Very little, if any, of the angry reaction to Erin O’Toole’s recent remarks on residential schools came from within the Conservative leader’s own party. But even if Conservatives weren’t troubled by the remarks (which in itself would be troubling), they ought to be upset that their leader would go out of his way to step on such an explosive political landmine.
Recent polls indicate that the Liberals have been increasing their lead over the Conservatives. That’s an ominous sign for O’Toole, who has ostensibly been in the honeymoon phase of his leadership. If these months are about making a good first impression, appearing to defend residential schools is a strange way to go about it.
Conservatives deserve better from their leader, and Canadians deserve better from all those who aspire to lead us.
What was especially puzzling about this controversy is that it was a completely unforced error. This was not a gotcha-type question from a reporter — this was O’Toole going out of his way to raise the subject and very deliberately offering a provocative opinion.
The comments were made in a video which was posted on Facebook last month by the Ryerson Conservatives club (O’Toole appeared at a virtual pub night with the club on Oct. 30).
Given that Egerton Ryerson is seen as one of the architects of Canada’s system of residential schools, there has been some debate at Ryerson University as to whether there should be some reconsideration of the name. O’Toole clearly felt that his audience would appreciate his take on the controversy — which indeed they did. The club posted the segment of O’Toole’s remarks with an accompanying chyron declaring that “Erin O’Toole destroys argument against Egerton Ryerson.”
After noting how “dumb” the “lefty radicals” at Ryerson are, and after arguing that Conservatives have a better record on the issue of residential schools than the Liberals (clearly both parties have much to be ashamed of on this matter), O’Toole then claimed that residential schools were initially “meant to try and provide education” but later “became a horrible program.”
If O’Toole wants to brand himself as a politically incorrect polemicist who destroys the woke and drinks liberals’ tears, then I suppose that’s his prerogative. That, however, seems to clash with any aspirations he might have to be Canada’s next prime minister.
It’s also ironic that O’Toole would tout the Conservatives’ record on this issue while simultaneously doing much to undermine it. The 2008 apology from then-prime minister Stephen Harper is clear that the objectives of residential schools were to “remove and isolate” Indigenous children from “their homes, families, traditions and cultures” and to “assimilate them into the dominant culture.”
So why re-open this debate? Clearly, it wasn’t a position O’Toole was strongly attached to, since he made no subsequent attempt to defend it. Earlier this week, O’Toole put out a statement disavowing his previous position on the matter, and declaring that indeed the primary objective was to “remove children from the influence of their homes, families, traditions, and cultures.”
So why wouldn’t he tell that to these young campus conservatives? Was he more concerned with impressing them with some controversial hot take on a contentious issue?
In a bizarre attempt to seem politically tough and principled, this whole episode has made O’Toole seem rather weak and confused. The perception that he would take a backward step on reconciliation is going to hurt him and it ultimately helps give the Liberals a pass on an issue where they have failed to deliver on many commitments.
It comes on the heels of the controversy surrounding an anti-vaccine petition sponsored in Parliament by a wayward Conservative MP. Initially, O’Toole refused to condemn the petition before deciding days later that it would be advisable to do so.
If the Conservatives are going to avoid the disappointment of the 2019 election, they’re going to need much more in the way of political judgment, wisdom, and savvy from their leader.