged this reality in a 2008 apology for the residential school system.
“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.’”
A source confirmed that O’Toole reached out to AFN National Chief Perry Bellegarde’s office on Tuesday after his comments were first reported. In a statement released prior to O’Toole’s on Wednesday, Bellegarde said the Opposition Leader’s comments were “disappointing,” stating they “sought to use the tragedy” to “score meaningless political points.”
“No political party can claim the high road on that tragic piece of Canadian history,” Bellegarde said in a tweeted statement.
“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.”
Meanwhile, multiple politicians from other parties have taken to Twitter to slam O’Toole’s comments.
“Erin O’Toole’s attempt to suggest that the architects of the residential school system were somehow well-intentioned is very troubling. He has claimed that systemic racism doesn’t exist in Canada, then he perpetrates it with students,” wrote Liberal MP Adam van Koeverden in a Wednesday tweet.
“This is not leadership, it’s disgraceful.”
NDP MP Leah Gazan also spoke out about the issue, calling on O’Toole to resign over his comments.
“Let’s trend #ResignOToole #GenocideDenier and speak out against racism and hate!!! Show your love for survivors and residential school warriors by denouncing ignorance and hate!!!!” Gazan wrote on Twitter Tuesday evening.
The hashtag #ResignOToole was trending on Twitter in Canada on Wednesday, with more than 10,000 tweets contributing to the discussion.